I’m breaking a rule by writing about a play I haven’t read or seen, called The Big Things, by Mike Heath, which has recently stirred unease among autistic people, autistic mothers in particular. The Big Things, is ostensibly about autistic motherhood but from what I hear this subject is never truly examined in the play.
Yes okay, I’m going on hearsay (from autistic women who’ve read the script and one who’s seen the play) but this is more than good enough for me. I feel I’ve given both playwright and production company (Kibo) more than enough of my time in the past few days.
Autistic motherhood, in contrast, is a subject I know intimately from the inside, unlike Mike Heath.
Mike Heath, and Kibo Productions have stumbled into a PR nightmare in taking on this subject (it seems) without sufficient knowledge or research. The real shocker for me is that this play should be Shortlisted for the BBC Alfred Bradley Bursary Award 2016. Culturally speaking, no-one in the room sees autistic women. Let alone do they see us as creatives who might want to (and do) write our own plays about ourselves.
But I think this play slipped through the net, as it were, because it’s not really about autistic motherhood (how could it be?) No – this play is about how frustrating a fictional neurotypical man finds it to have a relationship with an autism stereotype. She’s a cardboard cut-out, dude. No wonder….
I should explain that as an autistic mother my greatest fear about this play is that it could gain success. And that the portrayal of “Grace” (ironically named as she has no grace?) could develop the legs of a Rainman or a Christopher (Curious Incident in the Nightime) and go walk about. Such figures stick and we are landed with them, unable to shake them off for decades. I literally shudder at this thought.
I wouldn’t suggest that a neurotypical man should never write about autistic motherhood, for what is fiction if not the work of imagination?
But I admit I’m not keen on the notion of neurotypical men writing about autistic women at this point in our cultural emergence (for reasons of historic and systemic ableism and patriarchy). But if they must, at the very least they should do the homework (which means consulting actually autistic women who are mothers, and hiring us as sensitivity editors).
If they must, they should do right by us and avoid writing harmful stereotypes. But this sounds like a horrible play, which does exactly the opposite.
At one point in the heated Twitter debate things went a bit dark. Were some of us trying to force their creative to do something against his will, Kibo Tweeted, somewhat petulantly I thought. Er, NO.
Up until this point it had seemed they would do their utmost to put this living howler right. They’d seemed hapless and merely ignorant (although they had tweeted inaccurately that the National Autistic Society had read the script for them). No-one was calling out malicious intention (that I could see) or being in any way coercive – not at all. It’s my experience that autistic people rarely feel they have power in such situations – this is the whole point.
Somehow as a group we had overstepped the mark for Kibo, and trust was on the wane on both sides. This irony shouldn’t be lost.
A group conversation online can go in many directions, and meanings misunderstood. But we’re rightfully angry about The Big Things.
I wish Mike Heath had not had the sense of entitlement to write this play. He was, of course, free to write it – but no one said autistic mothers had to like it, or quieten down while others mop up the mess.
Autistics are a minority group who don’t have cultural representation (although we’re edging forward) – the point is that we don’t yet have a voice. The voice we’re presently conferred by others thus becomes crucial – each time. Each time someone who has a platform writes about us and gets it wrong we’re pushed back.
This is vital for autistic women who are mothers too. We have been even more overlooked as a demographic. We’ve been either unimagined (as not possible) or maligned (refrigerator mothers – autistic causation seeping from our frozen nipples to our unloved infants!)
I felt the shadow of Bruno Bettelheim in the descriptions I read of Grace by the autistic women who act as my first hand witnesses. Is it any wonder that this conversation is so uncomfortable for us all? It should be.
If you want to support the voices of autistic mothers, please read this marvellous open letter led by Katherine May. You can ask to be a signatory in support, and you don’t have to be an autistic mother to do so.
Thank you so much for reading this post.