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Exploring Autism in the Theatre - Women's Studies Lecture


This Week in the Women’s Studies Lecture Series: Exploring Autism in the Theatre


Theatre and film provide insight and commentary on the culture around us.  Oftentimes it gives us perspective and helps us put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but sometimes it also helps us see our own cultural stereotypes and misperceptions.

Marla Carlson, a Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of theatre and film studies assistant professor, knows that much can be gained from studying and analyzing theatre and film.  This week, she’ll present a lecture at the weekly women’s studies lecture series entitled, “Affective Flow, Disrupted? The Curious Incidence of ‘Autism’ in the Theatre.” The lecture will be held in room 148 of the Miller Learning Center from 12:20 p.m. to 1:10 p.m.

“I'm going to talk about some recent theatrical performances that center on a character that is either explicitly or implicitly identified as having an autism spectrum disorder,” she said. The talk will focus on two plays: the National Theatre of London's 2012 adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and a 2007 piece by Pig Iron Theatre of Philadelphia called “Chekhov Lizardbrain. “I'll talk about the ways that they use and complicate some popular conceptions of high-functioning autism, the assumptions about gender underlying these ideas, and how they address our affective investment in the family.”

Carlson has been at UGA for five years now and teaches Theatre and Society, Women in Performance and The Broadway Musical and American Culture for undergraduate students. She is also head of the Ph.D. program in Theatre and Performance Studies and teaches one seminar a year. Last year, she taught Affect, Emotion and Cognition in Performance and some of the work from that course will be discussed at today’s lecture.

“My central research concerns the ways in which audiences respond to performing bodies, and I'm interested not only in how they derive conscious interpretations from what they see (i.e., decide what the performance means) but also how the performance affects them subliminally,” she said. “My first book was about spectator response to physical suffering in late medieval France and twenty-first century America. Now I'm working on contemporary performance and the changing species boundaries and norms for human behavior, with a working title of “Affect, Animals, and Autists: Feeling Around the Edges of the "Human" in Performance.’”

Looking at the boundaries that we create and the stereotypes at play for those with cognitive and physical differences, she said, is important in a research environment, as it helps us realize a more ethically acceptable, positive environment in which all individuals are equal despite these differences.

“It seems to me that important trends in contemporary thought and culture are blurring the lines between human and non-human animals, that it no longer seems so clear what's so special about human beings that would justify our absolute control of other species--we are probably not unique in our capacity to think, communicate, or feel,” said Carlson. “At the same time, conceptions about what is included within "human" behavior are expanding to include persons with physical and cognitive differences, such as those on the autism spectrum whose difficulties with "normal" human communication had in the past relegated them to a subhuman or animalistic category. I consider these to be very positive changes but also suspect that new boundaries are being drawn and new norms enforced, and I think it's crucial that we understand these changes in order to deal with them in a way that we find ethically acceptable. This is the reason for my current research focus. The topic has a further importance for me personally that comes from my own experience as a parent navigating all the contradictory aspects of an Asperger syndrome diagnosis.”

Interested in learning more about the Theatre and Film Studies Department? Visit the department website at:

Also, be sure to check out the rest of the lectures in the Women’s Studies lecture series this semester.





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