I step out onto the stage, the theater manager trailing slightly behind me. We’ve attained these heights by walking through a labyrinth of hallways in the underbelly of the building, all of which eventually converge into one slim stairwell, which has brought us here. I tentatively approach the edge, am rewarded with the sight of hundreds of empty seats waiting upon my words, an old but working venue with a real balcony to boot.
My young guide starts to tell me about microphone amps and soundboards, but I momentarily tune him out as I think about what else has brought me to this exact spot. I think about how the words of my play, Raising Autism, will be performed here in a few months, and I am exhilarated. I remind myself that I will be one of the actresses saying these words, and I am momentarily terrified. The entire enterprise of writing, acting, directing and producing a play is an unprecedented stretch for me.
Then I recall that some of the simplest aspects of daily life are an almost Herculean stretch for my eldest son, a boy with moderate autism. I take a deep breath, and take one more step.
I never actually intended to write a play about autism, had frankly never entertained the possibility that I could write fiction. In a dual effort to share my story of living with two children on the spectrum, and to attract publishers for my memoir about those experiences, I began a blog two years ago. I quickly found myself quite content to remain within the confines of the non-fiction genre. The idea to write a play about different families’ experiences actually came to me while driving in my car, where it seems most of my decent ideas still originate.
As I waited for the light to turn I thought about the amazing stories I’d read on various blogs about autism over the past few years, and the riveting memoirs I’d discovered as well. I considered the fact that there might be a few tales left to tell, that in a state like New Jersey, where one in ninety-four children is affected with autism, I was potentially surrounded by a community of people who might be interested in those stories. I thought about how POAC (Parents of Autistic Children), which is literally around the corner from me, had done so many wonderful things for families with autistic children residing in the Garden State.
I figured if anyone actually showed up for this fundraising event, I might be able to contribute slightly to POAC's efforts. These efforts range from educating parents, professionals and law enforcement about autism to my personal favorite, providing a range of activities for families where their autistic children are welcome, and safe.
Then the light changed to green, my son gently kicked me in the back to remind me to drive, and the concept for a play was born.
I knew it would be impossible to encompass every type of child on the spectrum (as well as the parents who raise them), so I brainstormed characteristics of various children I’d read about or met over the years, and slowly four distinct individuals began to form. I decided I wanted the play to come from a mother’s perspective, which I felt I knew best.
And like old and trusted friends, those characters were already there, just waiting to be given a voice.
All of the women are quite different from one another, both in temperament and in background, and all three are reading from their “diaries”. One of the characters is a young mom with a newly diagnosed son, who is struggling with the label given her child, her fractured marriage, and the fact that she has recently discovered she’s pregnant again. The second is a single mom faced with the challenge of almost sole care of her brilliant but challenging pre-teen autistic daughter, a woman who is able to channel faith to give her the strength to persevere in what seems to her like almost insurmountable odds. The last character is a college professor discussing her experiences raising adopted teen-aged twins with her partner, sharing both the challenges they face now, and the struggles of having two children diagnosed on the spectrum well before autism was a household word.
I have to admit, I really like these women. If they were real, they’d be my friends.
My reverie is slightly broken as the enthusiastic manager begins to educate me as to the merits of a spotlight versus more traditional lighting techniques, and I realize I’d better pay some serious attention to the information he’s sharing with me. For the moment I put aside my desire that this play will garner POAC a veritable boatload of funds. I shelve my intent to offer the script up for free when I’ve finished performing it for my “pet autism orgs”, because really anyone with a living room, three chairs, and a few literate women could easily put this play on as a fundraiser.
I stop thinking about how fearful I am that my middle-aged brain will forget a crucial detail in the production of this piece, like advertising it, or wearing deodorant the nights we perform. For the moment, I ignore the fact that when I hit this stage I might be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of what has brought me to this place, the suffering I’ve witnessed in both my children, coupled with their multitude of triumphs. I fear I might have difficulty forming the sentences from a script that in many ways serves as a backdrop for my life.
Then once again I remember how often my son struggles just to say the word “mom”, and I know I can do it. I owe this to him.
I barely miss tripping over wires that would have landed me perilously close to the stage’s edge, and make a mental note to avoid tumbling to the floor for dramatic effect on performance night. I turn to the young man whose grandfather has so graciously reduced the price of this rental due to its philanthropic bent, and give him my full attention as we discuss whether our chairs should be placed in front of or behind the scarlet curtain. I shake off my worries and concerns as I’ve done hundreds of times in the past eight years, and try to live in the moment. Through the graciousness of POAC Autism Services, in a few months I will get to share an amalgamation of so many mothers’ stories to a live (and hopefully receptive), audience.
I will have the chance to honor my sons.
And as I carefully back over the slim strands of the wires which will carry my words throughout this elegant room, I allow myself one last extraneous thought.
Break a leg, Kimberlee. Break a leg.
For more information about POAC or tickets for the play, please visit them at: