The Story of Luke

The Story of Luke deals with a young man with autism, abandoned in infancy by his mother and raised by his grandparents. His grandmother, as his primary caregiver, had perhaps sheltered him more than she should have. Luke gets home schooled and/or takes distance learning classes for high school. He lacks vocational training or any sort of transition plan. When his grandmother dies, he is forced to move in with his Uncle Paul and Aunt Cindy, who have issues of their own (she’s on antidepressants, and he’s just a pill), and two younger (presumably) “normal” children. There are some scenes where “what to do about Luke” is discussed among others, and he overhears. Aunt Cindy has delicate sensibilities, and must have deep pockets as well, because she has the grandfather admitted to a nursing home following an incident where he attempts to grab her posterior, and offers her $20. At a rest stop on the way to the nursing home, Luke’s grandfather tells him that Luke is now a man and must live his own life, including getting a job and finding a woman who “is willing to travel and doesn’t nag too much”. At the rest stop, Luke meets a sympathetic convenience store clerk who gives him a pile of pornographic magazines when he asks about “screwing”. Luke’s final conversation with his grandfather has a strong impact on the boy, who decides, despite the challenges faced by his condition, to try to get a job and a girlfriend. These pursuits are made more challenging than they had to be by the fact that he lacks transportation, and his aunt is initially against him attempting to get a job. She comes around, when she realizes that enforced idleness and lacking the opportunity to acquire an adult role could be harmful and depressing to him as well.
Luke is not the “stereotypical autistic”. He speaks and responds to others, though stilted delivery and the repetition of common sayings act as an indicator that he does not have the spontaneity that others do, and the clearly-shown anxiety with every challenging situation he encounters hints at what lies beneath the polite well-groomed young man’s attempt at maintaining a socially-appropriate mien. He walks down the street covering his ears when loud sounds overwhelm him, and significantly sits in the seats reserved for the handicapped when he takes the bus. Some situations provoke a bit of mild “stimming”. Though he discloses some talent at preparing dishes he had seen made on cooking shows on TV, he denies any specialized or savant skills. When asked about his condition, though some call him “a retard” or say he has autism, he claims “my grandmother told me that I defy clinical categorization”.
The grandfather, who seems physically healthy other than an incident of incontinence and the revival of a smoking habit, dies conveniently the next time Luke is given the opportunity to visit the nursing home.
After he settles in with his aunt and uncle, Luke at first unsuccessfully pursues both work and love, signing up with a temp agency where he meets an older black woman “with nice tits”, who works as the receptionist, and is later the first woman he asks for a date. He finds out about a company that could help him, with a program called the Smile, which hires and trains people on the autistic spectrum for menial jobs within corporations. The owner, in fact, has an autistic son who works for him, Zack, supervisor of the new apprentices. Zack is bitter and abrasive, and feels a need to prove himself to his father. Luke is then hired as an apprentice and in spite of Zack yelling at him and being less than clear about some of his initial job responsibilities, he proves himself able to adapt. His resourcefulness and desire to ask out the girl at the temp agency hits Zack, who decides to try to help him, which has the result of helping himself at the same time.
Zack teaches Luke to carefully observe and mimic the body language and non-verbal interactions of “NTs”, or “neurotypical” people, and then shows him simulator software he developed which has on-screen virtual faces and personas responding in real time to Luke’s interactions with them. In spite of this unique training tool for human interaction, Luke still gets rejected when he asks the woman on a date. Zack ends up getting it used for customer service within the company, and hopefully, redeeming himself in his father’s eyes. Luke starts looking exceptionally personable and capable, and lands a long term job with the company.
In the meantime, Luke’s aunt, uncle, and cousins have been warming up to him, and discover the whereabouts of his mother. Zack helps groom Luke for the occasion and accompanies him when he decides to meet his mother. Luke discovers that his mother has another grown son and a family who doesn’t know about Luke, and she would prefer to keep it that way. Though Luke is disappointed that his reunion with his mother wasn’t a happy and loving one, by NT standards, he does get closure on why she acted as she did: “I didn’t think I would ever hear you talk to me” she said.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time
Review of Encore Performance at NYU Skirball Center, October 26, 2012.

Not cinematic rendition but video documentation of the play, as performed in the National Theatre in the UK. The performance was staged in the round, with innovative special and sound effects and minimal props and sets. These included several unadorned multi-use moveable pedestals (these cost-effective but minimalist items were not only used as seats, but as escalator steps, a train interior, luggage, and, in one instance, with appropriately-timed sound effects along with a performance best left to the imagination, a toilet.

The stage was divided into grids, finished with blackboard paint (this was crucial, because among other things, Christopher used it to draw a chalk outline of the dead dog, which he quickly surrounded by a mind-map of the crime as he saw it). The stage surface, studded with tiny LED lights, was a large and more technically sophisticated light-brite, which made possible the flexibility of the staging, meaning the story could quickly switch from Christopher’s walk around the neighborhood, with the footprints of neighbors’ houses drawn in white light for Christopher to walk past, to his time at school, and various rooms in his home.

This unique stage also provided the perfect means for displaying the complicated algebra and geometry problem which got him his top score on the math A-levels, a faithfulness to the book and the style of the narrative which might not have otherwise been possible. Given the nature of the book, a complex internal narrative from the point of view of an autistic teen whose world has been limited, and whose sensory issues make such crowded, noisy, and distracting places as train stations more frightening and difficult for him to navigate than for neurotypical persons, I was not the only one who wondered how this deep and silent internal narrative could be translated to words and actions effective for the purposes of the theatre.

Neither those who valued adherence to the book nor those who were assessing the dramatic performance immediately in front of them (effectively presented upon a larger than average, square, rather than rectangular, screen) were disappointed. The other characters all have a say in Christopher’s internal monologue, and their sometimes conflicting influences add to his sensory and emotional overload. His father’s discouragements and criticisms echo in his head, as well as his more positive talk. Beloved teacher Siobhean, who is also effectively a social worker/counselor to him, is seen as a Jimminy Cricket to his Pinnochio.

Other characters begin their parts, but then repeat themselves or revise their actions, depending on Christopher’s re-telling of the story, and re-stating of the details. A moment of levity ensues when a police officer steps into the scene, and then is described as a different police officer from the one who had been on the train with Christopher previously. He hands off his police hat and vest to a different man in police uniform, who steps onto the stage and continues the scene, the edges of the stage being the borders of Christopher’s mental picture-making.

Prior to the showing of the play itself, the theatre presented a making-of-the-production featurette which showed various aspects of the staging and rehearsals. Revealed in this movie about the movie about the play was the fact that in order to realistically present in performance the behavior of Christopher and of the people he encounters, they utilized the services of an autism consultant who was, herself, on the spectrum. She used the opportunity to comment on the perception that autistic people lack imagination. This overgeneralization is not quite accurate. While they might not be able to accurately guess others’ motives in social situations, the ability to generate original imagery and ideas remains.

After the show, Stephen Yoffe wheeled out on stage to lead the discussion of various aspects of the show, among them the fact that the play ended on an ambiguous note. Christopher, his self-confidence boosted by having solved the mystery, successfully taken the train to London, and evaded the police, saying he could “do anything”, with a questioning tone at the end of the statement, following a monologue about his future aspirations to take the rest of the A-levels (comprehensive university entry exams), go to university in a less crowded and busy metropolitan area than London, become a scientist, and then an astronaut, after having successfully departed both his parents’ households for a flat of his own and independent adulthood. All his life, he had been told by society as a whole and more immediately and personally, by the authority figures in his own life, that he wasn’t capable of doing certain things. He had to have felt a certain amount of triumph in having successfully torn apart a tissue of lies, evaded the police, and taken the train to London on his own.

Given that the British legal system, school system, and police force are quite different from those in the USA, it is to be noted that Christopher’s story could very well have unfolded quite differently at any point, had it been set in the USA.
It was perhaps deliberately left open-ended as to whether Christopher could or would be successful in these and/or other goals (one audience member suggested that unmentioned and perhaps undervalued in this scenario were “different kinds of success”, such as the future possibility of Christopher successfully making friends, having a relationship, perhaps marrying and having children). The fact that Christopher drew a large face with a smile on the stage floor during the conclusion of the play was viewed as a milestone for Christopher in understanding both the facial expression and the emotion behind it.

My Name is Khan

This picture is an epic about the life of the fictional Rizwan Khan, a man who grew up in India and showed symptoms all his life, but didn’t get diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome until after reaching adulthood and immigrating to America, having been sponsored by his presumably neurotypical younger brother, who left India for college in the US, because he felt overshadowed by the praise and attention his mother and the community gave to Rizwan as a boy genius who could fix electrical appliances and recite historical facts.

Unlike his brother Zakir, Rizwan went to America not because he wanted to, but because his mother made him promise to pursue a career and a “happy life” in America following the example of his brother. Life in San Francisco may have been happy for his brother, but it is initially overwhelming to Rizwan: the cacophany of sounds and constant exposure to yellow, a color to which he has a strong aversion, overwhelm him, and lead to a near-fatal encounter with one of San Fran’s famed cable cars. It is this experience that results in his taking shelter in a beauty parlor where he eventually sells the cosmetic products his brother arranged for him to market, and meets his best customer, a Hindu single mother who later becomes his wife.

It is because of his late mother’s attention to teaching tolerance and the importance of looking beyond stereotypes and labels on other human beings that Rizwan develops the moral sense he exhibits throughout the movie and the ability to express emotions and function in life in the world which has resulted in him “being better off than most autistic people”, according to his brother’s wife, a professor of psychology. Another factor, which resulted in him having valuable skills which would later serve him well socially, was the seeming neglect in which as a boy, he was allowed to play in a junkyard and “learned to fix broken things”. Rizwan later applies this skill on his travels to fixing the roof of a church which the townfolks have taken shelter in during a hurricane when he goes to see if a woman who had helped him on an earlier part of his travels is all right. Rizwan may be slow to warm up to new people, but will go out of his way and above and beyond the call of duty when he has truly made a friend.

The timeline to this picture jumps around, opening in 2007 with Rizwan looking up President Bush’s itinerary on the internet and walking erratically around an airport, where he gets stopped by TSA agents who take him into one of their patented “sterile zones” to search and interrogate him. They find an “autism alert” card in his wallet, which prompts one of the agents to ask a bit more about Rizwan’s plans and intentions, and accept his explanation that he’s not a terrorist. (I later discovered that there is such a thing as an “autism alert” card for the wallet, but it’s issued by a nonprofit agency in England, which also provides instructional materials about autism and Asperger’s for law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, this is not duplicated in the US. It might be a good idea if it was: the internet is full of accounts of adults with autism and Asperger’s getting into similar dust-ups with law-enforcement and getting into further trouble involving the justice and/or the mental health systems because of anxiety-motivated, defensive, or seemingly evasive behavior that is the result of their condition.)

Shahrukh Khan, the actor who played Rizwan Khan, was similarly stopped and detained by airport security in August 2009, shortly after production had wrapped. While Khan is big in Bollywood, in Newark he was subject to racial profiling as a brown-skinned man with a “suspicious” name, which got “flagged”. In the case of Khan the actor, the Embassy of India intervened and he was released. Khan the Aspie, however, was subjected to what are euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” when he was seized by US law enforcement for the second time.

Unlike most movies, which evade or gloss over the anti-Arab/Muslim prejudice which erupted among the previously quiescent American public following the terrorist attack on 9/11, for this one the vigilantism that ensued is central to the plot. The quest upon which Rizwan embarks was the result of something his wife said in anger after a bunch of hooligans beat her son to death for having a Muslim last name: she told him to go tell everyone in an adjacent town and the president of the USA that his name was Khan and he was not a terrorist. Being a man of his word, and/or not understanding sarcasm, meeting the president and literally telling him that he was not a terrorist was what he tried to do. Actually shouting that out at a rally during one of his early attempts to fulfill this mission was what got him into prison.

Certain things about this movie are very realistic, but certain things are not. Both Shahrukh Khan and the actor who plays the fictional Khan as a boy do a very good job of portraying Asperger’s symptoms and behaviors, but at times both have seemed to do things that are more consistent with full-blown autism. When public attention is brought to Khan’s imprisonment, he eventually gets released because it becomes recognized by the powers-that-be that his actions were motivated by Asperger’s and that he was truly not a terrorist. In real life, many people with Asperger’s are not nearly so obvious, and neither do they receive public acclaim or understanding on the part of the officialdom to the extent that Khan did. (One wonders how many people with autism spectrum disorders there are imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and similar places for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as well as having the wrong name and skin color.)

In spite of the well-told and original story, I can’t help but have ambivalent feelings about this picture. I’m favorably disposed towards the idea that this is a story which shows that sometimes Asperger’s characteristics can be an asset rather than a “disability”, that someone with Asperger’s has the potential to achieve positive things in the world in spite of pretty obvious symptomology. On the other hand, this movie threatens with the potential to be an ethnic Forrest Gump.

While most people with Asperger’s do have a strong moral compass, just as there are many who are not nearly so “obvious” and manage to do a better job of assimilating socially (some even understand saracsm and get hints), people with Asperger’s are not by any means all as religious or as abstemious as the fictional Khan, who bought a book on intercourse in preparation for his wedding night, and had no interest in the “nude channel” a Hindu hotel-keeper touted as one of the benefits of his establishment. By anyone’s standards, Khan is an exceptional man, and would be a difficult standard for anyone, Asperger’s or neurotypical, to follow as a role model.