Normal Writers Note
I started writing this piece about 6 years ago. It’s been such a long time in the making that, when I’m asked, I struggle to answer why I wanted to write about it. This is not because I don’t remember why, but it’s almost like I don’t understand why that’s a question, as in, why wouldn’t you want to write about it?
The play looks in in an almost voyeuristic way at a relationship between two women; one being the mother of a young man named Gary, and the other being his girlfriend. As the play goes on it is slowly revealed that Gary has Autism Spectrum Disorder and his mother has a problem with his relationship with his girlfriend.
There is always a bit of tension and controversy surrounding this topic, in fact recently it was announced that the government will repeal a bill that makes it illegal for people with intellectual disabilities to have a sexual relationship, which must come as a huge relief to the wider community in Ireland.
This play however is not about those with Autism Spectrum Disorder having a relationship it is about us, as a society and how we deal with it ourselves. I suppose the play, in a way, attempts to challenge our own attitudes and perceptions to these thoughts. As with anything that attempts to shape public perceptions, visibility is key and an opening of a conversation is imperative.
I have worked with young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder on and off for about ten years, both as a teacher and a carer and I got the initial idea for the play late in 2011. I found it an uncomfortable idea but an interesting and valid debate which was an exercise that had been set for me on my masters course: a debate scene. It was originally only 4 pages long and got straight to the point but I decided it could potentially be a full length and decided to develop it further.
At the time I was teaching college level courses to “Gifted” young people. A lot of these kids had many disorders but all of whom, for the most part, seemed perfectly normal. It was more their parents that I found fascinating. This was because a lot of them seemed to have some need to label their children as something if they displayed any behaviour slightly out of the ordinary. Like there had to be a reason for it. I then encountered one woman at a parent teacher meeting. Her son had Autistic Spectrum Disorder and in this particular case, it may have been more noticeable than others. She brought him along to our parent teacher meeting despite being told not to and as I sat there giving them nothing but encouragement and praise she took it upon herself at every opportunity to explain to me how weird her son was and why he couldn’t do something or how he wouldn’t be able for something. It led to an extremely uncomfortable 30 minutes, I felt that I could not argue with this woman as even though he was my student, he was her son, her own flesh and blood. And while this meant I could not argue with her I also felt that I could not agree with her and even if I had wanted to I wouldn’t as her son, my student was sitting opposite me looking me in the face.
This experience baffled me and while I could not get over this woman I also couldn’t help but see the incredibly humane side to it too. She was not about to let some random young teacher talk at her for 30 minutes about her sons problems and challenges. She knew her son’s problems better than anyone else so as long as she said it first, she had ownership of it. It was a sad way to go about life but I kind of respected her because while I’d had a summer of teaching her son for 2 hours a day, 2 hours which were challenging but equally rewarding she had had an entire lifetime of it. She in no doubt loved her son but there was no point in denying he was challenging and I suppose in retrospect her actions at the parent teacher meeting were almost a deflection of what, for some reason, she might have felt what was her fault and that was sad that she could think so little of other people, that they wouldn’t see the wood from the trees or the autism spectrum disorder from the actions.
I went on to work full time with many schools as a learning support assistant and I worked with many different children with emotional problems, challenging behaviour and autism spectrum disorder. This eventually led to me teaching in a college dedicated solely to independent living courses for young adults aged 18–25 with severe and profound learning difficulties. As well as having emotional and behavioural issues, most of my students had little to no verbal communication and many of them also had mobility issues. I loved my job and I loved my students but similarly to one of my first jobs that I mentioned earlier I found myself in another difficult situation with one of my students mothers. My student was 23 years old, and suffered quite severely with both autism and OCD. This is a lethal combination. If brought out in public he was in need of 2 carers at all times. On numerous occasions in the past, his mother had had to call the police when his anxieties had become out of control and she feared for her safety in her own home. This is where things can get misconstrued. My student could be a danger to others if not taken care of properly and if his needs were not met but he is not a dangerous person. We all knew this working with him, and that as long as he was in the right environment with things that kept him calm and relaxed, he was fine.
His mother, despite having to endure many of these moments where he was not fine and deeply upset, had not reached the conclusions that my previous student’s mother had. She was determined and quite vocal that her son would read great works of literature, take up painting, get married and start a family. While encouragement is important in teaching, none of these things were reasonable goals that we could set out for our student but his mother could not let go of her dreams.
Similarly as before, this stilted me a little but I still came around to having a huge amount of respect for this woman. Her life had been inordinately difficult but she was not going to let that stop her one bit from holding on to all of these hopes that she had for her son as she had had for her other children.
Both of these women and their attitudes towards their situations stayed with me for some time. I truly felt for both of them despite finding some of their views and attitudes problematic to the situation at hand, which brought me to questioning my own attitudes towards my students and my job. Often, it is easier to be pragmatic when it is not your son, not your daughter, not your friend, and while our own human emotion can cloud certain judgments or calls that might need to be made it can also drive us forward to attain achievements that may previously have been deemed impossible.
This play is for these women