Drama teacher brings personal experience with autism to one-act play“Nerdicus”


Drama teacher Bernie DeLeo (L) and Austin Morrison who co-stars in "Nerdicus (My Brother With Autism)” at West Springfield High School in Springfield, VA on March 6, 2014. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

When Bernie DeLeo’s drama students at West Springfield High School won a state title last spring with a one-act play about autism, DeLeo was honored and thrilled for his students. But it left him with a nagging feeling.

That play — Ariadne Blayde’s “The Other Room” — is about a high school boy and the voices battling inside his head. It is poignant and moving, DeLeo said, but it leaves audiences with the impression that to have autism is tragic. As the parent of someone with Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, DeLeo thought something was missing from the play.

“People loved it,” DeLeo said of “The Other Room,” adding that audiences were gasping and crying at the end of the play. “As a director, you love it when that happens. But by the same token, living with a son who is autistic, it left me with the feeling that this is not 100 percent accurate. My experience is that it can be rather funny to have a child with autism.”

So DeLeo, who has a master’s degree in playwriting, sat down last summer and wrote his own one-act play about a teen with the increasingly common disorder: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 88 children, and one in 54 boys, has autism. The result was “Nerdicus (My Brother With Autism),” which earned the school a trip back to the Virginia High School League state championships this month. It finished third in the state.

The play is largely autobiographical, based on DeLeo’s children Charlie, 20, who has Asperger’s, and Sophie, 18. When they were in high school at the same time, Charlie’s behavior, including saluting Sophie in the crowded hallways, often embarrassed his sister.

DeLeo didn’t tell his family he was working on the play until it was finished. He wasn’t sure how they — particularly Sophie — would react to seeing their lives on stage.

“I thought she could blow a gasket when she read this. That was my biggest fear,” DeLeo said. “And I thought, ‘if any of my family is upset with this, and this is revealing too much, I will pull the plug on it.’ But they weren’t. My daughter laughed and said, ‘Oh, my God, this is so true.’ She was laughing at certain lines that are kind of like family lore.”

DeLeo wrote the play mostly from Sophie’s point of view, and the action opens with one of those family-lore moments. When the lights go up, Eddie Miller is at the school bus stop in Roman armor, waving a fake sword while other students stare and snicker. Eddie’s sister, Rachel, played by junior Bonnie McClellan, 16, is mortified and desperately tries to get him to stop.

“The play is really her story,” DeLeo said. “When you have a sibling with autism, how does that non-disabled child cope, what is it like for them, especially when the disability is so flipping weird? My son knows he’s eccentric, and he revels in it. When they overlapped in high school for two years, that drove my daughter bananas.”

At the start of the 32-minute play, Rachel is embarrassed by her brother and frustrated with her parents for not understanding what it’s like to have to babysit for her older sibling at school. In addition to his bus stop antics, Eddie tells the boy Rachel has a crush on that she talks about him all the time. He also dreams of asking the hottest girl in school to the prom, to Rachel’s horror.

By the end of the play, though, Rachel is better able to take her brother’s idiosyncrasies in stride. He graduates from high school and, as Charlie DeLeo did, goes away to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

The play ends with the two Skyping regularly while Eddie is in college and with Rachel gaining a deeper understanding of what it’s like to have a disability. She sees a girl at the bus stop who, much like Charlie, is talking to herself. Rachel befriends the girl as the lights dim. Similarly, DeLeo said, Sophie, now a senior in high school, came to terms with her brother’s eccentricities and has mentored other students with disabilities.

“When she sees people treating kids with disabilities as if they can’t do things, she says, ‘No, let them do it,’ ” DeLeo said. “People would try to let Charlie off the hook because of his disability, but she would intervene and say, ‘No, he can do it. People with disabilities are capable human beings.’ It’s a good lesson that came out of them being in high school together.”

DeLeo cast Austin Morrison, 17, who has Asperger’s, as Eddie. Like Charlie DeLeo, Austin embraces his eccentricities, so the character is relatable for Austin, a senior at West Springfield.

“Let’s just say we’re both not normal,” he said, noting that he wrote a college essay about being atypical. “I sort of have a philosophy on life: If you’re weird, you’re not normal, and normal is boring. Basically, weird is the new normal.”

DeLeo said he was nervous about putting Austin at center stage, but the casting has worked. He said Austin is pretty much playing himself on stage (though Austin is quick to point out that he is not obsessed with Greek, Roman and Japanese history), and he’s glad he trusted his instincts and gave Austin the opportunity.

“That’s kind of the point of the play: If you give students on the spectrum a chance, they can do just as well as other students,” DeLeo said.

Mari-Jane Williams covers parenting and family issues for Local Living and schools for the Prince William and Loudoun Extras.
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