Trigger warning – suicide mentions.
I know a a lot about posthumous collaboration. As an artist I work in multiple forms to respond to my father’s life story and his plays. I’ve even written a play about a playwright with my father’s name, and adopted his voice to narrate my take on his story. In many ways I view Richard Butchins’ 213 Things About Me as a kindred project. At an artist’s talk last year, I was caught by surprise when asked what my father would think about my work. This question has stayed with me and makes me wonder what the real Rose would make of these podcasts. It takes a profound level of trust in a relationship for work quite so intimate. The first episode of the series is called, You What?
This is a helpful perspective if you’re concerned about an autistic man curating an autistic woman’s voice. Also, this “true story” isn’t just told from one woman’s perspective. 213 Things About Me began as a conversation between friends. You What? continues in this vein. I’m intrigued to know how this aspect of the story will play out in subsequent episodes.
Richard’s voice expertly weaves though what is a beautifully constructed narrative to help tell Rose’s story, and to add his own experiences and opinions. I’m glad he owns this. Actor Rosa Hoskins is superb as Rose. Patrick Knill is the voice of Wikipedia. These are voices to disarm the most wary of “regular folk”, which is Richard’s term for people whose neurology doesn’t vary from the supposed ‘norm.’ ‘Regular folk” are perhaps the prime audience for these podcasts, though “irregular folk” may enjoy them too. We may not see ourselves reflected in Rose and Richard, but autism is as varied as “regular folk” are, and that’s okay as long as listeners listen carefully. Rosa finds comfort in maths, I still have residual school maths trauma. There are many ways to be human, as Richard says.
You What? includes beginners notes to complex questions, such as what neurodiverse means (I’ll get back that). The soundtrack is just shy of upbeat. Everything signals that we’re in good hands. We’re about to go inside autism, and most listeners will feel reassured with Richard as their guide.
“Welcome to the world of ‘Rose’, where social distancing is a daily reality. After her diagnosis for Asperger’s Syndrome, Richard suggested she write a list of her positive qualities, which she called 213 Things About Me.”
It’s a smart move to publish these podcasts at a time of social distancing. For once autistics are watching “regular folks” cope, and we have wisdom to share if they’ll listen. So I hope these podcasts will prove popular beyond our community. Richard was granted access to Rose’s computer files, allowing for so much more than just an engaging list of attributes. It’s the longer passages of Rose’s thoughts I enjoy most. Forensically dissecting the art of lying, she concludes the intellectual effort isn’t worth it. I longed for more room for her voice, but there was a mountain of contextual information to pack into episode 1. The background to this story (to understanding autism) is complex, and I guess that’s the point. There wasn’t enough Rose. Her life was cut short by events we will perhaps learn about in future episodes.
So this story comes with a major trigger warning. Rose is a fictional name for a woman who tragically committed suicide six months after her Asperger Syndrome diagnosis at the age of just 36. This is but one reason I might hesitate to listen. Autistic adults who do not have a learning disability are 9 times more likely to die from suicide (Autistica UK) than “regular folks”. Richard tells us that Rose was special in an exclusive way because she was damaged by the world around her. I think this series of podcasts will do much to inform about the intolerable pressures on autistic people to conform to neurological bias’. We’re seriously harmed by the “regular folks” demand that we be like “regular folk” too. We simply can’t be, so we disguise ourselves to survive and such erasure can be devastating.
I’m not damaged by life, but I do have inbuilt defences. Autism narratives can cause discomfort even when the author is autistic. Internalised ableism and adoption of unhelpful tropes can be intensely triggering. The simple fact of ones own autism not being reflected can be painful, this is not narcissism it’s a pile-on into our historic erasure. I have to be sure I have the mental capacity to invest. A project like this also throws up comparisons. Will this be another The Reasons I Jump, or Rosie Project? I get easily bored. I have a short attention span. I am suspicious of new things. I could get hung up on the use of a robot in the publicity pic, (I wouldn’t use it) but I respect the quality of Richard’s work and Disability Arts Online’s content. You have to trust both the source and the voice, and I do.
213 Things About Me is unique, though it contains echoes of other autism narratives and touches on some common tropes. You’ll learn as much about Richard’s views as you will about Rose. “When people ask for your opinion don’t give it.” Is great advice for people like me who fall for this “regular folk” trick every time. I’ll try to remember, Richard. Cheers!
If I wanted to quibble (and I often do) I would argue with Richard’s use of the term ‘high functioning’ in this episode. He also misuses the term neurodiverse, but so does virtually everybody else. I’m glad he does because it lets me off the hook. I’m officially quitting my queen Cnut perch on the important difference between neurodiverse and neurodivergent. If even Judy Singer, the originator of these terms caves to this inevitability, then so be it. Like Rose, Sonia likes precision but she isn’t going to get it.
Do give episode 1 a listen, and let me know what you think.