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Autism and Acting

Acting is a gift which seems to come naturally to many people with autism and Asperger's syndrome yet only a select few follow it as a career. 

Dan Ackroyd and Daryl Hannah are some of the most obvious and vocal examples but there are plenty of others. 

Dan Ackroyd, on the extreme right has Asperger's Syndrome

We are always acting

I have a theory that people on the spectrum tend to be good at acting because they spend so much of their daily lives acting - and from a very early age. For example, it's true that autistic people often don't get jokes (although you rarely hear us complaining when neurotypicals don't get ours). 

Young people quickly learn that it's easier to "act like you got the joke" than it is to take the brunt and embarrassment of being the only one who didn't. We are quite often called upon to "act amused". Then there are those sad and solemn occasions where sometimes we feel intense waves of emotion - and sometimes we don't. Again, honesty in these situations leads to ostracisation. Sometimes it's simply better to "act sad" or "act shocked".

We are taught to act

The most successful people on the spectrum are those which have had early intervention lessons such as speech therapy and social role-play. These lessons teach us how to enunciate, how to add tone to our otherwise "monotone" voices and how to display the various facial expressions that our peers want to see. 

It's all about helping us to overcome our social obstacles and "fit in" but at the same time, they're great acting lessons. 

Stimming helps with accents

Then there's our love of quotations and vocal stimming, It's not something that everyone on the spectrum does but a surprising number of people do. We quote from our special interests but we don't tend to copy just the words, we copy the tone and inflections - and the background ambiance. 

We'll quote a phrase from a film, with word-perfect inflection and often with any accompanying beeps, whirs or musical notes. 

For example, I'll be talking to a friend about a project at work and he'll respond with a booming "im-pressive!". Other people around me will gloss over this strange tone, categorising it as a yet another bizarre speech inflection but I know better. I'll instantly recognise the tone and formation as Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker during their battle in Cloud City. Sometimes I'll even respond with; "...and I'm full of surprises too". 

My friend and I have whole conversations which are made from quotations and speech patterns from a smattering of films - often to baffled stares from those around us. We're also usually quite good at vocal sound effects too - not just animals but lightsabers, explosions and even vocalised music. It's all stuff that we use for stimming anyway. It feels good to make those noises.

I've heard people say that in many countries, the people on the spectrum speak with a different accent. In my case, since I prefer to watch British rather than American television, I've often been asked if I'm British - even while holidaying in the UK.

Making a life out of acting, not a Career

A lot of autistic people are very good actors and some will make a career out of it. Some will act on stage and screen while others will find employment in careers which use other skills. One thing that's interesting though is that acting is a general skill which will help in a lot of situations.

We've already looked at some examples of how "acting normal" can provide protection from social issues. It's a skill which should be developed and encouraged. 

If your child's school offers a drama class, a debating team or some other public speaking option, please give your child a chance to use those opportunities. You may find them willing to go but if not, at least try to encourage (bribe?) them to give it a try. Sometimes they need a gentle push to try something different. Acting is a skill that will serve them for life.

The Importance of Breaks

There's one last thing that bears mentioning, especially since so many people are "acting normal" all day every, every day in their jobs. 

Acting can be very tiring work, so you can't expect a person on the spectrum to "act normal" all of the time. 

People who are doing a lot of "acting", regardless of whether it's for film or real life, will often find that they need to take more sensory breaks and alone time than when they're not acting.


Karen K. said…
Hi Gavin,
Great blog! I first fell in love with acting in junior high and then it continued throughout high school and college as I would participate in various plays and musicals. I actually considered it for a career but other life stuff led me in a different direction. Who knows... maybe someday!

Acting on stage seemed quite natural for me. It was easier for me to be someone else in front of a crowd than to just be "me" during daily social interactions.

My two boys seem to have a flair for drama and I will encourage it. I think acting classes are good for all children and adults to try at some point.

Thanks as always for your great writing and interesting topics!

Bulldogma said…
I did quite a bit of acting when I was young, and now my 7-year-old Aspie may be headed that way too. She's just landed an agent (yikes) so we'll see what happens.
Steve Florman said…
I commented to the woman who played Maria to my Capt von Trapp in a community theatre production of "Sound of Music" a couple of years ago that I thought my Aspergers really helped me in acting, because most of my "normal" interactions with people were acted instead of instinctive. She looked at me funny and said I couldn't have Aspergers. "You mean you're acting all the time?"

Well, yeah, pretty much. At age 45, some basic things have gone on autopilot, but get me past the initial stages of a conversation and I'm still lost.

I was a high school debate champion, too. Figures.
I used to send my family into gales of laughter by imitating voices from commercials. I think that we're so attuned to trying to figure out what other people are doing/saying/meaning that we pick up a lot and then try it out to see whether it "fits."

I love quoting lines from movies, too! My NT daughter and I do this a lot. If she's got a friend around, we usually stop and explain the plot line so that our visitor doesn't feel left out. :-)
I love quoting various passages from film and TV to the point that I can recite passages from episodes of shows/films that I might have had a fleeting glimpse of five years before. Actual acting is much harder for me. The best actors can believe in the role they're playing and that doesn't come naturally to me.

I'm also a singer-songwriter who internalised all my projects to be home recording-only because being on stage bought about too much pressure and stress. A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who's toured internationally suggested I give it another shot, and that I should contact one of her favourite venues - in another country. Once the initial "Yes, let's go do it!" factor wears off, the panic and "Oh shit, what am I doing?!" factor kicks in even quicker.

Sorry, I'm rambling. Anyway, love your blog as usual Gavin. All the best!

(On a theme, how many Aspie musicians are there? I can only think of Craig Nicholls from The Vines, but I'm sure there are more...)
Magic Unlimited said…
I can definitely relate to this post. For the last thirty years I've performed professionally as a magician. Acting the role on stage and when performing for cocktail parties where I mingle with guests. But take my "role" of magician away from me, and I flounder hopelessly unable to function socially without it,
Stephanie said…
So far, two out of three of my boys have learned how to speak by acting through what they need to say.

Willy used to rely almost exclusively on snippets from the many Thomas the Train videos. Understanding what he was trying to communicate often required an understanding of the context of the line itself, sometimes the whole video, moreso then the context of the situation in which he was using the line. At the time, I was told by a lot of people that this was "just echolalia." Usually such a claim was made by someone who didn't understand the original context, and therefore didn't know he was communicating real meaning.

Now, Willy speaks in a more or less "typical" manner, but his youngest brother, Ben, is starting to communicate through acting. His catch phrases are taken from a much wider pool of stories and snippets, but he also relies a lot less on the original context to convey meaning. But he's also a sound-effects man. He'll recite stories (to himself, not to convey meaning) and include all the sound effects, tonal changes, and facial expressions. It's very impressive.

Sometimes it makes me think back to when human beings relied on oral traditions to maintain their history. I imagine my boys would make good bards.
Anonymous said…
Aspies good at acting? Yeah that makes big piles of sense, I can pretend whatever is needed at the moment, I might not understand what the hell people are talking about, or why, but I can act my way out of almost any situation, I have 30 years experience trying to be something i`m not :)

But at the same time, one of the last things I would ever want to do is stand on a stage or be in a movie, I hate attention, I dont nedd it, it only makes me unfomfortable and gives me a feeling of wanting to leave, and fast. So I can act but I would not dream of doing for a job, I do it becasue I have to to have to somewhat normal life, you gotta fit into the right boxes you know.
Karla said…
Very interesting post!

My 8 year old has Aspergers and he came into my room a couple of days ago and announced "Hey mom, did you know that I'm good at impressions? I'm really good at impressions!" I had to smile and agree with him.

He will quote whole scenes from shows and get the voices and inflections just right. Interestingly his normal tone of voice is slightly stilted with some "odd" pronunciation but that completely disappears when he is quoting.

He also has an excellent memory for dialogue and he often sets me straight when I misquote a show.
Preta said…
Great comments as my 18 year old nephew has done a bit of 'school plays' (elementary, junior high), and now wants this to be his 'major' in college although we think he should take something with "drawing" on the side since he's so good at it, as well.

Would anyone here know the best way for those with Aspergers, to really delve into acting to see if it's what they really wish to do, and have excellent feed back as well? Thanks for your input and God bless.
Steve Florman said…
Preta, check into a local community theatre. He can try out for a show, and many of them also hold workshops and things like that where he can do some experimenting to see if it's something he'd enjoy. Also, a lot of community ed programs have acting classes or improv classes. Sometimes we're not too good at improv - I like to have a script - but there will probably be something happening locally that he can get involved in.
Anonymous said…
This was an informative article. I'd never even heard of Asperger's until a few years ago when a friend was speaking about how her husband had been recently diagnosed with it and as they talked about the symptoms, my wife and I kept looking at each other because so many of them described me, as well. After doing more research, I'm almost positive now that I am also an "Aspie".

I've been told by many people that I'm a very good actor. I was in a couple musicals and have been attracted to role-playing games. While Aspergers has given me the same feelings of social anxiety and uncertainty that many of us suffer from, it's also likely responsible for some gifts, too. I do simple math in my head with a quickness that leaves most people in awe. I've had an affinity for numbers as long as I can remember. I'll compute sales tax in my head and have people looking at me in disbelief and I can only shrug, because it's just natural for me.

I also have a very sensitive ear for music, particularly with respect to vocals. I love singing and I have knack for recognizing singers. Often, I'll hear a new song and if it's a singer I've heard before, I typically name them with excellent accuracy or if it's someone new, I easily associate them with someone else they sound similar to.

Similar traits (an affinity for both numbers and music) are apparently common amongst Aspies.
Anonymous said…
Hello to one and all. My 18 year old nephew has Aspergers and has the 'acting bug'. We're trying to find out if there's a way for him to 'try it out', in order to see how good he is or if this is what he really wants to do (college theatre, etc., he's already in college at the moment)? Thanks.
That just too funny. I played out a very similar scene recently, though different episode.

A young programmer showed me some code he had written which solved a particular problem that we had been working on for a couple of days.

Without even think, i say "I see you've constructed a new light saber. Indeed you are powerful as the emperor has foreseen." Complete with intonation and voice inflection.

Not sure what is wrong with me in particular, but a decent quote insert within context to make a point is something I think anyone should appreciate.
Anonymous said…
That just too funny. I played out a very similar scene recently, though different episode.

A young programmer showed me some code he had written which solved a particular problem that we had been working on for a couple of days.

Without even think, i say "I see you've constructed a new light saber. Indeed you are powerful as the emperor has foreseen." Complete with intonation and voice inflection.

Not sure what is wrong with me in particular, but a decent quote insert within context to make a point is something I think anyone should appreciate.
Miguel Palacio said…
I wonder if all this acting might get someone mistakenly duagnosed as having multiple personalities. As an Aspie I learned to act as the perfect soldier. This replaced one awkward gait with another, the one of a soldier. Then, my girlfriend at the time, she was a model, convinced me into going into modeling school to offer me yet other alternatives for my gait. This worked. No, I don't walk like a model now, though I know how to, I know how to walk "normal" and turn around "normal". All of this comes in handy when I'm in a business meeting. We Aspies are constantly on a stage.

I work in a job where this can be quite intense. At the end of the day or on the weekends I really need to recharge or hang out with people who are perfectly ok with me just being me. Sometimes it's just fellow Aspies. Sometimes I feel we should develop a secret handshake when we're in public. hahahaha xD

Yes, sometimes it's like a secret society of Aspies when I'm amongst others who are also able to pull their acting off pretty well in a public setting.

But, as I've mentioned in previous posts, it can be like a very skilled astronaut going out for a spacewalk. Space is not a normal environment, and eventually that astronaut must return to the comfort of the spaceship for continued safety, rest and support.

When I'm at work, I'm doing my space-walk, then I return home after work to recharge.

I also got lessons from my manager when I became DJ and radio announcer for a radio station. He taught me about voice inflection and enunciation. It was all very interesting. In a way, another firm of acting. All if these experiences have been formative for me.

I am also capable simultaneous language interpreter. My clients tell me that I not only do a good job of translating the words, but also the emotions of the original speakers. Now who ever said we were blind in this manner? But I attribute some of that to echolalia and echopraxia. I'm imitating. But this firm if imitation has also been helpful to me personally as I've been able to detect a wider range of emotion. This type of activity is something I would recommend for Aspies with highly developed multi-lingual skills.
kerrivw said…
I have just gotten out of a 2 year "relationship" with an Aspie (non diagnosed). From the beginning he kept telling me that he couldn't be a boyfriend and that I should find someone who could give me what I wanted. I was so patient and understanding with him (after I realized he was an aspie). I explained to him that I wasn't trying to change him but only trying to help him understand his own behavior. I eventually grew to love him. We were together for April and May of this year then he cut off communication for a few weeks after I made a comment he didn't like about his inappropriate behaviour. I then found out that he had slept with someone else during this 2 weeks. I explained to him how much this hurt me because it made me feel as though I didn't mean anything to him. We got back together after I went away for a month in July. When I came back, he gave me a key to his place, asked me to move in, and was (for the 1st time) introducing me as his girlfriend. Then we ran into an aquaintance of mine while we were out one night. This is a woman he also dated in highschool (we both did but nothing came of it since he is a late bloomer and did not know what to do with girls at the time). While we were sitting at the table, I was talking with some other friends and heard him suggest to her that they should a "love affair". She chuckled and said he should probably ask his girlfriend about that. He then proceeded to tell her that we keep breaking up. At this point I asked him to stop discussing this with her. The next day, he asked me for her phone#. I asked him why he wanted it and he said that he wanted to catch up with her. I told him I wasn't going out of my way to get her phone#. Then my friend tells me this woman was asking for his phone#. I had a bad feeling all week. She finally managed to get his phone # from my friend (who thought her friend didn't have bad intentions). Then a bunch of girls went out for supper and I could see she was texting him the whole time. I checked his texts when he was sleeping (he didn't know I knew his password) only to find out that they had slept together right before she came out for supper with us. So disgusted as I have never been cheated on or deceived in this way. I left before he woke up. The only communication i had with him was via text and email where I expressed my feelings of hurt and anger. At first, he was very harsh saying that he never loved me and that he loves this woman. Then he admitted that he did love me in some way. We haven't talked since the last email I sent was angry ( I said that now that I am aware that he is a liar, how many other girls has he slept with during the last 2 years.) He did not like this and said he didn't want me to contact him anymore. I'm not sure what to do now. I know it is good that it is over but I do not like our last communication and feel as though I need closure. Before that last email, he really wanted to talk about things face to face as he said that things get misunderstood in communication by email. I explained to him that I was more hurt by the betrayal than the actual break up. He said he was sorry for hurting my heart. I'm not sure if it will make me better or worse to see him. How do I get closure after being betrayed like this? Note** this is the very short version of the story
Gavin Bollard said…

I'm sorry that you had to go through all of that. It's not asperger's behaviour because it involves lying and manipulation both of which are generally quite difficult for people with Asperger's. Of course he could still have Asperger's syndrome but the behaviour would be personality related (or related to some other trait).

As for closure. I'm not sure how anyone can get closure from something like this. Nothing he can say will make you feel any better. Honestly, I wonder if it's not better to simply get out of there while you can. I know that he said things get misunderstood in email conversation but really, if he slept with that other girl, then clearly misunderstanding is the least of your worries.

Best to try to move on to someone who will treat you with the love and respect that you deserve. You should be able to find closure in the fact that you exposed the relationship for what it was and walked away with your dignity intact.
Unknown said…
i can relate to most of the things said here.

Also i think your boyfriend is not a bad person he is just different.but you should move on and he might not be your match.but i wonder what kind of person could be good match for auspie?

Please tag me, id very much like to know answer of it.

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