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Student Blog: Autism & The Arts - How Musical Theatre Helps Me Understand Others

Sugar, butter, brains.

Student Blog: Autism & The Arts - How Musical Theatre Helps Me Understand Others
From left to right:
Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Kimiko Glenn
in WAITRESS.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sugar, butter, brains.

Just recently, I was diagnosed with ASD. This was not at all a surprise to me, considering my hyper-obsession with Broadway shows, and how I get so wrapped up in projects that I'm excited about that I forget to meet my basic needs (remembering to sleep, take breaks, sleep, etc).

For me, musicals have always been more than the story itself. I tend to have a hard time understanding other people's emotions, or interpreting their words correctly. And the problem arises when I can't articulate why I'm confused, and it becomes an issue with other people because they may take it as an insult.

Every time I see a new show, or listen to a new soundtrack, it automatically is added to a sort of "database" in my brain. In a situation where I'm struggling to interpret emotions, I can search this database and basically "google" it.

For this process to make sense, it's important to note the concept that there is truly only one story, told an infinite amount of ways. Here's a step-by-step of how this works.

Once I've visually seen a show onstage, the actor's facial expressions are also put into my "database" with the corresponding song or a general idea of the dialogue.

Let's say that in a conversation, the other person's tone changes and I don't understand why. I then go to the first scene or song I can think of - let's use the musical WAITRESS in this example - that had a vaguely similar dynamic. In the scene before the classic power ballad "She Used to Be Mine", Jenna's tone of voice shifts as the scene goes on. She's upset at the situation she's in, and that emotion shows in her voice getting quieter and less dynamic. So, if that's how I hear someone in my life talk, it's most likely that they are upset. Obviously, the person talking to me isn't in the same situation as Jenna. But it's all one story, like I said either. The whole world is connected on an emotional or spiritual level, one way or another.

Here's the thing, though - this doesn't work all the time, and it's not a tool that I consciously use. It happens in a split second, and I use the same idea over and over when I need it. Scenes or music that convey a specific emotion are almost all the same in the way of the acting. So, logically, that's how real people function most of the time, too, even if it's a completely different story.

It's interesting how the brain works, and to think about how each story ends in, ultimately, the same theme: human resilience. In times of struggle, we always figure it out in the way that's best for us. Art is important because it gives a voice to those who struggle to find the words. I'm proud to be a part of the theatre community, and one day, I hope to help someone else express themselves just like the artists I look up to have helped me.


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