Off-Off Broadway and on the Spectrum

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly

Nicholas, Elizabeth and their director, Kelly Wisneski

It isn’t unusual for students in the Performing Arts Program at Holy Spirit School in Pequannock, NJ to rehearse in the science lab. With all the desks and lab stools pushed against the walls there is just enough room for a small group of cast members to run through a scene, a song or a dance number. On this particular afternoon Elizabeth and Nicholas, cast as Belle and Beast in this year’s production of Beauty and the Beast Jr, are working on perfecting a waltz under the guidance of their gifted choreographer, Rosemary Rado. Nothing at all unusual.  What is unique is the casting; both these eighth graders are “on the Spectrum” having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s  is a high functioning form of autism characterized by high intelligence, difficulties in social interactions and highly specialized areas of expertise. Often considered quirky by family and friends, Aspies, as Nicholas refers to himself and his co-star, often use formal language and fail to read non-verbal communication. Some may experience repetitive behaviors such as rocking or the flapping of hands. Also notable is a focus on one area of specialization: Elizabeth is an expert on faeries while Nicholas specializes in Disney animation and the history of Nintendo.

Elizabeth and Nicholas’ disability has enhanced their creativity, a characteristic that they share with many other Aspies. In addition to acting and singing, Elizabeth has written a book and many short stories and plays three instruments. While Nicholas is a visual artist who has designed posters for the school plays over the past two years in addition to creating his own series of cartoons. There is no scientific explanation for the connection between creativity and Asperger’s though there is some speculation that since they don’t pick up on the common social cues in their early school years that make children feel that they aren’t artistic, Aspies haven’t learned not to be creative. Others suggest a link between acting on stage and the way Aspies often act to get through daily life. For example, they will often laugh at jokes they don’t perceive as funny because they understand they should in that social situation.

Even with their creativity, acting does pose some difficulties for both Nicholas and Elizabeth, as well as those who work with them. The show’s director, Kelly Wisneski,  has observed that problems are often found where they are least expected: “Simple things that would not bother most kids can become big problems for them, such as the need to wear eyeliner or endure the sound of certain costume fabrics rubbing against one another.” Cathy Prior, co-director, puts their disabilities in perspective by considering them in light of their neurotypical peers “It’s hard to get children to really become a character in a performance. [But] these two children really put themselves into the part and thus their success as the two stars of the show.”

While the world may be struck by two leads in the same show on the Autistic Spectrum, this is nothing unusual to Nicholas and Elizabeth who Wisneski notes “do not know there is any other way to portray a role other than to completely become the character.” They are more than their disabilities, they are actors.

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