Editor’s Note: This article contains depictions of extreme ableism which may be upsetting for autistic people and their loved ones. It also contains adult language and subject matter. Reader discretion is advised.
If you were on #actuallyautistic Twitter at all in February-March, you’re probably already familiar with All In A Row, the small London play that set the autism world on fire by representing an autistic child with a terrifying crotch-goblin of a puppet.
Whether you are new to #puppetgate or not, hold on to your seat because you are going to be gobsmacked when I tell you about what actually happens in the script of the play.
While the hullabaloo was initially over the tasteless choice to have a nightmarish puppet play an autistic character, it turns out that was just the tip of the crapberg.
But before we begin, let me quickly summarize #puppetgate to those who are new to this whole fiasco.
#Puppetgate – what it is and why its a thing.
When the Southwark Playhouse in London announced a one act play by a relatively unknown playwright, they didn’t dream that it would quickly make international news.
But they probably should have been worried when the National Autistic Society reviewed the script and refused to endorse the play.
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.
However, while recognising 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.-Jane Harris, Director of External Affairs, National Autistic Society
The playwright and his supporters, however, were confident that this massive autism organization just didn’t understand their vision.
Did I mention the puppet looks like this?
So when the promotional video aired, the initial reaction from everyone was “DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT THING?!”
“WHY DOES IT HAVE HUMAN LEGS AND WHY IS IT GREY AND WHY IS IT SPROUTING FROM THE PUPPETEER’S GROIN!?”
“WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO REPRESENT AN HISTORICALLY MARGINALIZED AND DEHUMANIZED GROUP WITH AN INANIMATE OBJECT!?”
The puppet was so ghastly, and the language of the promotion video and blurb were so ableist, that the tweets quickly went viral.
The cast and crew found themselves in a maelstrom of angry autistic people, so they responded with a bunch of defenses that failed to reassure anybody.
Every autistic person who had experience with carers was now feeling less comfortable with the play than before.
The puppet designer, Sian Kidd, was also a carer, apparently.
When people checked her instagram they found her initial design for the puppet which was even worse than the final version.
Why is the kid grey??
Autistic people: You made a character’s skin tone match your set?
Anyway. You get the idea. People weren’t pleased.
Part of it was the puppet itself being used to represent autistic people who are so often muzzled and have control of their lives taken away from them.
But I think that if the puppet had been nicely designed there wouldn’t have been such an outcry. After all, Julia on Sesame Street is a puppet, but she is cute, anti-stereotype, and just one of many muppets on the show.
But Laurence the Non Verbal Autistic Boy was so unattractive that everyone had to show their friends, and he went viral instantly.
Wait Until You See It
All of the arguments kept coming down to “wait until you see the play.”
The playwright, the director, and everyone else kept urging the autistic community to keep their pants on and actually see what the play is like, and I was inclined to agree.
Why judge the play by its puppet?
I love theatre and have been in many plays myself. I have seen how plays have tackled difficult topics or subjects and pulled it off astonishingly well.
I thought, well, maybe the puppet’s grey and miserable appearance is thematic. Maybe the play presents the child as a puppet at the mercy of larger forces.
Little did I know what kind of truths awaited me…
The Reviews Roll In
At first, things looked good. The All in a Row Twitter account made sure to retweet every rave.
The Guardian gave it 4 stars, calling it
“A lively, compassionate, and darkly humorous show with the unmistakeable ring of truth.”The Guardian
Another review read:
“This was a powerful and emotive show, one which needs to be seen before it can truly be judged. Having seen this play I’ve learnt more about autism in 24 hours than I have in the last 10 years. “-Playhouse Pickings
Then Shaun May, an autistic theatre professor at the University of Kent and author of “The Philosophy of Comedy on Stage and Screen” wrote a review. His main points were:
- The play was clearly geared to a neurotypical crowd. There were no accommodations available for autistic audience members such as social stories, ear defenders, content warnings, etc.
- The stationary expression on the puppet’s face promoted the feeling that there was “nobody home”.
- All of the human characters are terrible people who compared the autistic child to a dog. The father has been crapping on his wife’s pillows and blaming the kid. The script is full of common autism tropes and misconceptions which aren’t corrected in any way.
The autistic community took this in, and then collectively said, “HE CRAPPED ON HIS WIFE’S PILLOW? WHAT THE HELL IS THIS PLAY?”
Once again any attempt by the autistic community to critique the play was countered by “Well… have you seen it?”
I would have gone to see it for myself, but I can’t afford to fly myself from Canada to London to see an ableist tire-fire of a play. So I was delighted when they decided to try and calm the autistic community by having a recorded Q&A with an independent arbitor, where autistic people who couldn’t attend could submit questions to the playwright, cast and crew.
I did submit a question. I said that I wasn’t concerned by the puppet so much as how it represented autistic children on the stage. Was the puppet genuinely treated like a human child in all respects? Or did it sit like a prop in the corner while the parents said hideous ableist stuff right in front of their eleven year old?
(Spoiler: It turns out they say hideous ableist stuff in front of their eleven year old.)
Good news: my question was addressed! I was mentioned by name!
Bad news: my question wasn’t answered. Instead the cast started arguing over whether people who hadn’t seen the show should get to ask questions at all.
After that, I decided to buy the damn script and read it for myself.
The script arrived and Oh. My. Dog.
It’s worse than we ever dreamed possible.
I can see why they didn’t answer my question, because the fact is that throughout the entire play, Laurence is consistently spoken of in the third person even when he is right in front of them.
Laurence is on stage for virtually the entire play. He is there when his carer assures the parents that he would never have called social services on them because he wouldn’t want to lose his job.
He is on stage when the same carer compares him to a puppy and theorizes that all disabled people are animals wrongly reincarnated into human bodies.
Laurence’s father tells the carer, “Never say that in public.” But no one is concerned by the fact that it was said in front of Laurence.
Then again, the father doesn’t mind talking about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs bukkake (don’t Google that word) in front of his son, either. Or the possibility of his son being “sectioned and chemically lobotomized” in the near future.
The father is amused when his wife finds a turd on her pillow, blames the child and calls him “you little monster”.
And the father is the one who adores Laurence the most, saying repeatedly that he wants his son to stay home with them and not be sent away.
The mother, it is revealed, called social services on herself. She reveals this in front of the child, too. When the father admits to the pillow pooping, everyone is disgusted but no one suggests that he owes Laurence a big apology.
The mother, who is thirty-six, also sexually assaults the twenty year old carer when her husband is off getting high. Yes, that is also done in front of the child.
It is quite clear that no one in this play thinks that Laurence can understand what anyone is saying about him.
If anything the mother wonders whether her son is even capable of recognizing humans at all.
And yet there is no reason why Laurence wouldn’t understand everything said around him. Besides the fact that we know that autistic people understand even when they cannot comply or respond correctly, on the rare occasion that he is addressed directly he does respond correctly.
When told “Get a plate,” he gets a plate. When told, “too loud,” he turns his iPad down. When told that he can have more pizza when the timer goes off, he settles down to watch Finding Nemo until the timer goes off.
And we know from listening to autistic people that autistic people do understand what goes on around them even when it looks like they do not or they aren’t paying attention.
But this play never acknowledges or mentions this fact.
This play repeatedly presents forcible restraint– the kind where a person is pinned face down on the ground, the kind of restraint that has killed autistic children and even grown adults– as the only way to stop a child from biting someone during a meltdown.
This play repeatedly presents meltdowns as unavoidable.
This play repeatedly models adults discussing autistic children as though the children were not right there, listening, and never suggests that this might be inappropriate.
This play presents autism as a relationship-breaker and autistic children as uncontrollable and oblivious, and it claims that forcible restraint is the only real option to dealing with violent behaviour.
This is the play that made someone with no connection to autism feel that they had “learnt more about autism in the last 24 hours than in the last 10 years.”
This is the play that has people saying things like this:
…I’ll just leave this shot of the script to end off, okay?
You and me both, Tamora.
If you want to read my entire live-tweet blow-by-blow of the play you can find it on Twitter here, but I recommend taking a Gravol (anti-nausea medicine for the Americans reading) first.