Sunday 10 February 2019

A puppet portrays the character of Laurence, who is described as “autistic, non-verbal and occasionally violent”

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...



  1. The difference is that the autistic character in all in a row is the only puppet. Everyone is human except the autistic person.
    Julia is a puppet among puppets.
    The problem isn't 'using puppets to portray autistic people' it's singling autistic people out and portraying them differently.
    If other characters were puppets, it'd be fine.

  2. There are a lot of non-speaking autistic people who could have been contacted for comment before going ahead with the play. The producers say they consulted up to 50 autistic people through the years prior to the production, but somehow all these autistic consultants are now no longer available, and the ones who remain do not want their identities known. (The curious tale of the consultant in the night-time?) Meanwhile, a very vehement group of autistic people with varying degrees of disability, some of them survivors of years of institutional torture, have spoken out against the production.

    The puppet isn't the only problem with the play. It also appears as though the playwright and the marketers do not understand some of the most common issues that autistic people have, that can lead to defacating and urinating in inappropriate places. The character is portrayed as someone who 'thinks it's OK' to do this -- an unlikely situation in most autisms.

    The question that gets lost in this debate is, "Should disabled people's opinions matter when we do things that affect their lives?" Even the newspapers which have written about this have largely ignored the fact that a sizeable number of the people who are objecting are themselves autistic -- and that it was an autistic person who first raised the red flag.

    One of them even made a protest site:

    1. Thanks Tania. I agree with some of your points but would offer a different opinion on others. My opinion, for what it's worth, is my own.
      Given the strength of feeling on this topic I don't think it's surprising that some people who worked with the production team don't want their identities known. The online abuse that some autistic people / people with autism get from their own community (despite my major reticence to use the word 'community' with reference to an extremely diverse group of people) is very evident to see; particularly if their views on their own experience of autism are seemingly at odds with the 'majority view'. I daresay that anyone 'owning up' to working on this project (particularly on social media) is likely to have a rough ride. The autistic people who I know probably wouldn't enjoy such exposure.
      Insofar as the possible reasons behind behaviours such as defacating and urinating "in inappropriate places" I don't think anyone can really offer an authoritative explanation for this or any other behaviour. Yes, people can bring in their own experiences of this and the reasons 'they' perhaps engaged in such behaviours, but this, much like the word 'community' is not necessarily generalisable to everyone. I say this taking into account the oft-used phrase 'if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person'.
      "Should disabled people's opinions matter when we do things that affect their lives?" Yes of course. Should people have the power to dictate what the arts and other performing media should and should not 'perform'? No, that's basically an argument against freedom of speech. And because many people (including myself) are talking about a play that we haven't yet seen, I think final judgement on the quality of the play should be reserved for those that have. Thanks, Paul


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.