Drama about family, son with autism opens at Childrens’ Theatre of Charlotte

Jennifer Overton became a playwright 19 years ago, on the day she realized her son cried if she took a new route to the supermarket or heard her tear tinfoil from three rooms away.

She didn’t know she was a writer at the time. She still thought of herself as an actress and teacher, working on stage and in films made around Nova Scotia (including “Titanic,” which we’ll get to in a bit).

But as she and husband David educated themselves about Nicholas’ autism, she accumulated stories only she could tell. She began with “Snapshots of Autism: A Family Album” in 2003. That book became an autobiographical play, “God’s Middle Name,” four years later. The success of that piece led to “Spelling 2-5-5,” which gets its U.S. premiere Saturday at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.

To kids who see it, “Spelling” comes off as an atypical sibling rivalry between Simon, a 12-year-old with a penchant for spelling, and Jake, a 10-year-old with autism spectrum disorder whose talents are still being discovered. The play celebrates both and acknowledges the difficulties for each, as well as their time-juggling mom.

To Children’s Theatre, it’s a first chance to offer a sensory-friendly performance for kids on the autism spectrum. The March 30 matinee will have lower volume and consistent sound levels, low lighting that remains on, no startling effects, no attempts to keep patrons in seats or silent and a designated quiet room within the theater.

And to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, it’s a chance to enlighten administrators about a disorder expected to show up in more than 1 percent of the students. CMS principals will attend a performance and participate in a guided discussion after the April 4 show.

“ ‘Spelling 2-5-5’ allows the audience to see past Jake’s disability and focus on the unique abilities he possesses,” says Caroline Stewart, CMS’s program specialist for autism.

“Educators stress the importance of person-first language. We name the person first and the disability second, as the disability is but one characteristic that defines a person.

“I hope audience members leave with the understanding that every child with autism is unique and ... has the capability to achieve greatness.”

The title refers to Jake’s habit of spelling words out as numbers, according to the letters’ positions in the alphabet. Nicholas Overton did that, too.

“I’d hear this little voice from the back seat saying, ‘3-1-18 spells ‘car,’ ” his mom recalls. “At 2, he pointed to an eight-sided window and said, ‘Octagon.’ He read at 3 without any teaching. I wanted to test him and labeled everything in the house but put labels on the wrong things. He ran through the house reading everything, including ‘gramophone.’

“But he wasn’t talking yet. Well, he had echolalia, repeating what others said and reciting. His eye contact was not good. He wasn’t interested in being with other kids. I now realize it was painful and overwhelming for him (when) I thought I was being the perfect mom, organizing playdates and birthday parties. At Moms and Tots, he would run around the perimeter of the gym and lash out if kids came near him.”

Revamped view of the world

Overton already had a busy life, teaching acting at Dalhousie University in Halifax and performing. She stood in for 87-year-old Gloria Stuart during the filming of “Titanic,” and Overton’s hair can be viewed during rear shots. (Most memorable incident: Someone laced the caterer’s lobster chowder with PCP, sending much of the cast and crew to the hospital. “I was stoned for four days, and not in a good way,” she says, laughing. She got a play called “My Titanic” out of that, years later.)

She and David trained themselves to interact with an autistic youngster, and she decided to share her experiences.

“I half-seriously think we all have traits on the autism/Asperger spectrums,” she says. “I could walk into any university research department, look around and say ‘Asperger, Asperger, Asperger.’ I had teachers who were brilliant, but put them in a room with students, and they were terrorized.

“We all have little obsessions, difficulty with social interactions, narrow interests, inability to read other people’s emotions well. We can all identify with Jake’s challenges.”