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The Reader magazine: Autism, Shakespeare and soliloquies

Written by The Reader, 29th January 2018

In the latest issue of The Reader magazine, we hear again from Elizabeth Bonapace, a student at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and mother and teacher to her autistic son, L. A year ago Elizabeth and L began a journey with Shakespeare, discover how it all started.

This essay originally appeared in The Reader 64, published in December 2016. 

By Elizabeth Bonapace.

Autism. An ever expanding appellation to describe a multitude of ‘disorders’, but a word that society still struggles to elucidate or truly understand. Perhaps because of our failure to get to grips with this neuro-diversity, we are generally still no further in supporting the 34% of children at school who say they are the victims of bullying – or the paltry 15% of autistic people currently in employment.

Speech difficulties and problems affecting ‘how a person communicates with and relates to other people’ account for a broad percentage of the major obstacles faced by those with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and was an obstacle that I faced along with my seven-year-old son, L.

There was an obsession with electronics, even from the age of three. Sometimes it was a part of an old desk fan, other times vacuum cleaner parts or, more recently, it’s surveillance, in the form of rusted old security cameras, which L carries about wherever we go like ‘precious treasures’ – like extensions of his person. These obsessions have been apparent for a considerable amount of time since those early days where he would watch spinning roof fans in a stupor, would play with his toys peripherally.

He still wasn’t talking much even by the time he had reached four – when he was officially diagnosed with autism. Then came our first (and last) A session with a speech and language therapist, set in a children’s centre in Lichfield – I can remember vividly the small colourless room with threadbare carpets and a group of other mums (and one dad) sitting cross-legged each with a child on their knee, whilst an enthusiastic therapist overtly clapped the syllables from Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It was a primitive awakening.

"The children didn’t appear to be mentally present, they sat instead with spacey eyes fixated on the walls – somehow ‘undiscovered countries’. Was my son like that too? It struck me suddenly that there was no hope present in that room. It felt like an uncharted island that I was trying to navigate, as segregated from normality as one could possibly imagine."

Occasionally a child would shout out something incomprehensible, and the therapist would cheer encouragingly. My son however, seemed more interested in what the smoke detectors were on the ceiling, and after half an hour we left unnoticed, unheeded. I could not honestly foresee how that treatment – as recommended by our autism specialist – could help L whatsoever. Surely, if the therapy has been around since the 1940s, then why are there still so many autistic people unemployed, browbeaten and misunderstood? ‘I say there is no darkness but ignorance’.

School became our next hurdle when L turned four and, against my better judgement, I decided to enrol him at a nearby Ofsted outstanding primary. It quickly became apparent that this was also the wrong place – the reception teacher asked me to stay for the morning to help L settle – a morning which proliferated into a six-month unofficial teaching assistant role. It was truly eye-opening to see how the school failed to manage a child with autism – as well as the five other children who were presumed ‘special needs’ because they were behind the ‘middle majority’, and so were ushered each day into the piano room with another teaching assistant to partake in more menial, elementary work.

It was my son who I watched silently each day in the playground running repeatedly from one fence post to another, and who clasped his hands to his ears in distress when the teacher ignorantly put – for the fourth time that day – the ‘tidy up time’ song on maximum volume. It was my son who other parents whispered about at drop-off time, being the ‘naughty’ one, the strange one who liked fans and wind generators, who made strange noises and who never responded to his name.

It was also my son who was befriended by his classmate Isobel, who sat by him when no-one else wanted to and followed him from post to post in the playground – unperturbed by his inability to interact much verbally or his shyness or social awkwardness. I do look back and think of that delicate friendship as the only reason for staying as long as we did at the school, but eventually we had no choice. With the reception teacher now on long-term sick leave, the head-teacher called me in to her office one afternoon and asked whether I had ever considered home-educating – something that I had previously only associated with hippies and the religiously extravagant. The school had officially given up on my son.

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes

(Hamlet III.1)

And so there I was – leapt into the unknown with a child I loved to the moon who barely spoke and a living room scattered with half-dissected toys, crocodile clips and engine parts.

And that is where Shakespeare entered.

L seemed to take an initial interest in his work after hearing me memorising Hamlet’s famous soliloquy while I was working on an essay for my degree. He kept repeating the more elaborate words like ‘outrageous’ and ‘fortune’ wanting clarification as to what they meant. So I started to teach him excerpts from the soliloquies, using puppets to enhance the effects of the words. We looked further into rhyme, the music in the words – the fluidity of the pentameter rhythm – the completeness of the speeches.

Adding these short tectonic bursts of theatre and literature into my boy’s curriculum has had a marked effect, a ground-breaking effect, on his communication skills. I first noticed when he picked up his battered desk fan one morning and turned to me to ask very decisively whether ‘this is an oscillating fan’ or not. I noticed when he asked his Gran whether their day out to the park was ‘to be or not to be’ today making her laugh with amusement, and asking difficult-to-expound questions as to why Yorrick’s skull had no body attached to it. The stories, taken from the work of the great classical playwrights and poets of history, strike a fundamental chord within each of us – of life and death, joy and sorrow, of right and wrong – a realism from which today’s children are shielded as though we can somehow prevent or sanitise or control the ‘whips and scorns’ of life. But of course we can’t.

My son now happily chats away to those who know him, and increasingly to those who don’t. He talks about extractor fans, about the remoteness of the universe, about the complexities of atoms, and about Yorrick’s skull.

Even though we are on a journey with autism – this unusual, extraordinary path which has somehow become normal and familiar – I am encouraged and persuaded that the beauty of Shakespeare’s language and poetry are gradually resolving L’s speech and communication difficulties. He has proved that autistic people are capable of tackling and understanding an immersive language considered one of the most complex and difficult to decipher. The difficulty being a challenge, the challenge being a trophy for the autistic mind, which reinforces achievement, capability and self-esteem.

If I had my way Shakespeare would be being taught today in that sunny piano room in L’s old school, to those youngsters who are already on the ‘special needs’ register and will inevitably feel somehow lesser, not as proficient as their classmates – a feeling that, sadly, could stay with them throughout their lives. Teach an autistic mind something worthy of its depth, and imagine what brilliance, what profound inventiveness could emerge, and indeed ‘what dreams may come’.

Elizabeth Bonapace is studying towards a Master's Degree in Shakespeare & Education at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford and is interested in the positive effect Shakespeare has on the brain - especially on those with learning difficulties and autism. She is mum and teacher to L, tutors in English and hopes to get into lecturing and further research in the future.

You can find out how Elizabeth and L are progressing with Shakespeare one year on in the latest issue of The Reader magazine available for purchase on our website.

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