Autism and the Theater: THANK YOU Kelvin Moon Loh!

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Kelvin Moon Loh is a performer who is currently in ‘The King and I’ at Lincoln Center. The day prior to this post there was an incident with an Autistic* person during one of his shows. His response was amazing, and he actually began a discussion about it on his personal Facebook page. Since some of you don’t have Facebook, and also because THIS IS IMPORTANT, I copied his responses and posted some screenshots here. Shared with his permission.

(*Yes, I said Autistic, not with Autism. I am not being disrespectful, I am simply reflecting the way that an increasing majority of Autistic individuals wish to be identified. If you are not familiar with the identity-first movement I encourage you to learn more.)

Here is what Kelvin’s Facebook post said (screenshot is at the top of the post):

“I am angry and sad.

Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.

That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.

You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them.

No.

Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others? 

The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.

It so happened that during “the whipping scene”, a rather intense moment in the second act, a child was heard yelping in the audience. It sounded like terror. Not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row- seemingly not autistic screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then. How is this any different?

His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of “why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”. This is wrong. Plainly wrong.

Because what you didn’t see was a mother desperately trying to do just that. But her son was not compliant. What they didn’t see was a mother desperately pleading with her child as he gripped the railing refusing- yelping more out of defiance. I could not look away. I wanted to scream and stop the show and say- “EVERYONE RELAX. SHE IS TRYING. CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT SHE IS TRYING???!!!!” I will gladly do the entire performance over again. Refund any ticket because-

For her to bring her child to the theater is brave. You don’t know what her life is like. Perhaps, they have great days where he can sit still and not make much noise because this is a rare occurrence. Perhaps she chooses to no longer live in fear, and refuses to compromise the experience of her child. Maybe she scouted the aisle seat for a very popular show in case such an episode would occur. She paid the same price to see the show as you did for her family. Her plan, as was yours, was to have an enjoyable afternoon at the theater and slowly her worst fears came true.

I leave you with this- Shows that have special performances for autistic audiences should be commended for their efforts to make theater inclusive for all audiences. I believe like Joseph Papp that theater is created for all people. I stand by that and also for once, I am in a show that is completely FAMILY FRIENDLY. The King and I on Broadway is just that- FAMILY FRIENDLY- and that means entire families- with disabilities or not. Not only for special performances but for all performances. A night at the theater is special on any night you get to go.

And no, I don’t care how much you spent on the tickets.”

I read the status with tears streaming down my face, overwhelmed with emotion. My fury raged at the crowd that acted so cruelly. I was incredibly grateful to Kelvin for his compassion and bold words, especially since performing is incredibly difficult. It can be unnerving when there are disturbances in the audience, yet he retained his kindness and humanity. He gets it.

My heart also broke for the mother and the child. It was probably a difficult decision for them to even attempt coming to the theater. The sights and sounds on the way there were probably overwhelming enough. They were probably afraid how the experience would affect the child, and in turn how that would affect other people, yet they still tried to attend so they could experience beauty. Instead they encountered ugliness.

Autistic people have every right to be out in the world and experience all it has to offer, but when families try and plan an outing it can be complicated**. They hope for the best but prepare for the worst, like the instance Kelvin spoke of. As the mother of an Autistic child I am far too familiar with the internal struggle that goes on when you are trying to weigh the risks versus benefits of any outing. We don’t willingly put our child in a situation that will overwhelm them or cause a disturbance, but sometimes things happen. And when it does what is needed most is compassion from strangers, not judgement. Life is messy, folks. Sometimes the world needs to be a little bit accommodating and show some patience and understanding. Autistic people should be treated with respect. Is that so hard?

Kelvin showed compassion. After making his initial post he continued his thoughts in the comments.

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As the post gained “Likes” his friends asked if they could share it. He responded: “Please share away, everyone. My heart is warmed that you all have such love to put into world. If ever I thought that doing musicals doesn’t matter in the world- here it is. ART IS IMPORTANT. Art literally saved my life as I am someone special and different. Thank you for your kind support.”

Different is AWESOME.

I also LOVE that comment made by his Father in the image above.

Increasing numbers of people began to also respond. One said:

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I wish that mother could see your words. I fear this experience will keep her and her child out of the theater. Everyone belongs. Hugs to you and your spirit. I’m glad to know you.”

Loh replied: I was hoping that she would too. Perhaps that is why I wrote it. When I looked up at the curtain call and saw three empty seats where I knew they were sitting- I was heartbroken. I was heartbroken to know that she might never know that as a company (I must applaud my cast and crew) we continued the show and we were not bothered.

I want her to know that she is a brave and should continue to champion her child.

But I will continue to make theater for her. And that is the best I can do for now!”

WOW.

Loh’s last comment was especially piercing:

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…you could hear it clearly that he was pleading to stay. He wanted to stay and didn’t understand why he had to leave. More heartbreak for me.

And I could also hear clearly a man who shouted to “get rid of the kid” from the other side of the theater which was more disturbing than anything that child was doing or saying.

But if he were to really hear the message of our Rodgers and Hammerstein classic- what we were really saying- we are all inherently different. We all have our own sets of challenges and all it takes is a little understanding. We must cross the line of things we do not understand, reach a loving hand across and start to build a bridge.

The precious message of our show was lost upon him- in reality as well.

The child wanted to stay, but had become overwhelmed by a disturbing scene that sounds like would be intense to anyone. Autistic people often experience intense feelings of empathy. It is a common misconception that Autistic people lack empathy. Sometimes they simply express it in unconventional ways, or shut down because their empathy is so great that it overwhelms them. That may be what happened here, or that seeing physical punishment was simply frightening. That Autistic child had what seems to me to be a perfectly understandable response.

The people who actually lacked empathy in this case were the Neurotypicals. Ironic much?

And yet there are people like Loh, who take a stand and speak up for what is right. Let me repeat part of what he said, because it is SO important: We are all inherently different. We all have our own sets of challenges and all it takes is a little understanding. We must cross the line of things we do not understand, reach a loving hand across and start to build a bridge.

This performer indeed built a bridge. Thank you for reaching out your loving hand.

Kelvin Moon Loh, I give you a standing ovation. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

**NOTE: I edited one paragraph slightly in order to be less focused on the mother’s perspective and better reflect a need to be more respectful of Autistic people. 

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6 thoughts on “Autism and the Theater: THANK YOU Kelvin Moon Loh!

  1. Autism Mom September 24, 2015 / 4:31 AM

    Oh, that was a difficult read. Infuriating, heartbreaking, inspiring. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. rgemom September 24, 2015 / 2:18 PM

    Kelvin Moon Loh has a new fan in me. Amazingly, he gets it. My heart aches for that mom in that moment. I too hope she read Kelvin’s words. Tears flowing down my face. Heartbreaking beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

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