Puppeteering Autism: What We (Still) Get Wrong in Representations of Neurodiversity
This week a new theatre production opens in Southwark Playhouse called All in a Row which takes autism as its subject matter. A trailer for the show has been doing the rounds and has whipped up something of a Twitterstorm among autistic tweeters and bloggers (see #puppetgate). All in a Row is a family drama about a minimally verbal autistic boy and his family on the eve of his relocation to an institution and, therefore, is about how his white, middle-class, heteronormative (a little hint there of where this is going) parents are dealing with this imminent change. Not well, would be my guess, because apparently the only stories we can tell about autism are about its inherent difficulty and disruption, with occasional sprinklings of heart-warming humour to make it all sweet enough to swallow. So far so cliched, but the real sticking point for autistic critics is the use of a puppet to depict the autistic character Laurence, while all the other characters are played by actual actors.
In the trailer there is a genuinely earnest suggestion that by creating a puppet for this role the dramatists are able to keep a respectful and sensitive distance from the reality of autism, which is a remarkable take in its own right. They say they didn’t want to cast an allistic (non-autistic) actor in the role, which in itself is certainly a positive step forward, but they also felt it wouldn’t be right to cast an autistic actor either. It seems they felt they would have needed an autistic actor with the same ‘level’ of autism as the character (minimally verbal, high support needs) and could not conceive that an autistic actor might be able to understand, rehearse and embody the necessary characteristics. You know, that thing we call acting.
Instead, after their initial step forward, the makers of All in a Row have taken two rather gigantic steps back. Laurence is a marionette strapped to the waist of a puppeteer, complete with dead eyes, a peculiarly death-like grey tone to his ‘skin’ and strands of hair that look like they’ve come from the backstage mop. Puppetry has a long, glorious and fascinating history, a legitimate art form in its own right with a lot to offer which is still enjoying a revival thanks to shows like War Horse and the street theatre of Royal de Luxe. The use of puppets to explore autism is not a bad idea taken in isolation and many commentators have cited Julia the Muppet from Sesame Street as one such positive example. And it’s certainly not unusual to find an element of the grotesque and unsettling in even the most aesthetically pleasing of puppets if you stare at them long enough. But the real issue is not necessarily what Laurence looks like (although he has always been particularly ghastly), nor that he is autistic; it’s the fact that he is an actual non-human among a world of humans and that this doesn’t seem to be the locus of the story. As one cursory glance at the writings of autistic activists will attest, autism has a long history of being emphatically robbed of its claims on humanity and has frequently had very little say in the matter.
Autism and the Other
As Erin Ekins (@QueerlyAutistic) has noted in her excellent thread, the offence taken in response to the All in a Row trailer ‘is about serious generation trauma’. She refers here to the insidious rhetoric of Othering that autism ‘authorities’ have used historically when talking autistic people (usually children). The most infamous usage, as Ekins shows, comes from Ivar Lovaas — the founding father of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), which is a horrendous ‘dog training’ form of autism ‘therapy’ still widely used in America. Lovaas said of autistic people: “You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person.” He might have said the same about Laurence the puppet.
Autism as an identity is founded — some might say haunted — upon this idea of being fundamentally less than human. This spectre arises all the time in the casual ways we talk about an autistic person: their brains are ‘wired differently’, they are off in their ‘own world’, they’re like ‘aliens from another planet.’ These casual turns of phrase haven’t just been spirited up from nowhere, they’ve been actively endorsed by the rhetoric of medical authorities, and have been used as justification for all things that are done to the autistic — everything from social exclusion to electric shock treatments and beyond. So, the reaction against the casting of a puppet is not, as the makers of All in a Row might hope, a misunderstanding of the artistry of theatre, but is an active summoning of a deeply felt trauma of dehumanisation.
Now, the association of autism with the sci-fi/fantasy Other is not devoid of potential: in fact there are many instances where autistic individuals have embraced the narrative power that such a position can create. Autistic writer Star Ford has written A Field Guide to Earthlings, which deliberately Otherizes the neurotypical, artist Haydn Gardner (aka Messy Miscreation) explores his autistic identity through gloriously colourful monsters, and the title of autistic-run forum The Wrong Planet speaks for itself. It’s also true to say that autistic people have found productive identification with alien/robot characters such as Spock, The Doctor, Drax the Destroyer, and Data. In truth, the very fact that this rhetoric of Othering has been persistently been linked with autism gives it enormous narrative gravitas, if handled correctly.
But the creators of All in a Row are betrayed by their own earnest justifications. They did not want to approach autism directly. They wanted to keep a ‘respectable’ distance. They sought a comfortable format in order to find a way to contain the excesses and difficulties of autism. In doing so they have fallen back upon this less-than-human imagery and upset a lot of people in the process. Granted, no-one has actually seen the show yet (it opens on the 14th Feb), so maybe a pleasant surprise awaits in the story. But this is highly unlikely. Going off the imagery in the trailer, we’ve seen this sort of story many times before.
The New Cliché
To be fair to the makers of All in a Row, none of their creative decisions appear to have come from a place of deliberate insensitivity. Quite the opposite. The responses to the criticism have been at great pains to state that they have consulted autistic people, autism experts, autism charities and activists all throughout development, and they state that important changes have been made after input from autistic people. I don’t doubt any of this, nor do I doubt their initial integrity, sincerity or sympathy towards autism. The writer Alex Oates flaunts his experience as a care worker for autistic people as inspiration for the play, and this is certainly a commendable starting point.
But the problem stems from a fundamentally flawed understanding of autism as an identity and the narratives that are still employed to represent it. In the trailer, Oates summons up the spectre of Rain Man as the savant-cliché that is now very vogue for writers to gallantly avoid. But the play makes the huge mistake of resting back on the most comfortable modern cliché; that which James McGrath, in his recent book The Naming of Adult Autism, calls the ‘new classic autism’. This is: the male autistic youngster, a child of a white, middle-class, suburban, heteronormative family who struggle heroically against the ‘curse’ of this affliction which threatens their stability, finances, and/or relationships. See The A Word (BBC), see Atypical (Netflix), see There She Goes (which is not specifically about autism, but it comes very close — BBC), see Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon & National Theatre). It is a yawn-inducing well-worn path but worse than this, it has very damaging resonances.
When we think of autism now, we think of this new classic autism. Where are all the stories about black autism? Working class autism? Queer autism? Adult autism? Elderly autism? Future, past, non-English speaking, parental, unemployed, royal, happy, villainous, superheroic autism? Very few and far between. Our stories of this boundary-less, all-inclusive way-of-being have become almost terminally stagnated in this safety bubble of the nuclear normative, where it is contained like a volatile chemical held in quarantine.
Narratively, autism is contained and locked away, much like reality behind the shell of the plaster-mould of the Laurence marionette. There is no recourse here to the possibilities of autistic alterity; to the thrilling difference at the heart of being neurodiverse that presents genuine challenge to the way we make meaning and the forms our stories take. Instead, it has become easier to find every which way possible to create even more distance between what we think we want ‘normality’ to be and what, with genuinely autistic thinking, it could be.
For links to further blogposts and threads on All in a Row, check out:
To read an excellent novel about a black, Dutch, autistic woman which is set in the future and deals with identity, value, heroism and intersectionality — and is also just a damn good read — I recommend On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis:
On the Edge of Gone is in some ways about what happens to those who usually go unmentioned. ... [It becomes] an…www.corinneduyvis.net
Keep up to speed with the autistic agitation against All in a Row on #Puppetgate
A Further Note: I’m an allistic writer. If autistic readers see any errors or issues in this article, please do comment and I’ll be happy to make edits :)