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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Smith Arts June 21, 2019

Telling a Story Onstage About Autism

Sunshine Schneider

Although she’s had little previous acting experience, Sunshine Schneider ’22 says that in many ways, she’s been performing all her life.

As a person with autism navigating a neuro-typical world, “I feel I’ve spent my whole life trying to act as a non-autistic person,” she says.

Schneider was thrilled to learn earlier this summer that she’d been cast as the lead in the Smith production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, an award-winning play based on a 2003 novel about a boy with autism that will be performed on campus on October 25 and 26, and October 31 through November 2.

“It’s super validating to be cast as Christopher,” says Schneider (who goes by her middle name). “It’s really freeing for me to do this role.”

In addition to casting Schneider as the lead, director Ellen Kaplan has involved members of Smith’s Disability Alliance as advisers to the production, and has been researching works by artists with autism to help inspire the set and design.

“I am inviting people with neuro-diverse backgrounds to help us tell this story,” says Kaplan, a professor of theatre at Smith. “It’s important to me that I not ‘represent’ autism. The play is a powerful coming-of-age story about one unique individual.”

Schneider—who is working this summer as a counselor at a science camp for girls in her home state of California—says she’s been reading her script every day to help prepare for the role. Here’s what else she had to say about the play.

How did you decide to audition for the Smith production?
“I’d been going to some of the Disability Alliance meetings about the play, and in the back of my mind, I was thinking, maybe I could be in it. I found out from those meetings that they were looking for actors with autism, so I went and did a read-through. When the director emailed me that I’d gotten the part, I was ecstatic! I’ve watched other plays at Smith and I’ve been blown away. I’m really looking forward to working with people in the theater department and the other actors. There’s going to be a lot of growth for me.”

How are you drawing on your own experience to prepare for the role?
“I wasn’t diagnosed with autism until I was 17. If I may preach a bit, this is a common experience for girls with autism—getting diagnosed late. It’s an added challenge. Just existing as a person with autism can be incredibly isolating. It can be difficult to make friends.

In the play, Christopher is a bit more visibly autistic than I am, so I’m doing a little extra research.”

The play has been widely praised, but also criticized because it wasn’t written by someone with autism and the Broadway production didn’t include actors with autism.
“My parents took me to see that production, and it got my 15-year-old-Sunshine seal of approval. Especially when compared to other portrayals of people with autism—like in the movie Rainman, which really is a caricature—I think this play is a lot less tone deaf. Everyone involved with the production here at Smith is so sensitive and receptive. I’m going to do my best to make sure my portrayal is accurate.”

What message do you hope the play conveys to audiences?  
“That autism isn’t purely a disability. For me, it may be harder to connect with people, or I may do things that seem socially inept. But you see with Christopher that there are also superpowers that come from it. He has a line at the end of the play: ‘I can do anything.’ That’s what I want people to come away with.”