All In A Row: Triumph of Art over Dogma

Feb 25, 2019reThinking Autism blog

Today has been a day filled with anxiety and excitement in equal measure for this autistic humanoid. Driven by a love of puppetry, my interest in all things autism and a passion for the humble locomotive, I’ve broken my usually ironclad routine to make the 350 mile round trip to see All In a Row. For the uninitiated, it’s the somewhat controversial theatrical production featuring the severely autistic Laurence and his dysfunctional family.

So, let’s get right down to some myth-busting. Firstly, All In A Row is most definitely not about portraying the full diversity of the autism spectrum to its audience. The focus is on one particularly dysfunctional family unit and the dramatic (or perhaps melodramatic) climax that results from many years of poor communication, isolation, deteriorating mental health and a lack of support, compassion and understanding from a society with little genuine insight into the realities of severe autism.

Secondly, Laurence is not a puppet. Am I delusional, you may ask? If your experience of puppetry ends at some garishly bright anthropomorphised blob, crudely brought to life by a human hand up its jacksie, then you are ignorant of the real art of puppetry. This particular example is a beautifully crafted work of art, but it is not the heart of Laurence. That would be Hugh Purves, a seriously talented puppeteer and actor who works something of a small miracle bringing the beautiful inner world of a non-speaking, severely autistic child to life on stage. There is little doubt that he has invested a significant amount of time and energy into researching and perfecting his performance of Laurence, delivering an appropriately nuanced characterisation of this disabled 11-year-old boy. I don’t know if Hugh is one of the neurodivergent members of the team mentioned by the director, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he were.

Using a puppet in tandem with an actor/puppeteer poignantly humanises what, from the promotional material, looked set to be a horribly stereotypical portrayal of severe autism.

It won’t shock you, then, to learn that I vehemently disagree with the assertion that the choice to portray Laurence in this way somehow dehumanises autistic people. The reality, for me, is quite the opposite. Using a puppet in tandem with an actor/puppeteer poignantly humanises what, from the promotional material, looked set to be a horribly stereotypical portrayal of severe autism. Hugh bought a real visceral quality to his characterisation of Laurence, contrasting the playfulness of his vocal utterances, sensory seeking behaviours and special interests with a raw, frustrated emotional intensity and enchanting vulnerability. At no point in the play does the writing attempt to poke fun at Laurence. In fact, the only amusement that Laurence elicited from the audience was a few spontaneous giggles aimed at Hugh’s charming and quirky portrayal of Laurence enjoying his special interests.

Finally, I want to address the complaint that severe autism dominates the media narrative and that All In Row is neither brave nor unique in its portrayal of Laurence and the struggles of his family. I can say with confidence that this is a blatant falsehood. For decades high functioning self-advocates, including those who use modes of communication other than speech, have dominated the public face of autism. This part of the spectrum is also over-represented in the mediums of film and TV. With autism now widely portrayed as some form of geek syndrome, is it any wonder that those without personal, first-hand experience of severe autism appear shocked by this powerful performance? Indeed, the reactions of many audience members reflected this as the on-stage drama unfolded.

With All In A Row now out there in the public domain, we have an opportunity to start building a new narrative. One that tells the stories of those most in need of acknowledgement and support from our society.

The lives of severely autistic individuals like Laurence, and their families, have remained hidden from sight, an inconvenient footnote to the popular narrative surrounding glamorous autism media icons like Chris Packham and Anne Hegerty. Sadly, the now widely held perception that autism is merely a difference, rather than a disability, and that everyone with autism is capable of leading independent and successful lives, only serves to undermine the access of families like Laurence’s to what are often woefully inadequate and underfunded public services.

With All In A Row now out there in the public domain, we have an opportunity to start building a new narrative. One that tells the stories of those most in need of acknowledgement and support from our society. The groups who abuse, stigmatise and further isolate those devoted souls who parent some of the most vulnerable humans in our community are certainly not working towards that aim. If we want to end the frequently reported real-world tragedies of circumstance that befall severely autistic children and their families, we have to show kindness and compassion when confronted with their struggles. Judgmentalism from a position of ignorance and privilege is not welcome in the new narrative of severe autism.

I’ve consciously avoided giving away details of the script so as not to spoil the play for anyone who has yet to see it. If you have any specific questions relating to my experience of the production, you are welcome to contact me via Twitter: @serverusautismo.

About the author
Tom is a 38-year-old autistic male. Diagnosed with a speech and language disorder/learning disability as a child, he spent most of his school years in special education before being re-diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Thomas spent five years of his adult life as a psychiatric inpatient and currently resides in supported accommodation in the South West of England.

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