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'Next to Neurotypical?': Playwrights set Asperger's to music at Fringe Festival

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When Adam Rosen was growing up in St. Louis, he spent a lot of time in support groups. Not for Asperger’s but as a gay teenager. The Asperger’s identity came much later, providing clarity about his other difference: an obsession with composing music.

Out of his intense focus has come a number of original works including “Asperger’s: A High-Functioning Musical.” Rosen and his father, Dean Rosen, created “Asperger’s” together, using music and humor to bring visibility to an often invisible, but growing population.

In that mission, their play joins other musicals as new as the 2009 Tony Award-winning “Next to Normal,” which explores mental illness, and as old as 1975’s “A Chorus Line.”

“Asperger’s,” directed by Ed Reggi, will debut at this year’s St. Lou Fringe Festival, with three performances at the Kranzberg Arts Center June 21-23. The setting is an Asperger’s support group. Its members include a composer (loosely based on Adam Rosen), a gamer geek and an apprehensive, newly diagnosed "Aspie," as members of this community sometimes label themselves. Those with no diagnosis on the autism scale are sometimes called “neurotypicals.”

The support group begins as so many do: with refreshments. One member asks another, “Why did you just take the center of that cinnamon bun?” His answer: “Because that’s the best part,” illustrating both his brutal honesty and lagging social skills.

“We don’t want to make light of Asperger’s or autism by any means,” Adam Rosen said. “But when you can laugh at yourself, it doesn’t matter what anyone else says about you.”

‘Pain and possibility’

For Adam Rosen, the creative process is all-consuming. He calls his focus “zoning in," not "tuning out.”

“When I compose music, I do not eat, I do not take phone calls, I do not do the normal things that people do,” Rosen said. “People with Asperger’s sometimes zone in on their obsession as a way of self-soothing that doesn’t require drugs.”

Rosen sees the ability to concentrate so intently as a gift of Asperger's. Other aspects of the condition aren’t as welcome.

Some of Rosen's song lyrics, including, “You know that you don’t belong when every freaking thing you do is wrong” echo the pain of his own elementary and middle-school years, and the double whammy of being a gay kid with awkward social skills.

But at Parkway North High School in the mid 1990s, Rosen, now 34, found his voice and became an “out” gay activist. He also found the musicals that helped him cope.

“‘A Chorus Line’ introduced me to the concept of musical theater as full of possibility, a way of talking about a group of people who were misunderstood in society,” Rosen said. 

Specific focus, universal themes

Like “A Chorus Line,” “Asperger’s: A High-Functioning Musical” focuses on a specific group but includes universal themes, according to Dean Rosen, a psychologist of 35 years.

“Forming a positive identity when you’ve been stigmatized, leaving the pain of childhood behind, facing the uncertainties of adulthood -- everybody faces these things,” Dean Rosen said.

Awareness of autism and Asperger’s has skyrocketed in recent years. But the Rosens wrote their play back in 2007. It sat on the shelf until The Fringe -- with its lottery selection system -- seemed the perfect opportunity to present their collaboration.

In the audience for the musical’s debut will be 20 teenagers with Asperger’s and high-functioning autism from a local support agency called Life Skills. From what Life Skills facilitator Michela Brewer has heard, the play offers an opportunity for those on and off the autism scale.

“It’s a great way to explain as well as to educate individuals,” Brewer said. “And for our kiddos, it’s a way to realize they’re not the only ones that have these difficulties.”

Those kinds of "aha moments" are exactly what the Rosens hope to provide to teens and young adults who are negotiating relationships, keen interests and career paths. After further tweaking, they hope to present “Asperger’s” to more audiences this fall.

“We want to inspire and empower young adults on the autism spectrum,” Adam Rosen said. “We want them to know there is a place for them in society.”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.