The play All in a Row has generated epic levels of outrage from autistic people, before it even came out. It’s another story about how haaaaard it is to have an autistic child. In this case, what pissed people off was the decision to cast the autistic child, and only the autistic child, as a puppet. This is dehumanizing, straightforwardly. Then the people involved started making nonsensical defenses of the puppet, basically making it worse and confirming suspicions about whose side they’re really on.
I figured #puppetgate was already widely known, so I didn’t need to write about it. But now that the play’s been released, it’s starting to get reviews, and I want to talk about the first one I saw.
Plenty of people didn’t want this show to happen. Protesters gathered outside the theatre on opening night and more than 12,000 people with autism have signed a petition, arguing that it is dehumanising to use a puppet to depict an autistic child. What a shame. I, for one, am grateful that playwright Alex Oates and the creative team had the guts and integrity to see this one through.
I didn’t realize that 12,000 autistic people complained about this play. It’s that bad.
“What a shame.” So basically…this person is shaming 12,000 autistic people because they’re tired of Autism Awareness media representations causing them to get shamed IRL. This is the attitude encouraged by the play:
But Miriam Gillinson, the reviewer, doesn’t see it. Instead, she praises the creators for having “the guts and integrity to see this one through,” as if normals cared what autistic people think and 12,000 of us asking for consideration mattered. Meanwhile, we have to deal with the stigma on a daily basis.
Oates has worked with autistic children and adults for more than 10 years. This isn’t a lazily conceived production. It’s the product of extensive experience: a lively, compassionate and darkly humorous show with the unmistakable ring of truth.
“Working with” autistic people in no way means that somebody understands autism. The whole point is that it’s different to be us than it is to be everyone else, and providers of the leading therapy explicitly don’t give a fuck about our inner experiences.
This is what we’ve complained about, again and again: why is it that one playwright, with fewer years of autism experience (10) than the age of the puppet character (11), automatically more credible than 12,000 autistic people? By the same argument, it’s fine if all the female characters in literature are written by men, because the authors have decades of experience around women.
The play unfolds on a pivotal night for husband and wife Martin and Tamora, and their 11-year-old son, a severely disabled and non-verbal autistic child. Someone has called social services and Laurence is heading to residential school. Just who made that call and was it in Laurence’s best interests?
Can we talk about how, at least in the United States, CPS is biased against poor people, and schools sometimes sic CPS on parents as a means of retaliation? Is the trauma of family separation worth it? Somehow I doubt the play explores these topics in depth. It’s more about how burdensome people with disabilities are.
There has been so much fuss about the puppet but – as with all good puppetry – it soon begins to feel human. Richly so. Designer Siân Kidd’s model is attached to puppeteer Hugh Purves’s waist, so while Laurence’s face is greyish with a neutral expression, his body is mobile. He fills the stage (lined with geometric patterns by designer PJ McEvoy) with his hums, moans, tics and chuckles. We watch him lose himself in Finding Nemo (again), carefully line up his cakes (again), hug and stroke his parents (again) and just occasionally lash out. At one point, Laurence’s mother emerges with a darkly bruised cheek. It’s a sign of the subtle depths of Dominic Shaw’s production that this biting scene brims with love.
What’s she trying to say with the repeated (again)s? That it’s funny for autistic people to behave stereotypically? Again, the whole point is that it’s different to be us than it is to be you. Much like yourselves, we do what makes sense for us, given our sensory environment (including interoception). If you were autistic, habits and repetition would feel better for you, and you’d act the same way. For me, eating the same thing all the time is just as obvious as wanting something new every day would be for someone else. That’s what autism is. Because of the way learning is novelty-dependent, and because autism might be associated with hyperexcitability, and because the resulting plasticity can saturate (i.e., the network overloads), keeping things the same is self-protective. If I’m dealing with a lot of noise, I don’t want to also be doing a bunch of stressful new shit. Eventually I’ll overload and melt down, feeling like shit until I sleep. “Intense world theory” describes autism, and autism is in fact related to epilepsy. It’s not just an analogy.
But it’s supposed to be funny that we do the same thing over and over. We’re so Other. It’s like…part of the disability consists of the fact that a basic physiological property of my cells is different. Sensory sensitivity and a preference for sameness follow from the same basic cellular property. This is because long-term potentiation, one of the most studied things in neuroscience, results from cellular excitation. If excitatory cells arranged in loops are more excitable, states of high excitation are possible (positive feedback), where an extreme of that is a seizure. Autism probably makes it easier for me to picture these processes in my head.
A consequence is that we physically can’t be normal for sustained periods. Too much is too much. This is why masking physically and mentally bad for us. This is why certain public places are too much, and best avoided.
So what she takes from the play is that I’m still an object of ridicule because liking sameness is annoying for normals and they don’t get it. The play failed at its stated purpose. And she really comes away with the message that autistic people are difficult and it’s, like, martyrdom for our parents to love us.
This is some bullshit.
And the grand finale:
Simon Lipkin bristles with a brooding comic energy as dad Martin, manically grappling for his punchlines. Charlie Brooks’s mother is a mesmerising bundle of moving contradictions: powerful, resourceful, loving and broken. As the two struggle to let their son go, Martin reassures his wife: “It’s OK to love somebody, and wonder what it would be like if they were someone else.” Martin has said what his wife needs to hear. She loves and hates him for it.
So yeah…we said we don’t like the puppet thing because it reminds us of horrible mistreatment of “changelings” in olden times. Compare the opening of Don’t Mourn For Us.
Parents often report that learning their child is autistic was the most traumatic thing that ever happened to them. Non-autistic people see autism as a great tragedy, and parents experience continuing disappointment and grief at all stages of the child’s and family’s life cycle.
But this grief does not stem from the child’s autism in itself. It is grief over the loss of the normal child the parents had hoped and expected to have. Parents’ attitudes and expectations, and the discrepancies between what parents expect of children at a particular age and their own child’s actual development, cause more stress and anguish than the practical complexities of life with an autistic person.
Some amount of grief is natural as parents adjust to the fact that an event and a relationship they’ve been looking forward to isn’t going to materialize. But this grief over a fantasized normal child needs to be separated from the parents’ perceptions of the child they do have: the autistic child who needs the support of adult caretakers and who can form very meaningful relationships with those caretakers if given the opportunity. Continuing focus on the child’s autism as a source of grief is damaging for both the parents and the child, and precludes the development of an accepting and authentic relationship between them. For their own sake and for the sake of their children, I urge parents to make radical changes in their perceptions of what autism means.
I invite you to look at our autism, and look at your grief, from our perspective
We’ve been saying this since 1993.
The play’s takeaway is LITERALLY (lol autism) the EXACT OPPOSITE of what autistic self-advocates want people to take away. It’s reasonable to be angry when someone casually harms your cause and expects you to thank them.
We told you 12,000 times!
Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the play or read the script. This is a review of the review. But the idea is for more people to go and see the play, primed with the interpretation in the review. This is a negative effect on public discourse, which is why we opposed it in the first place (lol theory of mind).
Because we’re different, people interact differently with us, so we learn different things about the social environment. Our acquired wisdom and common sense regarding our lebenswelt isn’t given the same benefit of the doubt that other people are getting. We’re good at noticing patterns.