You’ve probably heard about the Broadway actor, Kelvin Moon Loh, who took to his Facebook page to state his dismay over the behavior of the audience at last Wednesday’s matinee of The King and I. If you haven’t, you can read all about it here.
In a nutshell, a mother took what Loh assumes was her autistic son to a matinee of the Broadway hit and during a particularly intense scene, the child had some sort of outburst. Audience members turned on the mother, some saying things like, “Why would you bring a child like that to the theatre?” The show continued, despite the interruption caused by the child and subsequently by the audience but the actor was clearly upset over how the audience treated the mother and the child.
Children’s misbehavior, and their parents’ reaction to it – or lack of reaction to it – was in the news back in July, when the parents of a toddler went to a Maine diner. The diner owner reportedly screamed at the toddler and threw the family out of the restaurant because the toddler was disturbing other customers. The social media maelstrom that resulted from that story had people taking sides about when and where it’s appropriate to take small children. Thousands of people commented on this story, some stating that children shouldn’t be taken to restaurants at all, others believing that children should be welcomed in public places regardless of their behavior, and pretty much everyone who weighed in on the matter acted like an asshole.
Who knows what really happened in that diner but we should all be able to agree that there are certain types of restaurants where we should not take our children – the white tablecloth, expensive kind for sure – and others (like diners) where children should be welcomed, even when they cry or throw sugar packets or act like heatherns. Whatever happened, the story stirred up some powerful opinions on both sides of the argument that mostly left me glad that my children are now adults (although that does not necessarily preclude them from acting like assholes in restaurants).
This theatre matter is different, though. First of all, a ticket to a Broadway show is exorbitantly expensive. No one wants to have their Big Deal Moment ruined by someone else’s rude behavior…like the time Alan and I went to a Broadway matinee with another couple and the man bought M&M’s at intermission. This highly-educated, rarified friend of ours sat down for Act II and proceeded to extract one M&M at a time from the package, as opposed to pouring a few at a time into his hands, which resulted in a loud and annoying crinkling noise every few seconds. I was cringing but trying to ignore it when the man on the row in front of us turned around and hissed, “Would you stop rattling that damn paper?” Of course, when he said this the ripple of who was affected by our friend’s candy munching spread even further.
Or what about cell phones in the theatre? How obnoxious is that? Celebrities like Madonna have been chastised for texting during Broadway performances. Patti LuPone stopped a performance to rant at one cell phone user and swiped the cell phone of another. Then there are the show talkers (who whisper/talk to each other during performances), the nitwits who repeatedly get up from their seats and the jerks who ignore the pre-show requests to refrain from flash photography. Clearly, it’s not just children who can disrupt a performance.
There are two things about The King and I story that bother me. The first is that the show is billed as “family friendly” which I take to mean that children are welcome. And anytime you invite children to attend something, you have no way to know what to expect. Take a child to a dark theatre, put live action on the stage in front of them and who can predict what might happen, even from the most well-behaved child. Don’t bill your show as “family friendly”- and don’t buy a ticket to a “family friendly” production – if you’re not prepared for anything from screaming fits to poopy diapers.
The second thing that bothers me about this story is more important, I think, and it’s this…how did anyone know this child has autism?
I know a lot of people with autism and most of them do not have any physical characteristics that give an indication of their diagnosis. Did the audience assume the child had autism because of the nature of his outburst? Because I know plenty of children who don’t have a diagnosis of autism who can behave atrociously.
And more to the point, what difference does it make if he had autism or not? He was a child, taken by his mother to an appropriate event, a child who had a strong negative reaction to something that occurred on the stage. Any child could have reacted in the exact same way. Would the audience have been more compassionate towards a “normal” child?
Many parents of kids with autism have told me that one of the most challenging aspects of their child’s diagnosis is the fact that they appear to be typical kids, making their inappropriate behavior more difficult for strangers to understand. Many of these parents have told me they’ve been publicly shamed or chastised for not properly “disciplining” their children too many times to count.
“Can’t you make her behave?” they’ve been asked or “If he was mine, I’d whip him” others have said. “If my child had an obvious physical disability or a condition like Down syndrome, people might be more understanding of his odd behaviors or frightening outbursts,” one parent told me.
Taking a child with autism to a public place can be torture – for the parent and for the child. No parent wants their child to be upset or to unintentionally upset someone else. Autism can hijack not only a child’s life but the life of their family as well.
So what are parents to do? Children – with autism or without – learn by doing so we have to take a risk and take them to that restaurant or that party or that musical.
We have to prepare them for what they can expect and we have to do our best to plan for every possible contingency.
We should remember the question Loh posed in his Facebook post…“When did we become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?”
So, you can act like an asshole to someone who’s child is misbehaving because you assume they aren’t doing a good job parenting. Or you can be a human being and show some empathy.
And you can assume a child is autistic or you can realize that an autistic child is a child, first and foremost.