An autistic child, an actor's compassion

Story highlights

  • Linda Davis: Children with autism and parents of those children should be met with empathy, not anger
  • "King and I" understudy Kelvin Loh's post on social media defended an autistic child's outlash at a performance

Editor's note: Linda H. Davis is the author of three biographies, including "Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life." Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Ozy, Granta, The New Yorker, and other publications. The mother of two, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband and their son.

(CNN)In the second act of the "family friendly" adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, "The King and I," currently enjoying a revival on Broadway, the King of Siam prepares to whip a young female slave who has defied him by running away with her lover.

As the lovely girl lies limp on the stage, close to the footlights, Anna Leonowens, the English tutor hired by the king to teach his enormous brood of children, implores him not to strike.
Linda H. Davis
"She's just a child," says Anna. They shout at each other; the king stomps. It is all "extremely loud and incredibly close," to borrow from Jonathan Safran Foer.
    Even viewed in a letter-sized window on an iPad, the scene is frightening. Determined to prove his fierce masculinity, the king seizes a leather whip, tears off his tunic, and hovers over the girl, crying out like a wild thing -- all at a great clip, happening within seconds -- only to drop the whip and flee.
    Last week, during a matinee performance, an autistic child in the audience could not restrain himself: he "yelped," in the words of actor Kelvin Moon Loh, outraging the audience. A man shouted "Get rid of the kid!" Another member of the audience asked the mother, "Why would you bring a child like that to the theater?"
    Why, indeed?
    My son, Randy, is 29 now -- such a sweet, self-contained man with autism, it is increasingly hard to locate the screaming, tantruming boy he used to be. It has been decades since I worried about Randy erupting in public, though it happened plenty of times in his first years, usually in restaurants. And on his first flight on a commercial airliner, when his ears were popping.
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    We took him to the movies. At age 13, Randy was agitated by the scarabs swarming over and devouring humans in the 1999 movie version of "The Mummy" -- making me ashamed for not thoroughly vetting the movie. "No bugs! No bugs!" he said in his low voice. And when he was 8, by which time he was taking therapeutic horseback riding lessons, he watched, almost breathless, as Brad Pitt's character broke a wild horse. "Oh! Fall down. Hurt. Need a Band-Aid," went the stream of comments.
    The boy with autism at "The King and I" is far more typical of children on the spectrum. And yet his reaction -- which surely had something to do with the thundering voices on stage (many people with autism suffer from acute sensory sensitivities), is appropriate. His very human response was -- understandably -- lost on the angry ticket-holders, who had paid anywhere from $100 to upwards of $400 (before taxes and extra charges) for their seats.
    Untypical was the boy's inability to silence himself. He and his mother finally left, and the show went on.
    Afterward, in a Facebook post, the actor Loh gave an impassioned defense of the child who spoiled a play about a spoiled, rigid, and somewhat autistic-like king, to whom the modern world and the rearing of children is "a puzzlement."
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    Writing with the empathy of someone who has walked in her shoes -- though perhaps he has not -- Loh defended the mother's right to bring her child to the show, and even took the audience to task. On Loh's Facebook page, which has 6,533 followers and has been "shared more than 8,000 times," he added that the boy "was pleading to stay...and didn't understand why he had to leave." Loh also wrote that "not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row--seemingly not autistic--screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then."
    As someone who also loves a Broadway show and rarely gets to see one anymore, I understand the audience's anger. At an August performance of "Wicked" in New York, to which I took my 11-year-old niece, Jill, I too found myself upset by various disturbances in the audience: loud commentary, crackling cellophane, and obstructing cell phones held high to film the performance-- all against theater rules, announced before the curtain rose.
    The people marring my pleasure had no visible disabilities, but they did suffer from a pervasive one, called "rudeness."
    Before Randy, I was far less patient with other people's children. But my special child, through whose eyes everything is new, made me tolerant. So "Hello, young lovers, wherever you are; I hope your troubles are few." I know it's a puzzlement that someone would take a noisy child to a Broadway play.
    But people with autism are here to stay -- as are the war veterans with PTSD, the people with mental illnesses, anxiety disorders, and those having a bad day. As someone explains to Anna, the King "will not always say what you would have him say. But now and then he'll do something wonderful."
    So could you.