Several years ago (April 2015) my family went to the Dallas Children’s Theater to watch Balloonacy, a cute mime play about an old man who lives in an apartment by himself and is celebrating his birthday alone, when a balloon comes in through his open window and becomes his friend. The Dallas Children’s Theater has special showings of certain plays for children with sensory issues, and we have been going since their first such show. The sound is not as loud and the lighting contrast between the stage and the seats is not as sharp.
Although this was not our first play we attended at DCT, and although Balloonacy was not specifically written for children on the autism spectrum – it is a pretty standard mime play in the French style with light slapstick – I decided to write a little about this play because of Daniel’s reaction to the play, and because I think that this play is particularly good for children on the spectrum to see.
The story is about an old man who lives alone and is trying to eat a spaghetti dinner he warmed up in the microwave and to celebrate his birthday. A red balloon flies in through the window, and the old man tries to put it out – only to have the balloon return again and again. Finally, he slams the window shut, smashing his thumb – which causes him to put a band-aid on it. The balloon is magical – appearing out of the trash and out of boxes, including a birthday present left at the front door. The old man grows fond of the balloon when it appears out of the birthday present, and he begins interacting with it and playing with it. At one point he is playing with a fork, and he accidentally stabs the balloon. The balloon starts to lose air, and it slowly deflates. He puts the balloon in a box, puts the band-aid from his thumb onto the balloon, and the balloon reappears fully inflated. After more shenanigans, the old man tries to eat his birthday cupcake, and the balloon smashes it into the old man’s face – as the old man wipes off his face after putting the cupcake down on his seat, he sits on the cupcake. He gets angry at the balloon and throws it out the window, but quickly regrets doing so. He tries to show hearts out the window, then draws a big heart on a piece of newspaper, creates a paper airplane out of it, and flies it out the window. The balloon returns, and the balloon and the old man leave together. The play ends with the old man flying into the distant sky, holding the balloon.
One of the main attributes of autism is high orientation toward objects. Autistics are more comfortable interacting with objects than with people. They even relate, in a certain sense, to objects. I have used this knowledge to help socialize Daniel by making the Matchbox cars he’s obsessed with talk to each other. He’s then been able to transfer the emotions from the cars to people to a certain degree. Lately he’s started to demonstrate interest in getting things for his brother and/or sister when we go to the store, rather than just think about getting a car for himself. But he still prefers objects over people.
Balloonacy has two characters in it. The old man, and the balloon. Daniel identified with the balloon. He is also a fan of slapstick comedy (I have read that this is not uncommon for people on the spectrum), but there is little doubt he identified more with the balloon than the man. He was utterly delighted with the balloon and its antics (all children are, but not in the way Daniel does, identifying with the balloon – most children are delighted with the balloon the way the old man is). But then something interesting happened. The balloon popped. And Daniel began to cry. And the old man got upset. And Daniel began to cry a bit more, wiping tears away. Daniel was sad the balloon popped, and then when the old man was also sad, he saw the man feeling the way he did, and empathized with the old man.
While this may seem a normal thing to do – because, for a neurotypical person, it is – for Daniel this is major. Not only did Daniel feel sad for the balloon, which is something that we might in fact expect from him, but Daniel also felt sad that the old man felt sad. The feelings he had for the balloon was transferred to the old man. It was obvious from his body language and the ways he reacted to first the balloon and then the old man reacting to the balloon. Daniel hugged up on me to get some comfort when the old man was visibly upset, and had merely slumped in his seat when the balloon popped.
It seems to me that Balloonacy is a fantastic play for children on the spectrum precisely because of how Daniel reacted. There was an object the autistic children could relate to, and a person on whom they could transfer their feelings toward the object. This is empathy development, and people on the spectrum need a certain degree of empathy development. This play is a fantastic vehicle for this kind of transference and the redirection of the autistic child toward human emotional responses and interactions.