The Big Things (a play about female autism…or is it?)

I’m not a writer particularly or an academic or reviewer so please bear with me…what I am is a late diagnosis (dx) aspergers female (dx at 38,40 now) with a diagnosed autistic mum (diagnosed at 69, just months before me) and I have two sisters with a son each on the spectrum.  I’m also an actress, performer and a member of The Stealth Aspies alongside Paul Wady, Janine Booth and Alain English.  I have pretty strong opinions on the misrepresentation of autistic people onstage (well in any cultural form actually) which is why I wanted to see The Big Things for myself before sharing opinions on it.   I went to see it on Wednesday night and I have taken a bit of time since to work out what to say about it (well about 48 hours anyway). I felt strongly about seeing it because the production company who staged it have received quite a grilling on twitter of late and I just wanted to see the play for myself, i’m not good with an impassioned twitter storm (don’t have the spoons and can’t keep track easily)  unless I really have seen/know the facts…i’m just not that confident.  Also my degree was in devising theatre and performance analysis so the puritan in me wanted to see if it was worth being upset about.  I’m glad I did see it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it. I appreciate the company (Kibo Productions) providing us with tickets and chatting with us after, so thanks to them for that.  It was much appreciated, in a busy week it took extra spoons to fit in travelling over to London to see it so their response to my heading over was hugely reassuring.

The play

I genuinely loved the space, the set, the staging choices and the cast!…there is some lovely (sometimes funny) dialogue in it, it’s an engaging piece, and it’s moving in quite a few moments but then there’s the other thing

The problem

(the big thing!…if you will) the elephant in the room, which is the fact that it’s a story entirely shared with us through the eyes of the man in the relationship, and the woman is autistic (we never hear from her…ie breaking the fourth wall and sharing with us…well not early on enough for it to make any difference to how we feel about her)

The characters

The character’s are called Grace and Malcolm, and the perspective on Grace feels patronising in places,  she seems very crudely drawn, like a theatrical character equivalent of a child’s first draft of an autistic woman…simply there to serve the momentum of the story of Malcolm’s relationship trials and tribulations with the ‘girl on the spectrum’.  We don’t get to know Grace…at all really, her opinion on anything is only shared with us as a complete footnote to their entire story.

The relationship

Malcolm obviously romanticizes Grace from the beginning, which means her charming differences and quirks are presented lovingly to begin with, slightly simplistic but so far so good but once we get into the ‘meat’ of their story ie marriage, motherhood etc increasingly it feels that Grace is shown as not up to the task of being a mum  and because we’re only hearing from Malcolm we don’t get to hear how she feels about all of that, so we have a very unbalanced view.  Most stories come to us through one character’s eyes/experiences ok, that bit’s fine, but when we know

a) autism is one of the most misunderstood ‘conditions’/neurotypes on the planet and

b) the public know next to nothing about autism in women (let’s face it we all may as well have been unicorns ‘til a few years back) it’s a little worrying to have such a traditional stereotype and a negative take on her capabilities in life (ie the culmination of their family  situation due to Grace’s inability to cope) presented to us onstage.

On a personal note Malcolm’s behaviour towards Grace in moments when he didn’t know what was triggering her (and she possibly didn’t know herself….although sometimes she did and he was still unsupportive) was incredibly stressful and difficult to watch and ultimately felt, for someone with the completely other perspective on ‘their story’ like a play about an autistic woman berated into becoming a mother by a selfish unfeeling man who only wanted to hear what he wanted to hear when she spoke, tried to squish her into a box of his expectations, and then nagged/bullied her when, being blind-sided into the position of motherhood triggered her unravelling.

A solution in future?

The question for me is why am I writing this and why does it matter in the scheme of well…anything?… so here goes, I’m going to try to explain my position on the difficulties of this story being told in this way…and the subsequent furore that’s been unleashed, it is unusual for a production company to want to tackle this subject so for that I have to say, good going to Kibo.  However the next step has to be the definite increase in information on the subjects of how varied (if similar in many ways) those of us who are diagnosed autistic as woman, because there were definitely cliched moments from Grace that felt like Rachel (the replicant, learning to be a human) in Bladerunner, also we did experience her as going from ‘meltdown to meltdown’ with not too much nuance in between (whereas we developed a rapport…in theory, with Malcolm) also her obsession with brown and only brown and her ‘other-worldliness’ a lot of the time made her seem like a hobbit or a wood nymph, we’re actually pretty textured multi-layered individuals and unless she’d led a wildly sheltered life (yes indeed, being raised in a hole in the ground) she couldn’t have been that mystified about everything, everything! about being human.  (as someone rightly mentioned on twitter in this discussion recently, adult autistics have learnt things, we learn things and adapt to some extent to get by in the world, we’re not just autistic children who stop developing there)

It’s beyond important to get woman and specifically autistic mothers involved in these discussions, I have an autistic mum but I’m not one, I know my own Mum would have had invaluable insights into the story of she’s have popped over to see it with us.

In good news there will be a Q&A panel about the play tonight actually, I was invited to attend and participate and would really have liked to but I’m unable to, the brill Paul Wady will be there…I suppose this has to be the start of many conversations on these subjects, I was invited to write a response because I feel passionately about this when I chatted with Leo from Kibo, as there is so much food for thought from the play and events surrounding it, this is simply a first response.

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