Open letter to playwright Mike Heath and Kibo Productions
The staging of Mike Heath’s The Big Things has led to some concern within the autistic community this week. Portraying a late-diagnosed autistic mother who struggles to love her child (at times referring to him as ‘it’), the play has raised the spectre of some enduring, pernicious and inaccurate stereotypes regarding autistic people. The production company, Kibo Productions, has suggested that the play was researched with reference to autism charities, but without any direct contact with autistic mothers.
Autism has long been misunderstood in the popular imagination. Lack of feeling and emotion are not diagnostic criteria of autism, and neither are they reported by autistics themselves. However, they crop up regularly in texts written by non-autistic people, and it’s vital to challenge this misapprehension.
Many people will be surprised to learn that autistic mothers exist at all. But here we are: loving, affectionate, deeply engaged and often working and/or serving our communities alongside our parenting responsibilities. It is probably too ordinary to merit a dramatic presentation, and in fact too similar to the experiences of neurotypical mothers to merit any attention at all. That is not to deny that autistic mothers face multiple challenges in their everyday lives, but those stories are theirs to tell. Autism is a very broad spectrum indeed (or even a constellation), representing millions of unique experiences. The blanket assumption that we struggle to love is a lazy, outdated cliché.
This is not an issue of free speech. We are not challenging the right of the author to portray whomever he wants – fiction would be very flat if we could only write about ourselves. We are, however, suggesting that, when you represent a minority community – and one that has been significantly demonised in the past – that you have a responsibility to properly research it through first-hand contact. That is basic good practice. There is an opportunity here to turn the tables on received ideas; to elevate the vulnerable; to punch up, instead of punching down.
This goes not just for the playwright, but also for the production company, the actors and the theatre. We urge you to be more critical when you consider whether to stage these pieces; to evaluate the power dynamics and ask where the insights come from. Put better critical processes in place, and you will get more meaningful, potent and socially active theatre. That’s a goal that we can all get behind.
Finally, a feedback opportunity has been offered in the form of a Q&A after the performance on the evening of Friday 27th April. This is inaccessible to many autistic mothers, and not just because it’s likely to be a charged and confrontational environment. Most of us are unable to attend because we’re doing the things that other mothers are doing on a Friday night: treating cut knees, sharing Friday night supper with our grown-up families, chatting about our children’s days, babysitting grandchildren, trying not to get drenched at bath-time, and kissing our kids goodnight. It may be too mundane to excite the drama critics, but we wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Signed by autistic mothers:
Jenni Layton Annabelle
Nikola Matulewicz Evans
Becca Lamont Jiggens
Dr. Emily Lovegrove
Dr Catriona Stewart
Amber Horlacher Stinnett
Juan Carlos Boué
Alex J Eliot
Elishma Nicole Heinlein
Dr Sally Morgan
Shannon Des Roches Rosa
Fiona Carmichael Tweedlie
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