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On My Journey As An Autistic Individual

By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" - Blog Series Vol. 3, Slice #3

On Wednesday November 24, 2021, I went downtown to the Merriam Theater and saw my first Broadway Musical since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The show is called Anastasia the Musical, which is a musical inspired by the 1997 animated movie titled Anastasia from Twentieth Century Fox Motion Pictures. Aside from loving the production from beginning to end, the musical Anastasia resonates with me in special allegorical ways…as an autistic individual. The reason why it resonates with me as an autistic individual is not because of any character in the show, but rather because of the journey itself that the main character Anya goes on to self-discover herself as the long-lost Anastasia, in which elements of that story relate to me and my self-discovery journey to autism.

In the beginning of act one after the song ARumor in St. Petersburg, Anya meets Dmitry and Vlad at an abandoned palace theater where Vlad asks Anya, “What’s your name, dear?” Anya’s response is, “I don’t know.” In a symbolic way, this resonates with me because as a child growing up people would ask me why I was also so quiet and by myself. All I could say to them was, “I don’t know, I’m just shy.” I’ll never forget one summer years ago, when my brother and I went to a family member’s house for a barbecue and at night my brother was playing volleyball with some kids next door. I was sitting by myself watching them play together, and when my brother noticed me, he went over to check on me. The next day, he asked me why I was sitting alone by myself looking sad. At the time, all I could say at the time was that I was thinking about my grandpa who passed away when I was very little, but the truth was…I just didn’t know. I didn’t know why I was sitting alone by myself looking sad like that, other than the fact that I was just shy of meeting new people. When Anya sings her first solo In My Dreams, there is a lyric that Anya sings towards the end that goes, “You don’t know what it’s like, not to know who you are! To have lived in the shadows and traveled this far.” This lyric relates to me because for so much of my life, I didn’t understand myself as an individual and why my social ability was always complicated. I didn’t understand why I didn’t smile as much as others, why it was difficult for me to have long conversations with others, why it was difficult for me to keep up with friendships outside of school, and why it was always socially complicated being me. For a clinically undiagnosed autistic like myself, it can be challenging to grow up not knowing who you are or why you are the way you are, and it can be frustrating as well as depressing to not have any immediate answers. People who are neurotypical don’t know what it’s like for neurodivergent people like me to grow up not understanding ourselves for why we are the way we are. They don’t understand how it feels to grow up being different from everyone else, and not know the reason for it, and they don’t know what it’s like to grow up having people not understand why you’re always quiet, why you never smile, why you’re always by yourself, why you talk to yourself, and so many other things.

Then there’s the song Learn to Do It, where Vlad and Dmitry teach Anya about herself as Anastasia and in the beginning of the song, they tell Anya about her childhood memories as Anastasia. The song lyrics go as follows, “You were born in a palace by the sea. A palace by the sea. Could it be? Yes, it’s so. You rode horseback when you were only three. Horseback riding? Me? Horses name? Romeo.” Lyrics like that resonated with me because ever since my self-diagnosis and especially now since I’ve been a blogger for Verge of Independence Project: Multimedia Autism Advocacy, I’ve asked my mom a lot about what she remembers about me as a child, and she was able to tell me some interesting information about myself. She told me that when I was a baby, she tried to play with me and get me to laugh, but I just wouldn’t smile, laugh, or play with her. Hearing that information was important for me to know as an autistic individual because when you are an adult who just discovered yourself to be autistic, it’s important for you to know this information so it can give you a framework idea about how obvious the traits always were for autism.

There is also the song Dmitry sings called My Petersburg, where he sings about his childhood experiences in Russia. When he sings the lyrics, “I grew up on the sly, in the gutters and the streets of Petersburg.” It related to me a lot because it made me reflect on my childhood experiences. For twelve years of my childhood, I spent them growing up in Southern Philadelphia. Back then, there were beaten down rusty houses with trash in the streets and it was also loud at times. When the song is over, Anya sings her next solo, Once Upon a December, where Anya sings the lyrics, “Figures dancing gracefully, across my memory…”. This lyric relates to me because my memory is not the strongest, but I try hard to recollect memories of my life as an autistic child/teenager and the memories I am able to obtain, I’ve written them in previous blog posts. Anya has no memory at all, but she too tries hard to remember her past as a child/teenager as well.

Then there is the song that happens towards the end of act one called Stay, I Pray You, where Anya, Dmitry, and Vlad leave Russia with other Russians, and this resonates with me because in 2008, I moved from South Philadelphia to North Philadelphia, and it was a big change for me to adapt to because I spent twelve years of my life in one area of Philadelphia. It wasn’t perfect, but I was raised in that area and saying goodbye to it was an emotional time for me. These feelings are reflected in the song lyrics that Anya and Dmitry sing which goes, “Never to return, finally breaking free. You are all I know you have raised me.” Then, towards the end of act two, Anya finally meets with the Dowager Empress in Paris. After a moment of talking and reflecting, Anya has her a-ha moment when she self-discovers herself to be the long-lost Anastasia Romanov. This resonates with me the strongest because after nine years of living in North Philadelphia, my a-ha moment came in the summer of 2017 when I looked up the symptoms of autism and noticed that many of the symptoms such as poor eye content, delayed in speech, flat tone/facial expressions, lack of understanding social cues, and more resonated with autism. Then when I was looking through a Psychoeducational Evaluation Confidential Report that took place back in 2009, I noticed other traits of mine that resonated with autism for me such as social intimidation, withdrawn isolative nature, delayed receptive language, and not engaging in play with peers. This was the moment that I self-discovered myself as autistic.

Finally, one of the last few scenes has Anya and Gleb at conflict with one another, and when Gleb asks Anya the question, “For the last time. Who are you?” Anya comes forward and states, “I am the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov.” For me, having Anya come out and express her identity symbolizes me coming out and expressing what I am as well. Telling my mom and other family members that I’m autistic was a very positive experience for me because they were accepting of me, and they are proud of the work I do as a blogger for the Verge of Independence Project.

In conclusion, live musical theater as well as other forms of entertainment can be a powerful thing when it comes to finding something that you can connect and relate to. It’s a common thing to connect with something and not understand why, and with Anastasia the musical I was able to connect with it deeply, yet I didn’t know why. I thought it was just simply because of the magical beauty of the show itself, but it was this year that I realized that this musical has a personal connection with me as an autistic individual. As an autism community, it’s a wonderful thing to have something that resonates with you and your personal autism journey. It makes you better appreciate the work itself, and it makes you better understand and appreciate yourself as well.

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