New play aims for balanced view of autism

Vestibular Sense
The play "Vestibular Sense" is the creation of L.A.-based writer Ken LaZebnik. LaZebnik says the title speaks to the theme of the play: How does an individual with autism relate to the world?
Photo by Ann Marsden

In "Vestibular Sense," 19-year-old Isaac Weiss is a teenager with autism who retreats to a special theraputic swing whenever he needs to restore his physical equilibrium--his vestibular sense. That sense is different for people with autism. The swing is actually an elastic sack at the bottom of a rope that completely envelops him as it spins like a top. Isaac depends on his grandmother to put the sack in motion.

"Spin me," Isaac says.

"No," says his grandmother, "I can't. It's too much."

Grandma and Isaac, two of the main characters in "Vestibular Sense." Isaac is a young man with autism trying to make his way in the world; his grandmother worries that she's too old to take care of him.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"I want to spin," he says.

"Isaac, we need help."

"No, we don't."

"I can't take care of you anymore; I'm too old," she says.

"I can take care of myself."

"Vestibular Sense" is the creation of L.A.-based writer Ken LaZebnik, a Mixed Blood Theatre alum who co-wrote the screenplay for the "Prairie Home Companion" movie. For LaZebnik, the spinning sack and the title have metaphorical significance.

"The term 'vestibular sense,' which is a little obscure," LaZebnik says, "speaks to the theme of the play which is, How does this one individual relate to the world? How does his body somehow fit on this planet?"

Autism was first diagnosed 60 years ago. While our understanding of this mysterious, complex disorder has grown immensely since then, there is still much we don't know, including what causes it. It's believed to affect the wiring in the brain that governs sensory and motor activity. Classic symptoms among the more adversely affected include spinning, head banging, repeating phrases and extreme emotional detachment. The range of severity of these symptoms is enormous. Many claim it's an affliction of geniuses. Thomas Edison is thought to have had it. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has been diagnosed with it.

Ken LaZebnik has two young family members with the disease who exist on different points of the autism spectrum. He's seen one of them, a nephew, evolve from a toddler with profound autism to a functioning high school student, thanks to intensive therapy.

"And it made me ponder what will happen when they are adults," he says. "What will that life look like?"

In the play, Isaac lives with his aging grandmother and works at a Norse theme park in Southern California. He often erupts with exhaustive knowledge about roller coasters and Norse mythology. He's fired after he refuses to tell his boss about a co-worker's involvement in an incident at the park because he promised not to.

In one scene, the frustrated supervisor, befuddled by Isaac's bizarre behavior, asks him who he is.

"I'm Isaac Weiss," he responds. "I'm a son. I'm half Jewish. I'm an American. I'm a 19-year-old. I'm an employee. I used to have a lot of autism. Now I have just a little."

That's the only time the word "autism" is mentioned in "Vestibular Sense."

Mixed Blood Theatre commissioned the play. It's part of a larger committment to produce one piece a year focusing on the lives of people with disabilities.

Artistic Director Jack Reuler admits that interest in autism has grown tremendously in recent years because more people are affected by it.

"There actually is a much higher incidence of diagnosis," he says. "But it's not just that we're diagnosing more people, the actual frequency of occurrence is much greater now than it was 20 years ago."

In fact, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, one in 166 children are born with some level of autism. That's double the rate a decade ago and ten times what it was a generation ago.

Grandma and Isaac
Karen Landry plays Grandma and Brian Skellenger portrays Isaac in "Vestibular Sense."
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

In doing research for the play, the cast met up with many people with varying degrees of autism. Karen Landry, who plays the grandmother, says the symptoms looked familiar.

"You realize, I do that sometimes," Landry laughs. "I find myself rocking when I'm bored or rocking when I'm upset. But on the more normal end of the spectrum you can control it."

It's a realization Ken LaZebnik hopes others have when they see the play, which is that so-called normal people are not as removed from the autism spectrum as they think. It's big enough to contain us all.

"If nothing else, what I'd like the play to demonstrate is that this spectrum contains a huge range of behaviors and that each case is highly individual."

LaZebnik says perhaps it's time to re-evaluate how autism is diagnosed, especially when some of the least functioning members of our society have the same condition as Bill Gates.

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