Interview With Krestin Radonovich, Ph.D Director of Child Neuropsychology

Written by Micah C. Beachy

Krestin Radonovich, PhD, works at WVU Medicine as the Director of Child Neuropsychology at the WVU Medicine Children’s Neurodevelopmental Center. Dr. Radonovich is a former pediatric neuropsychologist and visiting associate professor in the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh. She also has expertise in epilepsy and oncology. In one of our summer shows, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the main character, Christoper, fits the textbook definition of autism. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been praised for promoting acceptance of difference. Many in the autism community believe that the novel and the play helped spread awareness of autism spectrum disorders to more people. With that in mind, West Virginia Public Theatre called in an expert to help us portray Christopher authentically and learn more about the autism spectrum. Enjoy the interview below!

Interviewer: Hello Dr. Radonovich! It’s such a pleasure getting to speak with you today. We’re so excited about the work you’re doing with West Virginia Public Theatre this season. Can you tell our audience a little bit about yourself and how you came about your career path?

Dr. Radonovich: Yes, absolutely. I am a pediatric neuropsychologist by training. What that means is that I study brain development in kids. I work both clinically doing assessments of children with a variety of learning challenges, and I do some research on the relationship between movement and cognition throughout development. I got really interested in autism and started working in autism…gosh, over 20 years ago. I had this interest in working with children in a neuropsychology clinic, and pretty quickly I learned that the number one referral to me was language delay. So that’s how I started to get more specific training in autism, and then over the years, I kind of developed an expertise in that area.

Interviewer: That’s wonderful and have you always been West Virginia-based?

Dr. Radonovich: I’ve been all over the place. I grew up in Northern Minnesota, lived in Vermont for a while, then did graduate school at the University of Florida. Then I continued my training at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, returned to Florida for many years, where I was on faculty at the University of Florida, and then moved to Pittsburgh about six years ago. I moved to Morgantown almost a year ago.

Interviewer: Wow. You’ve been all over the place with your studies! That’s wonderful. As somebody who is relatively new to the Morgantown area, how did you get involved with this project with West Virginia Public Theatre?

Dr. Radonovich: Well I have a teenage daughter who is very interested in theatre and had auditioned for Jerry McGonigle for another show. So I met him through her, and he started talking about this production. Then it came out that this is the population I work with throughout my work and he asked if I would be willing to consult and help them out on the authentic portrayal of each of the characters.

Interviewer: Do you feel that this piece helps people understand individuals on the autism spectrum better?

Dr. Radonovich: I think it definitely does, although I always hesitate because individuals with autism have such a broad range of skills and abilities that it’s hard to say that any one portrayal would accurately capture all of autism. In fact, they never say autism in the play…They never say that’s what he has. The author actually never really said that, either. They present Christopher as a mathematical genius with some sensory and social challenges that affect how he interacts with the world. I think given his profile, it is likely that autism is an appropriate label for his abilities. And I think that’s why productions really kind of start with that in mind. The challenge in telling this story is that sometimes people can get more caught up in the label and what a person with autism should look like or what they would be doing. Because of that, Christopher can sometimes become a caricature of an individual with autism. In my work with the actors and director we’ve talked about being mindful of that and not going overboard with some of the mannerisms or interaction styles.

Interviewer: Would you mind elaborating on that for our audience – how you’re making it less of a caricature and more authentic?

Dr. Radonovich: What we try to talk about is how Christopher and those who interact with him might be feeling at any given moment and then let that drive what the behaviors might look like. Is he feeling overwhelmed? Is he feeling anxious? Is he feeling scared? There are times when we talk about how he would be feeling proud, or confident. And so starting with those questions, how would this character be feeling at this moment? And then how does that get portrayed through the body and communication?

Interviewer: Lovely, that is really exciting and important work. Let’s talk about relationships a little bit – looking at some of the relationships between characters in the play. One of the big themes in this play is Christopher’s aversion to touch. Do you feel that makes it hard for his parents and people around him to relate to him? In your experience, how do you feel like that impacts the story we’re getting?

Dr. Radonovich: The aversion to touch comes up a lot in the storytelling. I think the most striking relationship that it has affected is his relationship with his mother. Lots of times when families come to me with a young child, wondering if they have autism, the mom says something like, “I just always felt like something wasn’t right”, and what we’ve started to learn through the research is that there’s this body-based social interaction, a bonding experience between parent and child which is very physical and very much involves touch. What the research shows is that infants who go on to be diagnosed with autism, don’t have what we call anticipatory posturing. So what that means is as you go to pick up an infant, they start to curve around you and do things with their body that anticipate touch in a good way, and infants with autism don’t do that. It’s a subtle thing, right? They don’t respond to touch in the same way as other infants. They often prefer to just be left alone to sit in their swing or sit and do something and mom can articulate that something’s wrong. You can sometimes get the message: “baby doesn’t like me”, but it’s really hard to put words to that. So much of our communication comes through our body and touch is a big way we show affection as humans, so not being able to show affection and receive affection in that way is really challenging and then you have to think about how do I show that? There is a movement that they come to that involves a very specific type of touch as a way of connection between Christopher and his parents.

Interviewer: Yes definitely – our wonderful audience will have to go see the show to see what the movement entails! Moving on to another form of relationship, how would you comment on how Christopher’s dad deals with Christopher’s behaviors?

Dr. Radonovich: We talk about how and there’s a line in the play where dad says something is effective: “You and me we’re alike in some ways”, and you often see that. Where a parent or sibling might not be fully diagnosed with autism but they might have some of the features of it. Dad seems a little more standoffish. He’s a little less emotive than mom is for sure and mom talks about how dad doesn’t seem as bothered by Christopher’s behavior. He just takes it all in stride but he does have this build-up of emotion that comes out eventually. It might not be that he’s just fine and not experiencing it after all. It might be bottled up in a different way, so while he appears maybe more patient there is a lot going on beneath the surface.

Interviewer: That brings me to my last question on relationships. How would you say that Christopher’s behavior affects his parents’ relationship with one another? Do you see that a lot in your line of work as well?

Dr. Radonovich: Yeah. Unfortunately, it can be really challenging. For parents who have a child with challenges, of any sort. They often report that most of their fights as parents are about how to parent this child. Maybe they disagree on how to approach the child. Certainly, we get the sense from mom that she is missing out on this love connection as she experiences love with Christopher and that dad, who we know is somewhat like Christopher, gets to be too much at times. She isn’t experiencing love and affection in the way that she would like to experience it. We don’t want to give away the story but Christopher’s autism definitely affects his parents’ relationship, and his mom seeks what is missing in other ways.

Interviewer: Definitely. Thank you for that. Do you feel that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a fair representation of the autism spectrum? Of course, they never deliberately come out and say it, but how do you feel about its portrayal as a whole?

Dr. Radonovich: I think it does the best that any one character and storyline can. You’ll certainly have individuals who don’t identify with Christopher and his challenges, but I think on the whole, the story really tries to give the audience an experience of what it’s like being in Christopher’s brain. We talked about that a lot in the production, how the movement, the lights, the sounds, the different aspects, give the audience just a little taste of what it might be like to live in Christopher’s world so there are authentic actions and emotions that come from that discovery process.

Interviewer: Thank you. What do you want the audience to walk away feeling about this production?

Dr. Radonovich: I hope they’ll have a better understanding of the challenges that this population faces. A lot of the interactions in the play are between Christopher and strangers. We talk about how a stranger would respond to him and perceive him as off putting. They might be confused or angry by his behavior, and so for the audience to get just a little bit more understanding so the next time they encounter someone with challenges, they might pause and think and have some perspective like “what might the other person be experiencing?”, and “how can I respond differently to make this a better interaction?”.

Interviewer: After doing this, has this broadened your interest in the possibility of working with theatre?

Dr. Radonovich: Oh, definitely. When they first asked me, I kind of thought, “how much can I help them?” but as I’ve worked with Jerry and the cast, they have been very excited about the information that I can bring to the story and it’s just been really fun and it’s a different way to use my knowledge and experience in new and exciting ways.

Interviewer: That is really exciting. Thank you so much for answering my questions and for taking the time to chat with me today!

Dr. Radonovich: Thank you, Micah! Tell everyone to come see the show – it’s really, really good!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time takes place June 10-12. Click here to buy tickets! For updates on all things happening at WV Public Theatre, follow us on social media platforms @wvpublictheatre.

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