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Tan Kheng Hua (inset) stars in Falling as a mother struggling to cope with an autistic son, played by Andrew Marko.
ARTS

The weight of parenthood

Parenting an autistic child can be heartbreaking as award-winning play Falling shows.

HOW do you love a child that's hard to love? Pangdemonium's production of Deanna Jent's play Falling explores, in no uncertain terms, the exhausting role of being a parent to an autistic child.

Jent knows the subject well - she is the mother of a boy who suffers from autism. Much of the play borrows from her own life, especially the daily routines that take place in her household that concern the care of her son. The result is a sensitive, clear-eyed view of the frequent agony and infrequent ecstasy of being a parent.

Acclaimed director Tracie Pang says she and her actor-husband Adrian Pang came across the script and immediately knew they wanted to stage it: "It's written with so much compassion and heart, and also with such brutal and unfiltered honesty, that it moved us profoundly, and continues to move us and open our eyes even in rehearsals."

The play takes place in the home of Tami (Tan Kheng Hua) and Bill (Adrian Pang), who have a 16-year-old daughter Lisa (Fiona Lim) and an 18-year-old son Josh (Andrew Marko).

Josh is severely autistic. He has discomfiting habits such as pulling up his shirt or putting his hand into his pants. He gets upset by loud noises and arguments. But his family members love him and have devised various ways to help him and them cope.

Trouble begins when Grandma (Neo Swee Lin), a very religious woman, comes to stay. As she scrutinises Josh's behaviour and the family's coping mechanisms, her censure of the family's routines drives the family to collapse.

Tan, who plays the long-suffering mother Tami, doesn't have an autistic child. She says: "I am accessing the character of Tami first and foremost as a parent - the length, width and depth of a parent's love for her child; the sort of strength you access as a parent that you never knew you had; the choking obsession a great love for your child can sometimes compel you towards, and how this tips the balance with regard to other members of the family who need your love and support too.

"I am trying very hard to fathom the sort of day-to-day resilience and emotional control required of every single member of these families, and what it does to a person's view of life."

The Pangs, Tan and the rest of cast spent some time talking with caregivers and family members of people with autism. They also visited the St Andrew's Autism Centre to interact with people who fall into the developmental disorder spectrum.

Tracie Pang says: "Speaking with parents of children with autism, we were flabbergasted at how much they have had to give up, sacrifice and compromise for the sake of their children - from mundane daily activities to personal indulgences, to grander things like ambitions and aspirations. That is the reality for these marginalised and misunderstood families."

While Tan, Neo and Adrian Pang are seasoned actors whom theatregoers love watching, all eyes will be on Marko who plays the autistic son, Josh. The 24-year-old undergraduate of the National University of Singapore has appeared in mostly small theatre productions, and this is his highest-profile, hardest role to date.

Marko says: "An autistic person thinks so incredibly differently from the way a normal person thinks. An autistic person thinks in images, not in words. Also, because a person with autism is so sensitive to all kinds of stimuli, there is this constant need to distract themselves from the sometimes jarring sensory effects of the world around them ... It's been a challenge having to drop everything you know of yourself, go against your instincts and mould your thought process into that of an autistic person."

Falling plays at KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road, from May 13 to June 5. Tickets from Sistic