I recently attended a staging of Peter Schafer’s 1973 play “Equus,” and one thing that struck me was the lack of a clear diagnosis for Alan. In fact, Schafer went out of his way NOT to offer any clear solutions to Alan’s case. The critics immediately jumped to this being an allegory on homosexuality. Possibly, but I also think it is possible that Alan suffered from a moderate form of Autism (which wasn’t understood – even in psychiatry – until 20 years after this play after written).
Inability to communicate with people – particularly when under stress which leads to inappropriate social behavior such as singing familiar songs (in his case radio jingles) particularly when faced with a situation in which he has no idea what to say\do (such as a cross-examination in court). The behavior is inappropriate in context, but the court could understand the words being sung.
Inability to express emotions in appropriate or healthy ways – this is related to the above as poor communication skills can be extremely frustrating, and the equal lack of communicating feelings is often perceived as a lack of them. Not that anyone actually cares how people with Autism feel, they are emotionless robots incapable of any human emotion and are often hurt for proving this painful stereotype wrong. In Alan’s case, the horses are.
He is extremely bright and is determined to make others see him as such – this is may be why he taunts the doctor when he discovers the tricks Dysart used against him. This is often played as arrogance on stage, but the show I went to got it right – playing Alan as both a rebellious teenager trying to act cool and a scared little boy trying to prove that he’s smart.
Obsession with some topics with a complete lack of interest in others – Alan is obsessed with horses and extensions thereof (like cowboys and westerns), but shows little interest in movies (other than westerns), electronics (he has no idea what a tape recorder is) or even sex (Jill comes onto him pretty strongly before he reluctantly agrees to fuck her).
He is hypersensitive (to noise) – this is one of the key symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders, and is demonstrated throughout the play – particularly in the scene with him in the hardware store where he is shown struggling to deal with the noise of the store as well as the demands of his customers. His hypersensitivity is what causes his impotence with Jill (as he was startled by the neighing of a horse in a nearby stall)
His affinity with horses – he cannot communicate well with people, but he is described as being a “natural” with horses, spending hours brushing and grooming the animals in the stables. Equine therapy had been around for several years when this play was written (the concept of Hippotherapy was around in ancient Greece, but not seriously studied until the 1960s).
Also, “horses are natural,” Alan says: they don’t hurt you (his mom slaps him at one point in the play) or put on airs (like being in an adult theater for “marketing reasons”) nor do they enforce their religious beliefs or non-beliefs on him (though it is Equus himself who supposedly interrupts Jill and Alan’s climactic sex romp for desecrating his temple).
Ability to perform tasks he has never been trained to do – he is stated to be able to ride horses, despite no formal training in that regard. This is a classic trait of Asperger’s Syndrome as they think asking how to do something makes them look “dumber” (note the “-er” – people with Autism know full well how they are perceived by the public) so they will learn a desired skill on their own to make themselves look smarter.
His use of violence to solve perceived problems – this is more media sensationalism than anything else, but aggression is often the only outlet children with autism have as they can often neither speak nor act in ways normal people understand (which is why they repeat phrases they know will be understood, even if they seem inappropriate in context).
I personally don’t think it belongs on this list, but others do. It should also be noted (as Dysart does in the play) that Alan attacks – but doesn’t kill – the horses not Jill nor other any persons in the ward, the hardware shop or the stables who were shown as being mean to him.
Alan’s problems are ultimately blamed on bad parenting – this is a psychiatric stereotype that even Alan’s parents call Dysart on, but Schafer goes out of his way to drive the point home anyway. This is still a common misperception made by the general public that Autism is simply the result of “poor parenting.”
Of course, it should be noted that his mother is portrayed as being icy, a common theory on autistic behavior in the early 50s-60s (interestingly enough, his mother blames television for her son’s behavior, another popular explanation for Autistic behavior in the early 70s).
Dysart claims that there is nothing really “wrong” with Alan – this one I sort of agree with. This play is about the passion Alan has towards life, love and sexuality, and Dysart states that his continued treatment of Alan would likely kill these very qualities. This is currently a relatively popular belief in the Autistic community.
However, the sad fact is at 17 there really isn’t much that can be done for him as programs for adults with Autism aren’t offered in most areas (children yes, because it is easier for donors to sympathize with a precocious six year old than with an “uncanny” adult). Pennsylvania has a statewide program for individuals with milder symptoms, but comprehensive care is only offered in four counties (Dauphin, York, Chester and Lancaster).
Now can I say for certain that this is what Alan has? No, particularly since the direct cause of Alan’s episode was a delusion of grandeur ruined by an untimely vision of his now former god Equus. Auditory and visual Hallucinations aren’t generally considered one of the hallmarks of Autism, but it is not uncommon to find Autism overlapping with other disorders (which are often diagnosed first).