A NEW play coming to the Everyman stage in Cork next week aims to combat the stigma of being autistic.
Playwright Jody O’Neill, who is Tipperary-born and Cork-raised, says she wrote What I Don’t Know About Autism following a family encounter with the disorder.
“My son was diagnosed in 2016, and then I received a diagnosis in 2019. I was 39,” Jody recalls.
Her son was only four at the time of his diagnosis. He was showing symptoms of anxiety and fear in situations that did not induce panic in his peers. Jody also noticed that her child had difficulties making friends.
“He was having a lot of anxiety just from trying to navigate the world around him,” she says.
After the diagnosis, Jody began researching autism, reading everything on the topic in detail. Soon, she started recognising herself in the literature.
“I thought ‘this makes a lot of sense in the context of my own life’,” she says.
Jody’s diagnosis made her son more comfortable with being autistic.
“He didn’t want to be autistic if he was the only autistic person in the family,” Jody says.
Both diagnoses, however, led to an eye-opening discovery for Jody: It’s not easy to be autistic in a culture in which stigma against autism still runs high.
Jody thinks lack of acceptance for neurodiversity has its roots in distorted media coverage of disorders that fall under the umbrella of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
ASD includes a range of conditions that were previously considered separate, from Asperger’s Syndrome — generally believed to be a milder form of autism — to childhood disintegrative disorder.
Sensational headlines shatter the confidence of autistic people, causing them to isolate themselves, Jody reasons.
“The media paints autism as a tragedy,” she says.
I remember when my son was diagnosed, I was trying to tell him about his diagnosis, and I opened (a newspaper) and there was a big, fat headline saying ‘No parent wants their child to be diagnosed with autism’,” she says.
“If my son read that, how is he going to think about himself?”
If appropriate Government support for autistic children was in place, getting a diagnosis would have lacked its current devastating impact for some parents, Jody reasons.
Studies also suggest that autistic people may face discrimination when seeking employment or might experience workplace harassment and bullying.
Although the Central Statistics Office (CSO) does not specifically compile data on employment experiences of autistic people, As I Am, a national autism advocacy group says that 40% of autistic Irish workers have reported workplace harassment.
Jody says raising awareness about autism is critical and writing What I Don’t Know About Autism was her attempt at straightening neurotypicals’ crooked notions about the disorder.
“I guess (the play) is less about autistic people having trouble navigating the world, and more about trying to give non-autistic audiences an insight into what it’s like to be autistic,” Jody says.
Jody had studied acting in Trinity College and worked as a waitress for 10 years before realising that she had more to offer.
“I had some amazing jobs, but there is nothing like a bad experience at waiting tables to push you into an artistic form you’re heading toward,” she says, laughing.
Last year, Jody’s play about the Irish experience in a transforming world, titled Ballybaile, was shortlisted for The Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.
Dónal Gallagher, the director of What I Don’t Know About Autism, brings a history of social work to theatre. Hence, he is at ease with directing actors with disabilities.
Having also been involved with Equinox Theatre, an inclusive drama company based in KCAT Arts Centre in Callan, Co Kilkenny, Dónal felt right at home directing Jody’s newest play.
For the Dublin director, working with actors with disabilities has shone a light on the importance of treating people equally, even if they fall short of our perception of normal.
“You never know what people’s disabilities are, and it gives you a sense of, ‘you know what, they’re just people’,” he says.
“Recently, someone asked me ‘what are so and so’s disabilities in Equinox Theatre, and I went, ‘I have no idea’.”
Both autistic and non-autistic actors are performing in What I Don’t Know About Autism.
Cindy Cummins, the play’s choreographer, who also works with performers with disabilities at KCAT Arts Centre, points out the importance of actualising autistic people’s adept use of body language as a form of self-expression.
“Their language is movement, not verbal. And what I really found fascinating was to use this as a tool for creating choreography for the show,” she says.
“It’s like there was a whole other physical language that I did not realise existed.”
Cindy has also discovered “a different perception of hearing and seeing things” in her autistic performers — an autistic way of looking at things with “all of the senses more heightened”.
She hopes that the show’s choreography will do the phenomenon justice.
The new play showcases various autistic characters with their own unique personalities and quirks, to portray that autistic people may share a disorder, yet that different attitudes and interests separate them.
“If you met one person with autism, don’t assume what was true for one person, is going to be true for the next,” Jody says.
The Arts Council and Wicklow and Dublin County Councils have funded What I Don’t Know About Autism. Cork’s Everyman, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre and Wicklow’s Mermaid Arts Centre have co-produced it.
The play runs from February 11-13 in the Everyman. See www.everymancork.com for details.