Olen documents acting with Asperger’s

LILY SANDS and HANNAH BUCHBAND

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When senior Connor Olen steps out onto the auditorium stage in front of the bright lights and eager crowd, he is transformed. He is no longer Connor Olen, but rather ‘Cheever’ in South’s production of “The Crucible” or ‘The Auditioner’ in “The Good Doctor.”

According to Olen, acting is a medium that allows him to show the day-to-day Connor and become a part of something greater than himself. However, off the stage, Olen is an ordinary senior at South with one minor difference: he has Asperger’s syndrome.

“[I was diagnosed with Asperger’s] when I was 11 years old,” Olen said. “It was my parents that figured it out. I didn’t even know the word, but I didn’t mind having a weakness as long as there were people to take care of me. Then I knew I would be okay.”

According to Olen’s mother, Mary Olen, acting has been a part of Connor’s life since the age of six and continues to be a huge aspect of his life today.

“[As] his parents, we just wanted him to have a chance to act; we didn’t care if he was the star of the play or just a participant,” Mary said.

According to Mary, Connor undoubtedly impacts the people around him through his insight, consideration for others and intelligence. One such person that Connor has impacted is junior Dahlia Maleh, whom he met through the Drama Department at South.

“[Connor has] impacted my life beyond words can explain,” Maleh said. “He claims he’s an introvert and sometimes is, but in reality he’s an extrovert. He needs to shine, but he puts a blanket over himself almost to stop [himself] from shining, and it’s such a shame because he is so awesome.”

According to Connor, he has sometimes been told that his Asperger’s hinders himself from establishing a strong connection with his co-stars and audience, preventing him from being cast in plays and musicals. In addition to struggling with acting, Asperger’s inhibits the social skills of those who have it.

“[Connor] could read before he was three years old and started reading chapter books before he started kindergarten,” Mary said. “He’s super smart. When you’re smart and you do things that other kids can’t do, you kind of get [discriminated against]. When you have a hard time making friends, all of a sudden it’s an island.”

According to Connor, this exact feeling of being left out gave him the idea to raise awareness about the harsh reality of dealing with Asperger’s by making a documentary film.

“It occurred to me that I was being discriminated against,” Connor said. “It [also] occurred to me [that] there [may be] others with the same problem.”

According to Connor, the title of his documentary, The Artistic Spectrum, was selected with a little inspiration, particularly from a scene in the movie Rain Man.

“In the movie, Dustin Hoffman [plays a man who] is autistic and somebody asks him if he is artistic,” Connor said. “I remember thinking that [was pretty accurate] because people on the autistic spectrum tend to have brains that work differently and struggle with things that a lot of people find simple. But also, we can be creative; we can think of things that a lot of people would not normally think of.”

For the last several months, Connor has been crafting his documentary, which includes interviews with other autistic kids and specialists from doctors to acting coaches. Transportation around the country to interview his subjects is provided by Connor’s mother and father, both of whom have experience in directing and producing.

“We wanted to support our kids, [especially] when Connor was feeling really down,” Mary said. “We just wanted Connor to do something positive […] and help other kids on the spectrum, too, because he knows how isolating it can feel.”

Connor’s outlook on the potential of the documentary has led him to dream about the possibilities of its success within the film industry. According to Connor, he hopes to share it at film festivals, schools and even have it up for an Oscar nomination.

“I know how the Oscar game is played and what it takes to be nominated,” Connor said. “I know there is the category of best documentary, and I think that if we work hard and campaign right, we have a chance to be nominated. If that happened, it would be huge. Imagine a student at [South] getting an Oscar nomination.”

According to Connor, he hopes to attend Flashpoint Academy in Chicago to pursue his passion for directing. Otherwise, he intends to go wherever the road takes him. No matter where he ends up, Maleh believes Connor’s future will be very bright and full of endless opportunities.

“I see him going so far,” Maleh explained. “Whether it be in acting, I don’t know, [as long as he’s] connecting with human beings. He’s going to be a star no matter what he does. I see him [surrounded] by great people.”

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