STAFF OPINION: Taking off my mask

How theater has helped me embrace my autistic identity

By Sydney Gannon | April 17, 2023 12:11pm

Gannon in “Bends” with UP Theater. Photo by Ryan Reynolds. Courtesy of UP Theater.

I have been doing theater ever since I was in first grade. I still remember my three lines from my first play, “Charlotte’s Web,” and will recite them at the drop of a hat. When little me stepped onstage to face an audience full of parents and their cameras and was hit by the bright stage light, I knew that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. 

Since then I have immersed myself in the performing arts. I became what some, myself included, might call an “annoying theater kid.” Despite my “theater kid” status, my onstage and offstage personalities can be quite different.

Gannon in “Into the Woods” with CYT Santa Cruz. Courtesy of Sydney Gannon.

Onstage, I am expressive and eccentric. Offstage, I am more quiet and reserved. A question that I frequently get asked is, ‘How are you so shy? You’re able to perform onstage with no problem!’ To which I jokingly respond, ‘I’m an actor!’

People in my life tend to be surprised at how I can get up in front of an audience but struggle in social situations. For me, performing onstage is completely different from starting a simple conversation. When I’m under the bright lights I can become someone different. It’s a fulfilling experience, especially within the context of understanding my identity.

Gannon in “A Christmas Carol” with CYT Santa Cruz. Courtesy of Sydney Gannon.

In the past couple of years, I have struggled with my identity as an autistic person. I am dependent (maybe a little too much) on routines and I have difficulties with social interactions. This includes not knowing how to respond to people, not understanding when people are being genuine or joking, experiencing social burnout and getting over-excited about my special interests or hyperfixations, film and television. 

The hardest part is that I can’t tell which parts of my behavior stem from my autism and what comes from something else. Autism is traditionally associated with white cisgender men, so it’s harder for me to see how it manifests in myself.

Gannon in “The Last Train” with UP Theater. Photo by Ryan Reynolds. Courtesy of UP Theater.

Gannon in “Cinderella” with CYT Santa Cruz. Courtesy of Sydney Gannon.

Everyday, I mask my autistic traits. I hide them behind a neurotypical exterior to appear more “acceptable” and “normal” to the people around me. I attempt to make eye contact when I would rather not. I constantly over-apologize when I get too excited while talking about my special interests and I don’t know how to express to people when I’m feeling overstimulated and need to be left alone. It becomes exhausting and it feels like I can't be myself in public.

Theater has given me a place to be myself. Within the theater I have started to unmask and let my autistic traits come forward. I have found a community that supports me for who I am. I’ve found people who will listen to me when I talk about my hyperfixations instead of writing them off as childish, who I feel comfortable stimming around. In theater I have the space to embrace my autism.

April is Autism Acceptance Month, so I ask that this month, and for the rest of the year, you look at the neurodivergent people in your life and ask how you can create a world that is more accepting of them. Consider how you can reassure them that they are loved and accepted for who they are and give them the space to express their autistic joy. For me, that space is the theater.

Gannon in “Company” with UP theater. Photo by Andrew May. Courtesy of UP Theater.

So when people ask me how I struggle in social situations but can perform in front of an audience, my answer is, ‘I don’t know. It just feels right.’ 

Sydney Gannon is a reporter for The Beacon. They can be reached at

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