I heard about the play, All in a Row, the other day. Specifically, I read what the writer had to say about deciding that the character of an autistic boy with “challenging behaviour” could only be portrayed by a puppet.
I know so many autistic people who have dedicated many years to overcoming society’s prejudices, fighting against the dehumanisation and othering of autistic children and adults.
And then we saw this. Among a cast of real humans, played by human actors, the single autistic is indelibly marked as an outsider. Perhaps he can, like Pinocchio, dream of one day becoming a real boy, but for now he’s cast out of humanity.
It’s hard to express just how painful it is as an autistic person to see someone who is essentially like you–the character with whom you have the most in common–portrayed this way. To be dehumanised, an empty, soulless shell incapable of any thought, feeling or expression, whose every action is in response another’s command.
This is the very embodiment of the prejudice and, yes, even hate that we face in our autistic lives. We live the reality of being labelled emotionless, incompetent, unfeeling, thoughtless. The agonising wounds of our experiences are opened afresh by this careless action, by seeing this puppet represent every insult levelled at us by our bullies and abusers.
And that is why using a puppet to portray an autistic person among a cast of human actors is unacceptable.
An empty boy with empty head, My only life is what you bring In gift each day, my will is yours. I go where you direct my string.
What do you see inside this shell, Behind this vacant glassy stare? Could anybody care enough To ever see the person there?
I didn't ask to be your puppet To play this part that you defined. Am I lost, forever other, Denied my place with human kind?
At school I would watch as the other kids played Left out on the edges and that's where I stayed Forever the outcast, forever afraid It's hard to be different, take it from me It's hard to be different, take it from me
The skills I was taught served me poorly in life Like holding my tongue, the obedient wife But never a word about facing a knife Learning compliance was no good to me Learning compliance was no good to me
I've taken the beatings, got bruised blue and black Scarred deep in my mind after verbal attack So well did I learn that you never fight back Obeying their rules didn't go well for me Obeying their rules didn't go well for me
The ones who oppress us stand guard at the gates I knelt and I begged just for scraps from their plates The loss of my dignity painfully grates The autism industry don't speak for me The autism industry don't speak for me
I've heard about heroes, I've listened to songs Of fighting injustice and righting the wrongs But my heart it won't heal until it belongs Autistic culture is something to see Autistic culture is somewhere to be
If you want to help your people then stand next to me If you want to help our people then stand up with me