Unlike Christopher, who is rather on the voluble side for a kid on the spectrum—Haddon has stated that his book is more about cognitive differences than “any specific disorder”—Sam has been diagnosed not just with Asperger’s but also “selective mutism,” an extension of his social anxiety. If he’s uncomfortable, he gets stuck, and he won’t, or can’t, talk. When he was overwhelmed at a new school full of high-functioning extroverts two years ago, his shutdown lasted all summer.
Haddon’s book surely wouldn’t have worked with an uncommunicative main character, and it goes without saying that a theatrical adaptation would have been out of the question. Even so, for years the author considered his beloved book to be “unadaptable.” But the ingenious storytelling methods devised by Elliott, playwright Simon Stephens, and their choreographers and set designers are the primary reason the show succeeds. Christopher’s anxious chatter isn’t the only window into his mind—the design elements illuminate his turmoil, too.
The production team set the show inside a big black box. (It’s the same team that premiered the play in London, with a different cast.) The three walls facing the audience are lit to look like graph paper; letters and symbols and mathematic equations cascade across them, sometimes defying gravity, streaming up from the floor to the ceiling. When Christopher is distressed, electronic music pounds and seizure-inducing hot white lights flash.
Long before he was diagnosed, we knew something was different about Sam. On a trip to Los Angeles just after the birth of our second son—Sam was a year and nine months old—we were stunned as we sat in a parking lot and he blurted out the letters on the sign in front of us: “S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S.” We had no idea he’d already learned the alphabet. Soon, to soothe himself to sleep, he was reciting the alphabet forward and backward.
As he grew older, Sam’s stony facial expression, so characteristic to the condition, would only rarely betray any kind of emotion. But we’ve come to understand that’s a hard mask for his inner turbulence. Seeing it imagined onstage was a revelation. The play’s bad-trip-at-a-rave depiction of Christopher’s rampaging synapses represents a stark contrast with the theater industry’s recent efforts to make shows such as The Lion King more accessible to kids on the autism spectrum, with softer volume and dimmer lighting.
In another of the play’s inventive moments, when Christopher (played by Alex Sharp, a Broadway newcomer and recent Juilliard graduate) is having an out-of-body experience, his supporting cast members take their roles literally. They hold him up parallel to the ground so he can sprint around the walls, like another science-minded high schooler, Peter Parker, after his spider bite.
Curious Incident's creative use of visual elements is just one way the show communicates how many people on the autism spectrum experience seeing the world. In the book Life, Animated, Ron Suskind writes about his son’s Asperger’s and how the two were able to connect through Disney movies. Sam, too, has an affinity for animation: He creates amusing short films using a graphics tablet and a software suite, and has a remarkable facility for perspective. Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist and autism activist, has written extensively about her own visual thinking, stating, “My mind is similar to an Internet search engine that searches for photographs.” And Christopher might agree. “I see everything,” he says in the play.