top of page

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 , 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 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


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