The title heading this non-sciencey post - "A puppet portrays the character of Laurence, who is described as “autistic, non-verbal and occasionally violent”" - comes from a news report discussing a play opening soon at a London theatre. The play is called 'All In A Row' and I believe centres on a family struggling to care for their son who is autistic. I believe the play specifically focuses on "the night before social services finally intervenes"...
That news item centres on the use of a puppet to depict Laurence and how writers arrived at such a decision on the reported basis that "We don’t think we could get informed consent from a non-verbal autistic actor aged 11 to play the role." Needless to say that the old tenet about not pleasing all of the people all of the time came into play, as "a backlash online" developed. Despite some initial input from the National Autistic Society (NAS) around "accuracy" and "representation" of autism in the play, they eventually decided that they couldn't support the play "particularly the use of a puppet to depict the autistic character alone."
I was a little surprised by the NAS stance on this. Surprised because when another puppet character came into being depicting autism, the NAS was a little more 'positive' on its introduction. That character was Julia "a little girl who also has autism" who appears on Sesame Street. And at the time of her introduction, the head of the NAS was reported as saying "his organisation hopes it will "inspire" other creators to include characters with autism in their work." Well it might have done, but what's the difference between Laurence and Julia, and why the different response?
I don't have any divine insight as to why the different response, but let's have a look at a few 'possibilities'.
Both puppets appear in productions that also include real-life actors, so this is not about the setting in a character-sense. The look of the puppets? Well, Julia has the typical muppet features: warm skin tone, big eyes, mouth inclined to a smile. A typical 'Anything Muppet'. Laurence is quite a bit different. More human in features, a much less warm skin tone, and eyes that can only be described as piercing. There's quite a physical difference between them. So could this be about that physical difference between the puppets?
Depiction is another factor to potentially consider. Outside of the 'autistic, non-verbal and occasionally violent' description, we are also told that "Laurence likes pizza. Laurence is about to go to school. Laurence thinks it’s okay to wee on mummy’s pillow." Allowing for the age difference in intended audiences between Sesame Street and All In A Row, I think you can see some potential differences between how autism is being depicted by Julia and Laurence. Indeed this perhaps ties into another part of the the NAS response about the use of Laurence: "we could not support the play overall due to its portrayal of autism." The question therefore is whether the depiction of autism including physical violence for example (something that has recently been enshrined in English educational law with autism in mind) is a reason for the 'backlash'? Is this more about PR than anything else?
I think what many people forget (or don't want to remember!) is that autism is a very, very heterogeneous spectrum. It describes so much human experience under one banner. There are no doubt many children who fit the Julia description of autism. Fairly quiet, wouldn't hurt a fly, thriving in some areas yet struggling in others. On the other hand, there are also children who probably better fit the Laurence description of autism: 99% of the time like Julia but also prone to aggressive outbursts (against themselves and also others) and sometimes challenging in their behaviour. The trend to show the world the Julia children over the Laurence children is quite pronounced in some quarter these days. It's also accompanied by online 'abuse' of parents and guardians who dare to show / talk about their 'challenging' children and their reality (see here). Indeed, social media is full of parents showing the good and not-so-good side of their kids, but if your child has autism / is autistic it seems some people think you're not entitled to do the same? Sounds like discrimination to me. Such sentiments have also probably partly contributed to the formation of a society that focuses on "the burgeoning population of children and adults affected by severe forms of autism or related disorders." Even that society attracted criticism (see here) despite, as far as I can see, some noble goals around healthcare and vocational options which may well benefit everyone on the autism spectrum. Like I said "not pleasing all of the people all of the time."
Finally, the word 'dehumanising' is used quite a bit in that news report: "a negative narrative of dehumanising" and "literally dehumanised the identity you sought to represent." My question: does Julia, as a puppet, also dehumanise autism? Because surely if the charge is levied against Laurence as a puppet, then Julia as a puppet also fits the bill too? And if so, perhaps the media need to come up with other ways and means of getting more characters with autism on the screen (see here) to depict the wide range of behaviour covered under the [currently] singular term of autism...