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What I (Don't) Know About Autism


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Winning Hearts and Minds

At a recent production of The Sound of Music, loud, intermittent grunting could be heard coming from somewhere in the auditorium throughout the performance. Rightly or wrongly, many attributed the sound to someone with autism. Reactions were mixed. Some people nosily whispered complaints. Some sympathised. Some complained while sympathising. Others didn’t return after intermission. The question of inclusion at live events for people with autism was being keenly felt. ‘What do they want,’ someone muttered at the bar during intermission, ‘rock concerts with no sudden movements and the sound turned down? Mandatory subtitles at movies with trigger warnings before every explosion?’ If you’re already familiar with Jody O’Neill’s "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism," you’ll likely have some idea of the many issues informing these remarks. If you haven’t already seen "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism" then you really need to find yourself a ticket. It’s not just that it’s irresistible in making its concerns heard, favouring a culture change approach rather than battering you about the head with lashing of serious, self righteous anger. "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism" is also a smart, funny and utterly enjoyable night of theatre that enlightens as it entertains.

And it’s a relaxed performance. Meaning, among other things, house lights on, phones off, and come and go as you please. Throughout, the format is simple: six actors, two flip charts, some deceptively brilliant rotating blocks designed by Meab Lambert, and a bucketload of theatrical ingenuity. Take the use of charts to list scenes, allowing for trigger warnings to be slipped in almost unnoticed as each scene is introduced. All ably supported by some non-intrusive surtitles. With two egg-timed question periods during the show in case you want clarification, and a twenty minute post show discussion, you've everything you need to get answers to any questions. Along with the everyday business of talking, acting, singing, and dancing as scene after scene unfolds, unleashing lashings of laughter and insight. Fashioned from a theatrical imagination that would leave many seasoned veterans hanging their head in shame. For there are winning hearts and minds in "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism," which includes cast members with autism. Shay Croke, Paula McGlinchey, Jayson Murray, Jody O’Neill, Matthew Ralli and Eleanor Walsh continually delight playing multiple characters and offering multiple insights. Superbly directed by Dónal Gallagher, masterfully channelling movement and energy in all the right places, ably assisted by Cindy Cummings’ simple yet smart choreography.

Yet it’s not all sunshine and roses. As scenes progress, oscillating between the lighthearted and the harrowing, clearer understanding emerges. Like the use of bleach and electro shock to treat people with autism in hospitals and institutions. The murder of autistic children at the hands of their parents. The painful lack of State support and the bureaucratic hoops to be jumped through. The dick pics on Tinder and wondering how to behave on a first date. Frustrated parents and teachers who don’t understand. Bars, clubs, and restaurants that you don’t want to be in. Repetitive movements like toying with your hair, tapping your fingers, or some other such type of stimming. Odd that. With everyone sharing so many of the same issues, you might almost be inclined to think that people, whatever their differences, really aren’t so different after all. So maybe we shouldn’t treat people so differently?

If "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism" makes its point, it doesn’t always make its case, the happy family looking decidedly disingenuous for seeming way too easy. As if such modest accommodations where all it took. And while it’s true that often that is all you need — patience, knowledge, listening — there are other times when those simple accommodations simply aren’t enough. Indeed, if people with autism cannot accommodate to the world, the world accommodating to them won’t always be so easy. Nor will cultural accommodations that need to be teased out to define how inclusivity is to be negotiated. A spontaneous burst of applause following a superb song and dance routine being a case in point. Making the end show request that people not clap but wave their hands feel out of place. The hand wave gesture proving painfully inadequate to express the genuine outpouring felt by a hugely appreciative audience. A gesture, some argue, that can often be a problem for people who dislike sudden movements.

Turning theatre from a publicly private to a publicly shared, relaxed experience might seem to offer a wonderful alternative, but theatre might risk losing an audience not prepared to sit through relaxed performances as a norm. Yet if only certain performances are relaxed, does that not implicitly reinforce exclusion? Are some relaxed performances better than none? Relax, it’s all good. In "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism" the point isn’t about offering an ultimate solution, but about suggesting small accommodations on the way to a larger conversation on inclusivity. Showing as well as telling, listening as well as sharing, to try and affect a culture change in a non-judgemental fashion. In which case, "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism" is a job well done. And then some. Leaving you awash in hope and joy, wanting to know and to do more.

"What I (Don’t) Know About Autism" is an innovative theatrical experience that makes light work of heavy themes. Even if you don't want every performance to be a relaxed performance, you’ll most likely come away wanting to see more. Beginning with the outpouring of joy that is "What I (Don’t) Know About Autism." You really have to see it. Even just to witness the best reimagining of Don’t Stop Believin’ to be heard anywhere on the planet.

"What I (Don’t) Know About Autism" by Jody O’Neill, presented in a Jody O’Neill and Abbey Theatre co-production in association with The Everyman and Mermaid County Wicklow Arts Centre, runs at The Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre until February 8, before transferring to The Everyman, Cork, February 11 - 13 and Mermaid Arts Centre February 15.

For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre, The Everyman or Mermaid Arts Centre.

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© 2016 Chris O'Rourke