Despair and hope in raising an autistic child

The cast of Falling (standing, from far left) Adrian Pang, Andrew Marko (seated, from far left) Fiona Lim, Neo Swee Lin and Tan Kheng Hua.
The cast of Falling (standing, from far left) Adrian Pang, Andrew Marko (seated, from far left) Fiona Lim, Neo Swee Lin and Tan Kheng Hua.PHOTO: PANGDEMONIUM

This play gives a glimpse into the struggles that family members face and is an ode to unconditional love

With Falling, a play about a family weathering the challenges of caring for a family member with autism, Pangdemonium continues on its quest this season to plumb the depths of love.

Its first show this year, The Effect, explored the idea of love as a side effect of chemical activity in the brain.

But in Falling, love is hard work. It is commitment, sacrifice and long years of tending.

The show, based on a script by American playwright Deanna Jent, who has a son with autism, is at its core an ode to unconditional love and a tender attempt to shine the spotlight on autism and the caregivers who deal with it day in and day out.

Director Tracie Pang, 48, says: "Very often, a person with autism can really test the patience and endurance of caregivers. Falling demonstrates how a family can be pushed to the edge of despair and desperation.

"What happens in the play may make some people feel uncomfortable or even disturbed, but this is the reality for some families. What is most remarkable and very real is that this family in Falling, like so many real families in such situations, is soldiering on, with bruises but also with resilience, with tears but also with a sense of humour, and with pragmatism, but also with hope."

  • BOOK IT / FALLING

  • WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of Singapore Repertory Theatre, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: May 13 to June 5, 8pm (Tuesday to Friday), 3 and 8pm (Saturday), 3pm (Sunday)

    ADMISSION: $30 to $55 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)

Tami and Bill are doing their best to bring up their two teenagers. There is 16-year-old Lisa, caught in the grip of youthful angst. And 18-year-old Josh, who has autism and whose needs and routines have for so long governed the family's life.

Actor Adrian Pang, 50, who plays Bill, says the show is not a voyeuristic glimpse into autism. With the autism spectrum being so wide, no one person with autism can be representative of the condition.

The show is more a glimpse into the struggles that family members and caregivers face. It is, adds Pang, a tale of tough love, broken dreams and, ultimately, treasuring life.

"Most of us will never fully understand what these families go through to care for their loved ones with autism," he says.

"We hear accounts of members of the public reacting unsympathetically to someone they perceive as behaving abnormally and not even giving a thought that this person might have special needs.

"Falling makes us face up to this issue and takes us into someone else's world - someone who is mostly struggling in silence and who needs our support and empathy."

Actor Andrew Marko, 24, who plays Josh, says it is one of his most challenging roles so far.

Even before rehearsals started, he had already devoted months to research, poring over reading material on autism and scouring the Internet for videos of people with autism, to observe how they interacted with the environment.

"The nature of the role itself is very sensitive. At the end of the day, the play doesn't seek to, in any way, mock or ridicule a person with autism," he says. "Rather, it shows how our world, and the million things inside it that we are so used to, is often a very scary place for a person with autism."

The cast spent time meeting caregivers and families of people with autism, and worked with local autism associations including the St Andrew's Autism Centre.

The centre's chief executive officer Dennis Ang says while members of the public now want to learn more about autism, the level of understanding is still lacking.

The play can help raise awareness about autism in Singapore, he says.

He hopes audience members will get a greater understanding of autism and the toll it may take on families.

He says: "Autism is a life-long condition. People with autism, and their families, deserve our care, love and support. They are members of our community."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Despair and hope in raising an autistic child'. Print Edition | Subscribe