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All in a Row: The Dehumanization of Autism

By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless Its Cake" - Blog Series Vol. 3, Slice #6


Last year, Australian singer-songwriter released her directorial debut movie Music on February 10, 2021. Understandably, this movie received huge negative feedback as well as a massive backlash from the autism community who saw this as ableism, problematic, offensive, disturbing, and dangerously harmful due to its bright flickering lights, bright colors, loud sounds, bad choice of casting for an autistic character, offensive portrayal of the autistic character, and the dangerously harmful restraint scenes. I gave a detailed rant analysis about Sia’s movie last year in a blog post titled, Not Like Me: Media Edition. It explained how the movie is all the adjectives mentioned above, and how this movie is a current negative example of autism representation as well as the importance of how much we need to have more positive representation of autism in the media so that autistic people like myself can see ourselves in a positive light. However, as terribly bad and offensive as Sia’s movie is, I came across something last year through research that I think might be worse than Sia’s movie and that is live theatrical play production called All in a Row.

 

Written by Playwright Alex Oates and directed by Director Dominic Shaw, All in a Row tells

the story of a married couple name Tamora and Martin who go through the everyday struggles of

raising their nonverbal autistic son Laurence alongside their son’s caretaker Gary. On the night

before social services arrive to take Laurence away, confrontation breaks out in the room about

who made the call as well as other personal issues that boil to the surface. The show played in

the U.K. at the Southwark Playhouse, and it ran from February 14, 2019 – March 9, 2019.

According to the book, the story was inspired by Alex’s ten-year experience of working with

autistic children, and according to a YouTube video titled, All in a Row | Southwark Playhouse |

14 Feb - 9 Mar, Actor Simon Lipkin who played the character Martin in the show explained

Alex’s hopes for this production when he stated, “What Alex hopes is done with this play, is to

write something that is funny and is full of hope and love and comedy at times, but also is so real

and kind of says it’s ok for this to be really hard.” In another YouTube video titled, " All in A

Row" - Opening night reactions, the reactions were positive and well received. However, the

reality of how audience members truly felt about the production was anything but positive,

especially when it comes to the autism community. For starters, let’s begin with the biggest

elephant in the room: the casting choice for the autistic character Laurence. As many people

are aware of, Alex Oates made the decision to use puppetry in his play, in which he decided to

have the main character Laurence portrayed as a puppet. According to the book of the production All in a Row, Alex explained his thought process that went into this casting decision when he states, “I’ve always loved puppetry – the way talented artists can observe life and distill it into an essence that captures the heart of a human being can often be breathtaking and illuminating. It’s this spirit I wanted to bring to Laurence, to create a portrayal that does justice to his incredibly unique personality while still keeping a respectful distance.” Some people defended this decision by crediting their courage and determination to pursue with their agenda. In an article titled All in a Row review – autistic child puppet drama has warmth and truth, Guardian Theater Writer Miriam Gillinson defended Alex by expressing her gratitude towards Alex and the team for having the guts to hang on to their integrity by pushing forward with their plans for production when she states, “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 dehumanizing 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.” It’s important to know that those people who were protesting outside of the theater were members of the autism community expressing their anger and outrage for this controversial decision that was made for a play that was supposed to be about us and for us. The protest that took place outside the Southwark Playhouse theater was organized by autistic activist and actor Paul Wady, and the protest itself is just one example of how deeply disturbed the autism community felt about an autistic character being portrayed as a puppet. According to a website known as disabilityarts.online , Neurodivergent Journalist Emma Robdale wrote an article titled, ‘All In a Row’ is out of line: disability representation done wrong, in which she shared some of the anger and outrage from autistic creators such as Blogger and YouTuber Connor Ward. I was introduced to this play through a YouTube video by Connor Ward titled Should You Boycott ‘All in a Row’? and in this video, I remember Connor expressing his first reaction to the puppet by stating, “I want to go and rip his head off…”. Emma reported Alex’s defense for this casting decision by saying that a learning-disabled actor wouldn’t work due to the high demands of the role. However, Shaun May who gives lectures to students on Drama and Disability representation at Kent University gave his opposing argument to Alex’s comment when he states, “The practical argument hinges on the idea that neurodivergent actors couldn’t play this character. I think they could and that the company are underestimating neurodivergent performers with that assumption.” Connor also includes his opposing argument to Alex’s comment when he states, “I could have played the character… or someone like me! I can understand not having an autistic child playing the role because of language, and maybe violence… but an adult… no excuse! And they could have made the character older, 15 instead of 12, and done what a lot of films and plays do, cast a young looking twenty something year old!”. Then there’s Jess Thom, who is a blogger on a website known as tourettshero.com. she wrote her blog post about the play titled, Who’s In the Rows? She gave his thoughts about the usage of puppetry in the production in which she expressed her frustrations as well as other people’s concerns when she states, “Lots of people are upset that a puppet is being used instead of an actor. They are worried it might make people think that if you are autistic, you are not a real human being.” Then she revealed some of Alex’s tweets that he posted defending his casting decision for Laurence. According to the tweets Alex stated, “An actor somewhere else on the spectrum was an option but still difficult to effectively portray a child, so I had the idea of a puppet and raised it with all the parents I knew, they thought it was an exciting idea. Puppetry as I'm sure you know is a highly effective branch of theatre with an amazing history.” Jess gave her opposing argument to the response when she states, “This makes the classic mistake of believing that representation of disability requires an exact impairment match between the actor and the character. An autistic actor would bring additional lived expertise to the role without it being necessary for them to precisely match the same degree of impairment as the character. Also, there are some incredible learning-disabled and non-verbal artists making work, and a great deal of knowledge is being amassed about how to support and promote learning disability culture.”


Finally, Emma Robdale expressed her thought on the puppet and how the puppet itself takes away the humanistic nature of Laurence as an individual when she states, “The puppet itself hasn’t been created to be life-like; it has a static expression and skin that is grey, further removing it from being a real child. The use of a puppet in this way means that the feelings and emotions of Laurence cannot be fully conveyed.” She also explained how learning disabled actors could have been used in the play production by stating that a learning disabled actor would have given some real depth and perspective to the role, and she continued on to say that learning disabled actors don’t need to have the same extent of difficulties to play the character Laurence when she states, “A learning disabled actor could have been chosen who did not have the same extent of difficulties that the character Laurence displays… but could have acted them. It seems that the production team did not seriously think of ways to include learning disabled actors.” Puppetry does have its place in the theater community in which the mesmerizing visuals and creative mechanic usages does create a remarkable history of good puppetry being used in productions such as Avenue Q the Musical, The Lion King the Musical, and even King Kong the Musical. However, puppetry is more than just using it as a character, it’s how you use it in the environment and story it is placed in which creates a narrative of how that character is supposed to be seen, viewed, and portrayed by audience members as well as the characters in the story. For example, the character Julia on Sesame Street is autistic and portrayed as a puppet, but this is ok because all the other characters in the show are portrayed as puppets, so it creates this narrative that everyone is equal and included in the same community. However, when you have this scenario of the autistic character being portrayed as a puppet while everyone else is a human being, it creates this harmful ‘us vs them’ narrative where people who are different are separated from everyone else and are seen as inhumane creatures who don’t belong. Especially if the writing supports this narrative by having the autistic character be treated as either an animal or a prop. Which brings me to the next big issue that many people in the autism community had with the production: Laurence’s role in the story that is supposed to be about him. As if it wasn’t bad enough to have Laurence dehumanized to the form of a lifeless puppet, they had to have him

become barely a footnote in what is supposed to be his story. When you first hear about the story

of All in a Row being about autism, your initial first thought would be that this is a story about

an autistic individual’s life in which we will get to know the main character, form a connection

with the main character, and watch the main character grow as well as develop into a stronger

individual as a result of all the challenges and obstacles that the character has been through.

However, when the plot synopsis of your story is presented as this: “Like any couple, Tamora

and Martin have big hopes and dreams. But when your child is autistic, non-verbal, and

occasionally violent, ambitions can quickly become a pipe dream.”, it sums everything into a

nutshell of what the plot of the story is mainly about and who the main characters truly are in the story: overwhelmed parents going through everyday life raising their autistic child, while

trying to cope and accept the fact that the trip to Italy they thought they would have, will now

be a trip to Holland. This is a common theme that’s mainly present in movies, tv shows, books,

and other forms of media that talk about autism, and it’s a common harmful theme that portrays

autistic individuals as the villains and the parents as the victims. This type of theme takes away

the opportunity for people to get to know the autistic individual, and in this case having the story

focus on Tamora, Martin, and Gary takes away the opportunity for audiences and readers to get

to know Laurence as an individual. We never get to know his dreams, ambitions, goals, or

accomplishments. We only know that Laurence likes to eat pizza, watch Finding Nemo, and he

bites people. Laurence is barely involved in the story, and when he is involved, he’s constantly

being degraded by those around him by being treated as a dog instead of a human being that

knows his own mind as well as a prop plot device that is used to push the story along for the

parents and the caregiver. Laurence’s lack of involvement in the story, his lack of character

development as well as presentation, and also the dehumanizing way that Laurence is treated in

the play makes this another unfortunate case of an autistic individual getting treated like an

unwanted shadow that is a burden to everyone in sight, while the parents and caregiver are

treated as the sympathetic angels that people should rally behind and root for, when this play is

supposed to be about autism and the audience rallying behind and rooting for the autistic

character.


As stated by Emma Robdale, “The play centres on Laurence’s ‘caregivers’, Tam and

Martin (Mum and Dad) and Garry (Carer), and their views towards him being a burden. At one

point Garry compares Laurence to puppy because he jumps up and down, doesn’t follow

commands and pees on things. Laurence, who is already played by a puppet, is also written as a

secondary character in a play that is supposed to centre on autism.” The disgusting treatment that Laurence receives from his parents reveals another layer of unsettling anger and disgust that the play gives to its audience: Laurence’s usage as the family’s scapegoat. This is something that I personally took issue with in the story because it’s one thing to make your child or children feel like it’s their fault for the complications of the marriage, it’s one thing to take your anger and

frustrations out on your child as well for the complications of the marriage, but when all that is

taking place with a child who is autistic, that creates a whole new level of anger, disgust, and

unfairness in the situation. In case you’re unaware of the contents of the story, the play contains

inappropriate content of pornography, sexual assault, violence, and urination/defecation. The

phone call to social services was made about how Laurence has bitten people as well as urinated

and pooped all over the house. While it is true that Laurence has bitten other children, (spoiler

alert) it is revealed that Martin is the one who urinated and pooped all over the house. In act one

scene two, Martin in lost in his thoughts of what he would want to say to Tamora if he had the

courage, and in his thoughts, he confesses his terrible deeds when he states, “Actually I started

pissing on your books. In the battery port of your iPad. Your make-up table. Why? A break from

playing Xbox? Because I could. Because if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em. It feels good. I can see

why he does it. It’s like a drug. I craft the grass stains on your cushions, I graffiti with your eye

liner on your bedroom walls. I start fires with the toastie machine. Turn your hair straighteners

on when you’re out. Smash your mirrors. I started biting myself. To see how it feels. Biting. I’d

often wondered, is it as easy as biting through steak? Not really no, but you feel a juicy burst

when the skin goes.” Later on, towards the end of the play in scene three, Martin confesses out

loud to Tamora and Gary about what he did during a heated argument, and he expresses about

how happy and proud he is for what he did when he states, “Yeah, I shat on your pillows! It was

me! Like son like father. And you know what I’m f***ing glad I did. I didn’t know why it felt so

good at the time. But it did. It felt fantastic!”. This portion of the story really angered me because

an innocent child was being ripped out of his home and taken to a place that he’s not familiar

with. He’s forced to adapt to a new routine and may face the possibility of experiencing difficult

and traumatizing experiences as a result of being blamed for something he didn’t do, because his

parents can’t find a better way to handle the circumstances that they are dealing with. The main

reason why Martin and Tamora were having difficulties in their marriage is because they both

feel like the other isn’t as available or present in the family as they should. Tamora complains

about Martin playing with his Xbox and smoking all the time, Martin complains about Tamora

spending all her time with her Heart2Heart invention, and poor Laurence is just lost in all the

drama because the play spends so much time focusing on Martin and Tamora and so very little to

no time with Laurence. We never know how Laurence thinks or feels about his relationship with

his parents, we never know how Laurence thinks or feels about his relationship with his

caregiver Gary, we never know how Laurence thinks or feels about his parents struggling all the

time, and we never know how Laurence thinks or feels about being sent away to a residential

school, because as I’ve mentioned before, the show doesn’t do anything with Laurence’s

character except treat him like he’s a dog or a plot device for the other characters. I wrote a blog

post in October of last year titled Family: It’s About Love and Perseverance, in which I

referenced an article titled My Autistic Brother Made Me Who I Am. The article was about how

Commerce Editor/Writer from Hearst Magazines Digital Media Bianca Rodriguez and her

family made a difficult decision of sending her autistic brother Dominic to a facility that

specializes in caring for autistic children due to Dominic’s temper and violent outbursts that

proved him to be a dangerous threat to himself and everyone around him. In this case, the only

thing that’s violent about Laurence is that he bites people, but there was a fixable way to handle

this. They could have given Laurence a chewie gem necklace since biting is his way of olfactory

stimming, and he would’ve had that to satisfy his sensory needs so that he wouldn’t have to bite

people anymore. It’s a common thing for autistic people to have chewie gems as stim tools

because there are some autistic people that chew as an olfactory stim. I myself chew on the

inside of my mouth as an olfactory stim as a way of dealing with stress and for comfort. So, a

simple fix of giving Laurence a stim tool would have made all the difference in the world for

Martin and Tamora in terms of Laurence’s biting problem, but they just couldn’t do that could

they? They instead chose to use Laurence’s biting problem as weapon against each other by

using it as an example of how they’re not there for each other. It’s common thing for any couple

to have struggles in their marriage, but it’s not your child’s responsibility to fix the problems in

your marriage, that’s the parent’s job. It’s the parent’s responsibility to make things work in their

relationship by talking to one another, listening to one another, and working together to find

healthy solutions that will make their relationship stronger and better. However, that’s not what

Martin and Tamora chose to do. They chose to deal with their problems separately by indulging

in activities such as work, drugs, and video games in order to avoid dealing with the problems

between them, and worse of all Tamora chose to call social services to send Laurence away to a

residential school called Ridgemont after his father decorated the house in urine and poo in

which he allowed Laurence to be blamed for it. So, the unfortunate circumstances of an autistic

child being used as a scapegoat for his parent’s personal problems is somethings that really

upsets me, and it breaks my heart to know how autism is treated as a joke that has autistic people portrayed as the same stereotypes and cliches that are harmful and offensive to the community. Speaking of jokes, another important issue that the autism community has with the production is:the awful and offensively bad comedy. Did you know that this play was supposed to be funny? That’s what Alex Oates hoped it would be according to Actor Simon Lipkin in a statement I mentioned earlier about how Alex hopes to, “…write something that is funny…”. Unfortunately for him, the jokes mentioned in the play were anything but funny, and the laughs that the play received weren’t the laughs that would be supporting autism, but rather the laughs that would make fun of autism. As stated by Connor Ward, “All of the comedic devices were taking the mickey out of autism. It wasn’t laughing with… it was laughing at.” Also, in an article titled, ‘All In A Row’ review – Clumsy, unfunny and offensive drama with autism as the punchline, Mildly Deaf Journalist, Campaigner, and Theater Critic Liam O’Dell explains the plot of the story and how the terrible comedy makes the production a bitter pill to swallow when he states, “The brief production examines the important issue of the struggle experienced by the parents, yet descends to a level of pity where the comedy fails to land, and is instead tasteless, juddering and harmful.” As mentioned previously, one of the infamous jokes (if not the most offensive joke) happens in scene three where Martin and Gary are having a discussion. In this discussion, Gary asks Martin if he believes in reincarnation. The reason he asks this is because he wonders, “If people with special needs are animals wrongly reincarnated into human form.” Then he talks about Laurence’s mannerisms comparing them to a puppy due to him jumping up and down excitedly, biting things, pooping everywhere (even though it was Martin who really did it), loves being ticked, sleeps a lot, he’s tactile, eats a lot, and doesn’t communicate well. By the end of the

discussion, Martin states, “Word of advice. Never say that in public. Ever again.” Statements like

that are what would make a person question the motive of the scene, in terms of whether it’s

meant to lighten the mood or force virtue signaling. Either way, it’s still grossly offensive to

degrade a human being by not only treating them like an animal, but also comparing them to an

animal simply because of their neurological nature. Another offensive joke in the play (I don’t

know if it’s meant to be a joke at all), is the one where Tamora tells Martin that Gary is internet

dating, and Martin responds by stating, “Really? That’s brave. Doesn’t all of this scare you?

There’s no tests, you know. Or scans, to see if they’re…” Gary responds by saying that he

wouldn’t mind, but the fact that this statement was even mentioned at all really hurts me, because the tone and mood of this situation appears to be set up to scare Gary into not wanting to date, get married, and have kids because heaven forbid if his child is autistic, then Gary will end up living the same ‘nightmare’ that Martin and Tamora are currently experiencing. There are also jokes in the beginning of the play that involve Disney characters and inappropriate adult content that is disgusting and distasteful, and the comedy of this production is not only offensive, but also exhausting and predictable and the most visible offensive comic relief is Laurence the puppet himself. As stated by Liam, “The over-reliance on the child and his autism – both in terms of comedy and moving the plot forward – is as exhaustive as it is predictable. An argument breaks out – wine-fueled or not – an autistic meltdown occurs, and the cycle continues ad nauseam. In essence, the puppet on stage is as much of an offensive prop as it is a plot device and appalling comic relief to be used when the play’s clumsy narrative stalls.” To have all these

flaws in your own production looks bad for your public image, and that leads us into the next

important issue with the play: the publicity advertised image. This will address the smallest

elephant in the room that doesn’t get mentioned a lot next to the puppet controversy, but it’s just

as equally important. The advertised image for the production is four fondant fancy cakes, in

which three of them are yellow with chocolate icing and in a row, while the fourth one is blue

and by itself. The puppeteer who played Laurence Hugh Purves tweeted his response to the

situation in which he states, “I’m the blue fondant fancy who’s fallen over!” Emma gave her

response to the tweet by expressing how offended she felt about Hugh’s comment when she

states, “As an ND individual, I find this representation of disability insulting.” As an autistic

person myself, there are obvious reasons why I see this as offensive as well. One reason is

because this once again fires up the narrative of the ‘us vs them’ concept, where Laurence is seen

as an unwanted outsider who doesn’t fit in or belong with his family or caregiver. The second

reason is that the color blue is a symbolic controversial color that represents the infamous slogan of ‘light it up blue’ which organizations like Autism Speaks stand behind and support, and it also represents how autistic people are viewed as ‘broken’ or ‘other’ as stated by Jess, “This image reinforces the idea that autism is out of the ordinary. Blue is not a natural colour for food, and while eye-catching, this image sets up the autistic character as ‘other’ and as ‘damaged’ or

‘broken’.” Along with the offensive advertised images for All in a Row, another main thing that

hurts the public image of this production that many autistic people have an issue with is the

arrogance and ignorance from the director and production team. I think Emma explained it

best when she expressed the lack of accountability from Alex and the production team in terms

of their portrayal of autism in the show when she states, “One of the biggest criticisms of ‘All in

a Row’ isn’t that the directors have made a mistake, it is that they seem unwilling to admit it, or

respond appropriately to the objections from the autistic community, whom the production team

seems to have forgotten will want to view the play themselves….” Part of being a good writer,

actor, director, and content creator, is being able to take constructive criticism whenever you are

wrong about something. This was part of Sia’s problem when it came to the backlash of her

movie Music, she was unable to take criticism and did more to attack her audience than listen to

them. For example, when someone made a comment on Twitter about Sia’s casting choice for

her autistic character, Sia made a controversial reply in her tweet when she stated, “Maybe

you’re just a bad actor.” Unfortunately, the situation with Alex Oates was proven to be no

different. For example, in a tweet that’s now deleted, someone made a comment about the

casting choice for Laurence as well as the concerns of how autistic people feel about not wanting to be ‘othered’ by society, and when this statement was made, Alex replied in his tweeted comment when he stated, “I understand that disabled people don't want to be 'othered' but I stand by my conviction that this will not dehumanise Laurence. All the best X”. Another example would be the lack of relaxed performances at the show. In Jess’s blog, she mentions that there is one relaxed production of All in a Row, which is problematic because this limits autistic people as well as those with disabilities to see a show more than once in a way that’s comfortable to them. Jess also mentions that if you’re going to make a show about disabilities and barriers, it’s important that there are as few barriers as possible for those who want to see the show. Cast and crew members have defended this issue, including Simon Lipkin who gave his defensive comment in a tweet when he stated, “Most shows only do one relaxed performance in the year. However, you’re more than welcome anytime. The play doesn’t have anything that would be changed that much in a relaxed performance anyway and exits are easily accessible should you need them x”. Jess responded to this comment by saying that relaxed performances are an essential thing to have for autistic people and the neurodiverse community to enjoy the theater experience when she states, “Unlike All In A Row, most shows don’t tackle issues that relate directly to neurodiversity, but where they do, relaxed performances ought to be a requirement. And in fact, there’s no reason why all shows shouldn’t take a relaxed approach, regardless of the subject matter. We’re currently working with Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) to develop a Relaxed Venue methodology. BAC’s spring programme is 95% relaxed.” Jess also mentions in her blog that aside from the lack of relaxed performances, another issue was that there was no pre-show information to help audience members decide whether it’s for them or not and there’s also no captioned or audio described performances for people who may have sensory hearing impairments. This unfortunately shows that this play was made about autism and for autism caregivers, but it wasn’t made for autistic people. Overall, the cast’s response as well as Alex’s response to most of the criticism they received from critics were summed up in a nutshell stated as this, “Whatever questions you have about the play, all I’d say is come and see it.” Statements like this, give the impression that people’s thoughts and opinions don’t matter when they don’t fall in line with what you want to hear. It’s important to listen to what people have to say and take criticism when people call you out for your mistakes, and I think Jess sums this up best in her statement to Alex when she states, “Alex – if many, many disabled people are telling you there’s a problem, please listen and engage meaningfully – it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s not ok to keep making them when they’re being pointed out and explained so clearly. Listen to people with lived expertise and your work will be stronger creatively, politically, and socially.” Finally, the biggest issue that the autism community had with the play is the same issue that people had with Sia’s movie Music: the lack of including autistic people in the creation process of the production. This is by far the most important issue that the autism community has with this

production because every issue that I’ve talked about in this blog, is mainly because of this big

important issue. ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ exists for a reason, and it’s because you can’t

make a play, movie, tv show, book series, or any type of media content about a specific group of

people without the inclusion of that group of people. You can’t tell a story about slavery without

the inclusion of people of color, you can’t tell a story of the Holocaust without the inclusion of

Jewish people, you can’t tell a story about immigration without the inclusion of immigrants, and

you can’t tell a story about autism without the inclusion of autistic people. Inclusion doesn’t have to be just actors/actresses, it can also be writers, directors, producers, etc. Unfortunately, Alex Oates as well as the cast and creative team didn’t think to take this into consideration, even

though they tried to give the appearance of it. In an article titled Critics say new play that uses a

puppet to portray an autistic boy 'dehumanises' those with the condition, Arts Correspondent and a news reporter for the Evening Standard Robert Dex reported that The National Autistic Society (an autism organization in favor of autistic people) was consulted by Alex Oates. He reported that Jane Harris, who is the director of external affairs at the National Autistic Society, gave a statement about the organization’s role in helping media production companies portray autism and autistic people in a positive light when she states, “About 700,000 people in the UK are autistic and most feel very misunderstood by the public. That’s why we give advice to production companies about ideas and scripts for TV, film and theatre to help them promote accurate images of autistic people.” Then Jane explains in the article the collaboration that took place between The National Autistic Society and the All in A Row production company and how they tried to arrange a way for autistic people to be involved in the production making process when she states, “The production company behind this play contacted us and we arranged for autistic and non-autistic people to give feedback. We are pleased the production company made two changes in response — one for accuracy and another around representation.” Even though this looked promising, things took an unfortunate turn as the production team’s vision for the showed proved to have too many cons than pros, and therefore The National Autistic Society had to withdraw their support. As stated by Jane, “…while recognizing some of the play’s strengths, we decided we could not support the play overall due to its portrayal of autism, particularly the use of a puppet to depict the autistic character alone.” This was truly disappointing to me because I truly believe that the reputation and legacy of this production would have been different if Alex Oates and the production team had allowed themselves to collaborate with and include autistic people in what is supposed to be a story about them. People with a lived experienced can contribute so much to a story in a way that is powerful, authentic, and memorable. They can tell those who don’t have the experience how to properly tell their story respectfully and accurately, so that it doesn’t make a mockery of the audience they are

representing. They can even recommend other resources so that they can see how properly they

done their stories as well. For example, Jess Thom wrote in her blog about how she was involved

in a theatrical production about Tourette’s Syndrome and that puppetry was involved. However,

Jess was able to explain how puppetry was used differently in her production than All in a Row

when she states, “We used puppetry in our show Backstage In Biscuit Land precisely because of

the amazing potential it has as a storytelling tool. For example, in the show I explain to a dolphin

glove puppet what my tics feel like, and a mini version of Tourettes hero has a ‘ticcing fit’,

carefully assisted by puppeteer Jess Mabel Jones. The key difference between these very different uses of puppets is that as a disabled theatre maker I was in control of how puppetry was

used to tell my story. It was used to show surreal aspects of my life, whereas in All In A Row it

seems to have been used for predominately practical intentions.” Another example would be in

Liam O’Dell’s article where he explained the many resources that Alex Oates could have used

for his production in order to fix all the problems that it has when he states, “If they wanted

puppeteer Hugh Perves’ presence on stage to be unnoticeable, then they would have learned

from Avenue Q and avoided the exaggeration and the grey-skinned, corpselike puppet. If they

wanted to accurately capture the experiences of parents of autistic children, then they should

have watched The A Word to correctly show those lighter moments. If they wanted to cast a

child actor as Laurence – autistic or not – they would have learned from The Curious Incident of

the Dog In the Night Time about how to use lighting and sound to get around a difficult or

intensive scene.” What we got instead, was a missed opportunity in which autistic people could

have helped make a difference in educating people about autism that would have saved this

production from the embarrassment and backlash that it received, as stated by Connor Ward “It

could have been an excellent opportunity to give real insight. The playwright could have

consulted properly with autistic individuals and used the opportunity of taking it to the stage to

educate a larger audience.” Alex Oates however chose to write a story about us without us, and

the show faced major consequences for that. The play was inspired by the experiences of Alex

Oates as a caregiver for autistic people, but his production of All in a Row proves how much it is

not enough. A person can be a caregiver, a parent, a teacher, or anybody associated with an

autistic person, but they will never know what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes. If you want

to tell a story and educate people about an autistic person’s life, then you need to include that

autistic person so they can educate and explain to people the story of their life accurately and

authentically in all forms of media. As stated by Emma Robdale, “Being a parent of an autistic

child, having an autistic friend or being a caregiver is not enough; It does not give producers a

rounded understanding of what it is like to actually be ND. It is only by true inclusion of ND

communities that the liberal arts will progress in its representation of ND people.”

In conclusion, Alex Oates wanted to write something funny, he wanted to write something

light-hearted, he wanted to write something that’s full of hope and love, and he wanted to write

something that speaks the truth about autism. For some people, Alex was able to convince people of doing just that and they’ve defended him and his play by saying that it’s a compassionate, humorous, and lively piece of art that’s full of truth and authenticity. As stated by Miriam Gillinson, “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.” Unfortunately, what Alex Oates wrote instead, was the dehumanization of autism. He wrote something that’s not funny, mean-spirited, ableist, and full of harmful stereotypical cliches that do more to make fun of the autism community than uplift them. However, the only silver lining for its existence, is that it has encouraged the autism community to unite and protest harmful works such as All in A Row so that we can advocate for ourselves by expressing how we should be properly treated and

represented in the media. As stated by Emma Robdale, “The backlash to this play by autistic and

ND people, who have been united in their opposition, has shown the growing power and voice of

our community.” I’m not saying we should cancel Alex for the mistakes that were made with his

play, I’m saying that like Sia’s movie Music, this is a learning experience that people can benefit

from in terms of how to properly treat the autism community as well as any other community

when it comes to representation in the media. We’re not lifeless puppets or reincarnated dead

animals, we’re human beings with powerful voices and even more powerful life experiences.

You want to hear a story about us? Let us be the ones to tell it, let us be the ones to share it, let us

be the ones included in it. Our stories are valid, our stories are authentic, our stories are our truth, so treat them like they matter, treat us like we matter, because we do. Period.






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