In his debut book, Fearlessly Different: An Autistic Actor’s Journey to Broadway’s Biggest Stage, Mickey Rowe writes about a world I both do and don’t know. Reading about it can feel like watching aspects of my own story from behind a scrim, or from offstage in a dark wing.
In many ways, Rowe and I would seem to have much in common. We’re both autistic people who work in theater, from roughly the same generation. We both grew up without sufficient support for our disabilities and received an appropriate diagnosis much later than we should have, discovered an attraction to performing arts early and decided to pursue this as a career despite being told in so many ways that we could never succeed. We both favor v-necked t-shirts for sensory reasons. Rowe and I are both concerned with issues of representation of autistic people in media.
I’ve spoken before about how issues of representation and inclusion of autistic and disabled people in theater can so often come down to a presumption that we are in the room. And yet, ironically often, my overwhelming experience of reading Fearlessly Different was of being presumed not to be in the room. Not to be in the audience.
Many people, both autistic and not, have remarked to me over the years that autistic and neurodivergent people seem over-represented in the performing arts—if not usually among actors, then frequently in various roles behind the scenes—and yet Fearlessly Different can still overwhelmingly give the sense of Rowe as alone against the world. In some ways it’s not surprising, given some of the horrific mistreatment Rowe describes enduring in the early part of his career.
But I found myself frequently irritated at being told what I probably do or don’t think. I found myself alienated by ungenerous pronouncements about the motivations or inner lives of various other people Rowe encounters.
“Who would have thought that a legally blind three-year-old who could only communicate with his own made-up sign language would end up here?” Well, as someone else who was that three-year-old in multiple regards (with the exception of being legally blind, which I am not)…I would.
“The play Curious Incident was written with one goal in mind: to win awards,” Rowe writes at one point. And while I’ve never worked on Broadway, I do work primarily on new plays and new musicals. Sure, everyone wants our productions to win awards. There is a troubling tendency of inspirational stories about disabled people, portrayed largely by non-disabled actors, to win them.
But I haven’t known a single person who wrote a play who didn’t care deeply about their subject matter, even if their reasons for attraction to it or execution were imperfect.
Nevertheless, Rowe does also frequently capture moments of resonance and joy, in strikingly distinctive language that truly puts the reader in his shoes, describing the revelation of actually seeing words and understanding what it is to read for the first time, or the sense of humility and wonder at standing alone in an empty theater that never fades, no matter how long you do this. He writes compellingly about why he comes to find performance a skill set of unparalleled utility for interfacing with the world and with other people, including when he’s taken under the wings of an older pair of professional stilt-walkers, in ways that many autistic amateur and professional performers alike will likely find deeply relatable.
I do want to acknowledge in this critique how very difficult a tightrope Rowe (and any autistic professional who decides to write autobiographically) is walking. We still reside, unfortunately, at an intersection of communities where it is hard to be taken seriously as both an autistic person and as a professional (though I do believe things are slowly but surely improving in that regard). I’m also incredibly wary of holding any single book or any individual person’s autobiographical experience responsible for accurately representing all autistic people, or even the perspectives of autistic people in an incredibly niche career field. For these reasons, among others, I think this book could’ve benefitted from an editor more familiar with the genre of autie-biography (autistic autobiographies), and with how the story Rowe is choosing to tell both is—and is not—distinctive from other works in this family of books.
I found myself wanting to hear in much more depth, for instance, about how Rowe feels that his craft has changed and developed over time, whether it’s deepened in ways he feels are distinct from those of non-autistic actors, and not only when he’s playing notable autistic characters. Also, particularly, about Rowe’s relationship to the character of Christopher in Curious Incident. How does he both feel so deeply connected to this character that he makes it his singular mission to be the first autistic actor to play him, and also, only a couple of chapters later, describe this story as a primary example of misrepresentation of autistic people? How does he navigate that dissonance, and what, nevertheless, resonates with him so strongly about this character that he hangs the hope of his entire career on getting to portray him?
As a domestic violence survivor himself, how did he navigate that aspect of the show’s storyline while it was happening?
It’s the sections on Rowe’s experiences of the domestic abuse he was dealing with at home, in fact, and of being an autistic parent to both autistic and non-autistic children, that I think are among the most valuable in the book. The way autistic men are discussed/portrayed in popular culture frequently considers them to be either inherently sexually naïve, or inherently sexually dangerous—incapable of understanding boundaries, communication about consent, or simply unable to help committing stalking, sexual harassment, or assault. (Take, for instance, the plotline wherein Sam, the protagonist of Atypical, develops an obsession with his therapist and breaks into her house.) We are rarely asked to consider autistic adult men as possible victims of domestic abuse or mistreatment who deserve support, rather than people capable only of inadvertently mistreating others.
Likewise, most mainstream media coverage of conflict between autistic self-advocates, and parents of autistic children, still implicitly presumes those categories to be mutually exclusive. (I think there’s far more understanding within the autistic and broader autism advocacy communities that they are not.) When autistic adults object to the ways in which we’re portrayed as uniquely difficult to parent, it’s often assumed that we’re not in fact doing the work of parenting both autistic and non-autistic children ourselves, but many of us are—and often without the social support that non-autistic parents have.
Ultimately, Fearlessly Different succeeds most when Rowe manages to capture the alchemy of those moments in our lives when the pieces of the world seem to fall into place for us, when something vitally important finally clicks, and much less so when he’s generalizing about non-disabled people or telling us what he wants us to conclude from his experiences. I found it most alienating when he’s speculating wildly or making pronouncements about his readership or the motivations of other people he encounters in his sojourn through the Broadway audition process, and most inviting when he’s discussing the experiential realities of what it is to be an autistic person in this business.
I know firsthand that it can be one of the hardest things to learn as a writer, as a performer, and as someone who still often feels myself to be communicating on a different wavelength than the rest of the world.… but I wish I felt this book had been written with more trust in its audience (which is virtually guaranteed to include more autistic people involved in the theater arts than just me), because it reaches its most vibrant, most open-hearted in the moments when it truly does.
And despite believing opportunities were missed to connect more deeply with fellow autistic (and non-autistic) theater artists, I hope that if non-autistic parents reading take one thing from this book, it’s that supporting an autistic child in their genuine, passionate interests, no matter how seemingly strange or unlikely, is perhaps one of the most important decisions they can make for that child’s future.