COLUMBIA — The lights go up and Jacob Huskey, 15, is kneeling alone on the stage, meticulously arranging green plastic toy soldiers into neat rows. He refuses to move until all the soldiers are in their proper place.
Jacob portrays Stephen, a 13-year-old with autism, in “Window Pains,” presented by the group Performing Arts in Children’s Education. The purpose of the play is to spread autism awareness, said director Angela Howard. Local playwright Hartley Wright wrote the script.
Where: Jesse Hall Auditorium at MU
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: Adults $10, students with valid ID $7, children 12 and under $5
Howard approached the MU Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders and asked if anyone would be willing to read through and correct the script so it would be an accurate portrayal of autism. Associate Director Stephen Kanne agreed to help.
“We just tweaked it to make it more realistic,” he said.
On average, one in 110 individuals is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, according to the Thompson Center, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies autism as a national public health crisis.
"It is commonly thought that autism spectrum disorders are genetic disorders and that genetic differences account for problems in early brain development and behavior," according to the Thompson Center's Web site. "Other researchers are attempting to determine if environmental factors, such as toxins and chemicals, play a role in causing autism."
Kanne's 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, is part of the cast. "She saw the read-through and was captivated by the family's story, so she wanted to be a part of it," he said.
To help the cast better understand autism, Kanne got permission to show them a video of a patient from the Thompson Center, put together by the patient's father.
"I wanted the cast to see that to bring it to a more emotional level and say, 'This hurts. This hurts families.' And that's what this play is about — the impact on the families," Kanne said.
The Thompson Center was given 100 free tickets, Kanne said, and has invited several state legislators to attend the performances that begin Thursday and run through Sunday.
Though the 18-member cast is young, with actors ranging in age from 9 to 18, “Window Pains” addresses some mature subjects that families affected by autism often confront, such as familial and marital stress, financial concerns, discipline frustrations and dealing with judgmental people.
“We’re presenting reality,” Howard said. “It doesn’t have a perfect, happy ending.” She said, however, that the play does portray a sense of hope for families affected by autism.
"The neat thing about this play is that its focus isn't necessarily on the kids themselves who have autism,” Kanne said. “It's on the impact on the family, which I think is a subtle difference but an important one."
Lydia Bryda, 10, plays Tori, a girl with autism and Stephen’s sister. Lydia said that through the play, she has learned how to interact with people who have autism. “I’ll be able to relate to them and know if they throw a tantrum like Tori does, I will know it’s just how they’re built,” she said.
Jacob and Lydia had to learn certain speech patterns and behaviors — such as clenching their fists, rocking back and forth, and biting their hands — that are often seen in individuals with autism. Lydia said she and Jacob often stayed a few minutes after rehearsal to practice the facial expressions and movements.
Though he has had much coaching on how to behave like someone with autism, Jacob said he is nervous about portraying Stephen. “I just hope I’m doing it right,” he said. “I don’t want to offend anyone.”
Howard, who teaches fourth grade at Christian Chapel Academy, said that learning more about autism has better prepared her to recognize or relate to a child who might have some form of autism.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is tolerance,” she said. “Now, I ask questions — I don’t make assumptions.”