Imagine that you are trying to create an autistic character for use in a play. The plot of this production centers around autism, and you claim in all of your promotional material that the intention of this performance is to create “love and acceptance.” You’ve had plenty of opportunities to receive input from both autism organizations and autistic people themselves on how it’s important to portray autistic people in an acceptable way. So what do you do when deciding how to portray this character?
You portray him as a lifeless, soulless, grey puppet with no personality or character at all, while focusing the entire production on what a terrible burden this dehumanized straw man is to his family and society, of course!
This is apparently how Alexander Oates, producer of the production All in a Row, decided to answer this question. All in a Row is a production currently being shown at the Southwark Playhouse in London. It focuses on a non-verbal 11-year-old autistic boy named Laurence (and I’m surprised they even gave him a name and didn’t just refer to him as “it” for the entire play, given the rest of the nature of this production) and his last night at home before he is taken away to a group home by social services. Or, let me rephrase that, it focuses on Laurence’s family on this last fateful night. Laurence is little more than a prop in this production, and I mean that both in the sense that he has absolutely zero character and in a literal sense that Laurence is portrayed by a puppet.
I could write two-hundred paragraphs about how horrifying and dehumanizing this puppet-Laurence is. But even that wouldn’t do it justice. I’m just going to post a single picture of this disaster, and I think any reasonable person would be able to see how dehumanizing and offensive it is to portray an autistic person this way:
I’ve taken the time since I learned about this to carefully consult with the high counsels of the inner-workings of my mind. An official statement has been issued on these circumstances:
What the f*****g hell?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?
Yes, Laurence isn’t just a puppet, he’s a grey-colored literal straw-man with no attempts made to even remotely resemble a relate-able human character. Any use of a puppet (outside of maybe Sesame Street) to portray an autistic person is obviously questionable, as it dehumanizes autistic people by portraying us as non-human objects. But this is even worse, as it seems to be purposefully making Laurence out to be something as less-than-human as possible.
Oates clearly did not listen to any autistic people when conceptualizing this play, as if he did none of this would exist. Apparently, Oates did consult with the National Autistic Society when designing the performance. The NAS apparently specifically told him not to use a puppet to portray Laurence, and instead cast an actual human for his role, preferably an #ActuallyAutistic human. As someone else pointed out on Twitter, it actually is sort of reasonable that a child was not cast for this role, as Laurence is essentially verbally and emotionally abused through the whole play by his family (more on this in a minute). However, there is absolutely no reason an adult actor could not be cast in his role. I’ve heard it is common practice in theater to cast an adult actor as a child in roles that would be difficult for a child perform. Anything, any real person, would be better than this puppet that subconsciously teaches everybody that autistic people are just objects, lifeless props. But the All in a Row team is insistent that a person could never play the role of Laurence and especially not an autistic person. They have repeatedly said this in response to questioning. Why not? Well they never truly explain, but it seems that they think autistic people aren’t human enough to be correctly portrayed by humans.
All in a Row uses a lot of flowery language about “love,” “acceptance,” and “inclusion” in its description, but none of this is found in the play. All in a Row is the sort of sickening “oh look how horrible and burdensome it is to have an autistic child!” martyr-parents production you’d expect from Autism Speaks, but with way more dehumanization and bullying. From reading excerpts of dialogue, it seems that Laurence’s family hates him. They call him names, at one point referencing that perhaps he’s “an animal reincarnated in human form.” Every single thing that is said about Laurence is negative. Not a single loving, inclusive, positive, or accepting thing is said in the whole play. All of this is done while Laurence is in the room with them, talking about him while he’s in the room as if he’s not there. Here’s a pro tip: this is something that you never do, because more often than not, that non-verbal autistic person hears and understands everything you say, they just can’t communicate back. This has been confirmed numerous times by non-verbal auties who learned to use AAC.
This play wasn’t built with autistic people in mind at all. Oates ignored the advice of the National Autistic Society, is now ignoring the voices of the autistic people protesting this performance, and clearly has no intents of doing the right thing. Oh, and by the way, there is only a single sensory-friendly performance of this play going on during its entire run-time, and this feels more like a token move than the people behind this play truly caring about autistic people. Oates can talk about love and inclusion all he wants, but actions speak louder than words, and his actions show nothing good at all.
I was debating whether or not to address this at all, as the UK autistic community is doing a fantastic job with what they can to fight this horrible play. There have been protests outside of Southwark Playhouse by autistic people (and if there wasn’t 1,700 miles of land and 3,500 miles of ocean between me and London, I would be there protesting too). A petition for the playhouse to pull the production has been signed by over 16,000 people at the time of this writing. However, I couldn’t let this weigh on my consciousness any longer, so I had to write something. This requires an international effort.
I think the only solace in this is that All in a Row is underselling and is also receiving scathingly bad reviews not just from the autistic community, but just as a play in general.
One of the biggest pieces of criticism being leveled at the show is that although the performance is addressing a very weighty and sensitive subject, it comes off like a comedy, with the audience expected to laugh at all the horrible name-calling and bullying Laurence’s family are engaging in. Liam O’Dell calls All in a Row “[a] clumsy, unfunny and offensive drama with autism as the punch line.” BritishTheatre.com says the following of All in a Row: “From its hideously unsympathetic characters to its unfortunate subtext, All in a Row makes for very uncomfortable and unpleasant viewing.” and “When the National Autistic Society publicly states that it cannot support your production, that’s got to be some kind of hint that changes should be made.” The Stage writes that “Grey and unsightly, it [the puppet] doesn’t work on a practical level, even before you enter the ethics of its inclusion.”
In summary from the reviews I’ve read, the set-design is horrendous, the dialogue is stiff, Laurence the puppet is puppeteer-ed very awkwardly in a way that doesn’t merge well with the rest of the performance, and the characters are unlikable. I’d like to specifically call out Laurence’s mother Tamora, as she is portrayed as a cold, uncaring mother who cares more about her career than her family. This is important because it alludes to the now discredited theory that autism was caused by an unloving mother, the so called “refrigerator mother” theory. This idea was used in the 50s, 60s, and 70s to argue against women going into STEM fields, as it was argued they would become refrigerator mothers and their kids would become autistic. So, in a roundabout backdoor way, the character of Tamora is a little bit sexist, and alludes to discredited ideas.
All in a Row is bad. So bad, that I don’t think words can describe it. For this, I’d like to present All in a Row and Alexander Oates with the What the hell were you thinking? Award for Offending Autistic People and their Families. Congratulations!
The timing of this also unfortunately lines up with the fact that coming up on March 1st is the International Day of Mourning for disabled people who were murdered by their caregivers. Every year, there are autistic people on this list of murdered disabled people, autistic people who have been stabbed to death or the like because their parents were frustrated with them. Unfortunately, whenever a murder like this occurs people are quick to jump out of the woodwork and defend the people who killed their autistic dependents. “Think of how hard it must be to have a child with autism!” they’ll say. “Aren’t the actions of the parents justifiable given the burden of their child? Parents can only take so much before they break!” Yes, there are actually people who justify murdering autistic people. I think it is media like All in a Row, things that dehumanize autistic people, make us out to be burdens and nothing more, that contribute to our mindset. When autistic people are portrayed as something less-than-human, people stop thinking about us as human and start thinking about us as simple objects, and this creates a lack of empathy that leads down this path.
You should be ashamed of yourself, Alexander Oates. You are only contributing to more harm towards the autistic community, and are completely unapologetic about it.
As a community, us autistic people and our allies, need to keep fighting portrayals like this. Demand an apology from the Playhouse and the play-writers for showing such a horrendous, dangerous performance. But unfortunately, even this will not come close to repairing the damage things like All in a Row have done to autistic people.