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‘Alexithymia,’ a performance that simulates the autistic experience

Alexithymia  is a theatre production that aims to simulate the experiences of people with Autism. It’s named after the condition that affects 85 per cent of people on the spectrum. It’s defined as an inability to name or describe emotions.

The collaboration between Citizen Theatre and A_tistic is split into three parts. It features a combination of interdependent and specific sensory stimuli through light and sound design, and highly stylised performances.
 
Co-producer and playwright Tom Middleditch, likens the experience of Alexithymia to being in a room with a band playing, “except there’s a wall between you and the band. So you don’t know which song they’re playing. You’ve got a friend on the phone saying they need to know what song is being played right now because they’re on ‘Millionaire,’ and if you don’t get it right you’ve screwed up everything. You’re desperately trying to hear these vague melodies. You have to work in order to do something that anyone else in the band would just be able to do by being there.”
 
Neuro-typical people generally don’t need to think about what emotion they’re experiencing, they simply experience it. Whereas, according to Middleditch, people with Autism constantly need to actively try to label and interpret their emotions.
 
Fittingly, the production team aim to make it difficult for the audience to discern what they feel. Middleditch describes the reasoning behind the very detailed lighting and sound design. “You induce autistic behaviour within the audience by putting them into situations that require autistic behaviour in order to get through. Things like distracting sound and light at unusual angles. A use of those two in a way that can be distracting, but not so distracting that it has anything clearly important in it.”  This lack of obvious importance is so that viewers have to “work in order to know where to look on the stage at any time.”
 
Middleditch has teamed up with director and co-producer Jade Kirchert, actors Emma Hoy, Teagan Vaskess and Nicola Bowman to create a vivid depiction that specifically shows Alexithymia and Autism from a female perspective.
 
He argues that pervasive societal roles often make it easier for women to mask their autistic tendencies than men, which can mean that they get overlooked. Middleditch says, “With women there’s an expectation that ‘No, you going to behave, you’re going to be empathetic and learn to be presentable, nice and clean.’ When that’s presented in the context of an autistic individual, it acts as a system of rules that they can learn. Through learning those rules, ironically, they miss out on being perceived as autistic.”
 
The importance of empathising with those who experience Alexithymia and Autism is made clear by its prevalence and relatability.  “One in sixty-eight Australians are on the spectrum. All of them have parents, and will possibly be parents. This affects everyone. Even if it doesn’t affect you directly, guarantee that listening will give you insight into yourself.”
 
Middleditch reflects on the significance of the upcoming production. “If it goes out the door with you, then I’ve done my job. People need to take the art with them.”  Decisively, he adds, “If they don’t, then I need to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to make that happen.”

Alexithymia runs at the Meat Market Stables in North Melbourne until Saturday November 18.