All in Row Review – representing autism on stage

I’ve spent longer than usual ruminating on this one. There is so much to unpack and I want to do my best to do it all justice. This is a longer read. So buckle up!

First of all I’m not an autistic person. I have not experienced this hostile world from an autistic perspective nor have I faced the discrimination or prejudiced that many of my autistic friends will have.

I am, however, a mother to two wonderful autistic daughters with learning disabilities and auntie to two autistic nephews with additional needs.

Professionally I am a theatre maker with a specific interest in theatre for young people and extensive experience working with people with learning disabilities and autistic people. I have also been privileged to have worked alongside a range of brilliant autistic adult artists and academics.

As a playwright I have just written and we are about to record an audio drama podcast about Judy Fryd who founded mencap, in response to the lack of support she received for her daughter Felicity who, if she’d been born now rather the in 1938 would probably have been diagnosed as autistic.

As a neurotypical person I will never be an expert on autism but, both professionally and personally, I have knowledge about autism, learning disabilities and neurodiversity and a vested interest in these topics.

Many of you will have seen the #puppetgate controversy in response to Alex Oates play All In A Row at the Southwark playhouse. The play tells the story of a family with an autistic son Lawrence who is violent and his parents as they spend their last night together before their he moves away to residential school. The main focus of people’s objections to the play was that 11 year old autistic Lawrence was represented by a puppet.

Some people seemed to suggest that the playwright, who I understand had worked extensively with autistic children and their families, was not allowed to tell this story. This bothered me. As a writer, I regularly write characters whose stories are worlds away from my own. I do this by researching a lot and listening a lot.  I think it’s my job to tell a range of stories from a range of perspectives. This doesn’t mean that I would stand in the way of someone more qualified or experienced to tell my story but I definitely think that I should be allowed to write beyond my own experience.

From what I read most of the people who objected had not seen the play. I felt uncomfortable about this. I can think of plenty of examples of theatre where a puppet has more humanity than an actor. Without really understanding the intention of this decision or experiencing its affect I felt uncomfortable condemning it. It plainly shows a lack of compassion if neurotypical people demand that autistic people, who may have felt excluded or othered, deliberately go and see something potentially triggering and traumatising. However, I remained concerned that, if the piece is condemned without it being seen, then stories about children like mine, families like mine, may never be told and we remain invisible.  I don’t know how to reconcile this problem.

So I went to see it. I was actually lucky enough to be sat next to producer Paul Wilshaw from Mind the Gap who told me he is one of Britain’s only learning disabled theatre producers. He was there for the same reasons as me. He couldn’t critique it without seeing it. He quite rightly pointed out how inaccessible the performance seemed to be from the off with a very clear guide from the stewards that if we left we would not be readmitted. I realise that this is an intimate performance space but it didn’t really set a great tone in terms of inclusivity although I am aware that they did offer a relaxed matinee.

So what did I think? The play is exceptionally well crafted. I wept uncontrollably through a lot of it as so much of it chimed with my own experiences. I think that Oates has created an exquisite piece which gives voice to an experience which I have not seen on stage before. The acting was truthful with outstanding performances from all three performers. 

In terms of the subject matter, I think some people might take exception to the way in which the piece problematises the autistic person. The focus is very much on the impact of having a child with uncontrollable behaviour on the whole family. It is about a family at breaking point. Is this representative of autistic people as a whole? Of course not. But it is representative of some families and I think it is a story that, especially in a time of austerity where disabled people and their families are disproportionately affected, needs to be told.

Autism is, as we all know, a spectrum. Having the honour to love, live and work alongside a range of autistic people I now feel that we need more words to express what this is. My children seem a world away from some that I teach and even further away from some of the gifted and intelligent artists whose work I have admired. All in a Row, in part faced a backlash because we are not telling enough stories about autistic people and autistic people are not being given the platform to tell their own stories. This needs to change. 

So, now for what you really want to know – what about the puppet? 

Let’s backtrack. If Oates wanted to tell this story what options did he have available? He could have chosen for the Lawrence to be always off stage and only spoken about. He could have made this choice but, as Lawrence, and his extreme behaviour is central to the story, I don’t think it would have been a good choice. 

He could have cast an autistic actor in the role. Yes, he could. However, Lawrence is 11 and, I think, needed to be child size. Casting a child would have been problematic owing to the physical nature of some scenes not to mention child licensing laws. 

It would not be ethical or possible to cast someone who is as disabled as the child in this story. Someone so profoundly affected, like my children, could not have given informed consent and would not be able to perform on demand. 

For all these reasons I can see why the decision was made to use a puppet. Obviously a puppet was never going to be a realistic depiction of an autistic child but the frankly odd design choice of giving the puppet grey skin added to to the weird and alienating affect of the puppet. Personally, I didn’t think that the puppet moved very effectively. Yes, I know not all autistic people move in the same way but I’ve been around lots of people who have non verbal autism and he didn’t seem true for any of them. This may be in part because of the strange design. 

Would it have been better if the puppeteer was not neurotypical? Well, we don’t know that he was neurotypical. Should the puppeteer be forced to declare his autistic status? Surely not. If he is autistic then he is obviously not affected in the same way by his autism as Lawrence is in the play. Autism is often referred to has a hidden disability. This is true for many but often autism displays itself loudly and proudly. Sometimes you can tell by looking. If the puppeteer was more visibly autistic would this have felt better? Would a performer like this have been able to capture the way a child like Lawrence might move more effectively?

The short answer on the puppet was that I didn’t think it worked but I wasn’t offended by it. Ok, I’m not the subject of the puppetry but four members of my family, who I could not love more, are and I am usually up first to go in to bat to defend my kids and my nephews. Many of the people who were upset by the decision are autistic people but they are not autistic people like Lawrence. I’d find it fascinating to introduce Lawrence the puppet to my daughter and her classmates to see what they made of him but they are not his audience nor would this specific group understand the concept of being offended by something like this.

This doesn’t mean that I would seek to silence any autistic people who were offended. Their opinions are important to me but, as the story is so close to my heart, I wanted to explain how I felt as a parent of a child like Lawrence. I think this goes far further an a debate about a puppet.

I’m glad All in a Row was produced and that stories like this are being told. It opens up a welcome and much needed debate about representation, neurodiversity and identity. I was particularly mindful of this when I came to write my Forgotten Women podcast episode Green Class about mencap founder Judy Fryd whose daughter Felicity (born 1938) would today most likely have been diagnosed as autistic. Like Lawrence she was a more severely disabled person although she did have some language skills. I found myself facing many of the same dilemmas. 

Green Class is about a mother fighting for the rights of children with learning disabilities. Although Felicity is extremely important, it is not her story. I think we need to tell stories about autistic people and people with learning disabilities but this isn’t one of those stories.    When I was writing this audio drama I was always thinking about how I would bring Felicity Fryd to life. Thinking about this forced me to find a new way of telling the story. Working with partner organisations Access all Areas and The Orpheus Centre I was able to find two performers to voice her. Emma Selwyn is an autistic actor. She is a far more capable person than Felicity was able to be but her neurodiversity is central to her artistic work. I didn’t feel comfortable asking an actor of Emma’s calibre to come in and make some noises and echo some lines. I wanted to find a way to empower Felicity especially as that’s what Judy wanted. I needed to go inside Felicity’s head. I knew, from interviewing her family, that Felicity was gifted musically and loved to sing. I therefore chose to find another neurodiverse performer in classical singer Charlotte Rowling. When Charlotte sings Felicity’s aria Emma is able to take the narration and tell a little of Judy’s story from Felicity’s perspective. I’m not telling you that I’ve got it completely right but I do know that by trying to think inclusively the young actors at Peer Productions have had the opportunity to work with two gifted and talented neurodiverse performers and I, as a writer, have found a new way to tell stories. 


If you’d like to join us for the live recording at South Hill Park there are a handful of tickets available –

Alternatively subscribe to the Forgotten Women podcast where the finished piece will be dropped –



Green Class – This time it’s personal…

This Friday the Peer Productions’ team led by my colleague, the creative and dynamic Rebecca Alloway, will record my audio drama Green Class as part of the Forgotten Women Podcast series.

And I’m nervous…

I’m nervous not just because, as someone who usually writes for the stage, this format is less familiar to me.

I’m nervous not just because this recording will be these emerging young actors’ first attempt at audio drama and they will have to hold their own working alongside two professional artists.

I’m nervous not just because one of these artists is autistic and the other has learning disabilities and I want to be sure that my writing has done justice to them, other people like them and their families.

I’m nervous because this piece draws on my own experience in a way that none of my other plays have. All playwrights will tell you that there are pieces of them in everything they write and I’d agree with this. As I often write for teenagers I regularly draw on my own adolescent experience but, as I turn forty next year, that me feels so different to who I am now that it might as well not be me at all.

No, this time, it’s deeply personal and it feels exposing. It feels dangerous and it feels exciting!

I have been a parent of a special needs child since 2009 and am now mum to two autistic girls with learning disabilities. I can’t help but wonder why it has taken me almost a decade to charter this terrain. When my eldest daughter was small, a much loved writing mentor told me that one day I would need to walk down the cellar steps and open that door and that, only when I was able to do this, would I really find my voice. He was referencing Caryl Churchill talking about writing her surreal play about depression, The Skriker which uncharacteristically took her seven years, as she could apparently only bear to step into the cellar for short periods at a time.

I don’t know if it was my reluctance to ‘go there’ that stopped me or whether I needed longer to process and reflect. Perhaps only now I feel able to talk about my world and the ‘extreme parenting’ that it involves.

Maybe I just wasn’t ready to expose this bit of myself to the young artists who I mentor. This year’s team are a particularly kind and compassionate bunch. Maybe I needed this particular team to be able to tell this story.

Mainly, I think it’s the opportunity to delve into history and draw connections between then and now. The space that Rebecca has created, in the Forgotten Women podcast series, has opened up this possibility for me.

Rebecca’s vision for the project was that it needed to be as intersectional as possible; women of colour, non binary folk, trans women and disabled women’s stories have been particularly marginalised and she was, understandably, keen to use the project to address these inequalities. When I started to research I was looking for a disabled or autistic campaigner to write about. That’s when I discovered Judy. Judy Fryd founded the charity Mencap back in 1946 when she struggled to find appropriate schooling or care for her daughter Felicity, who would probably have been diagnosed as autistic if she was a young person today. Judy was not disabled or autistic herself but, as a mum to special needs kids, her story resonated with me so strongly that I knew I had to write about her.

Together with colleagues from Peer Productions, Rebecca has gone back to Arts Council Engand to ask for more funding to employ a disabled or autistic writer to write a piece about a disabled or autistic campaigner and we plan to work with our friends from The Orpheus Centre to realise this. If this funding bid is unsuccessful we will keep applying to a range of sources as we remain committed to telling stories from this perspective.

Meanwhile, it was Judy’s story that was crying out to me to be told. From interviewing one of Judy’s daughters and one of Judy’s granddaughters it was clear to be that she was an incredibly tenacious woman. She spent a lifetime fighting for opportunities for people with learning disabilities. It was, in a large part, owing to decades of campaigning for children with learning disabilities to have the right to an education that resulted in an amendment to the education act in 1971 that, for the first time, included learning disabled children.

Whilst, as any SEN mum will tell you, if you want something for your child you have to fight. At a mediation session with the local authority about my eldest daughter’s schooling I was forced to repeat the same question over a dozen times until my point was acknowledged and heard. I was reminded of the suffragettes asking the same question over and over again, “When will you give women in the vote?’ and of Judy’s tireless campaigning and with all of it, with the spirit of tenacious women who have walked my path before me, I felt a little stronger.

When I started to research Judy’s story I didn’t know that I planned to intertwine it with my own but, the more I learned about her, the more I felt a connection with her.

I’d like to thank Judy for giving me the strength to share my story alongside hers. Hearing and researching her story has given me the courage to share my own.

Thanks Judy.

If you’d like to join us for the live recording at South Hill Park there are a handful of tickets available –

Alternatively subscribe to the Forgotten Women podcast where the finished piece will be dropped –



My Life Is Not A Tragedy.

My life is not a tragedy.

I am setting my intention for the forthcoming year.

2019 is going to be my year for reframing.
You see we all tell stories. It’s human to weave our lives into neat little narratives. We edit our anecdotes, curate our social media feeds and, without really thinking about it, we cast ourselves into our very own soap operas.
We also cast other people based on their inaccurate stories too. Those who are better off than us, those who are more lucky, more successful, those who have it harder and those for whom we feel pity.
If we are not careful we start to believe the way others cast us. I’d started to believe a story that was not my own.
Special needs mums, we’re usually in the ‘to be pitied’ category. A brilliant mum I know posted on Facebook admitting she was hiding in the loo at an event in a desperate bid to avoid the aggressive pity of well meaning friend. I’ll take your empathy, ideally I’d take your offer of practical help or emotional support, but you can keep your pity thank you very much because my life, my family, is not a tragedy!
This year we discovered that our younger daughter has autism and a speech and communication delay. I’m not going to pretend that it didn’t hurt or that, having spent almost a decade fighting for our older daughter who has autism and brain damage, that it wasn’t a serious kick in the teeth. But it wasn’t – my smiling. laughing, funny, beautiful three year old – she is not a tragedy.
This year our much needed holiday at center parcs was cut short when my elder daughter pulled me over and I shattered my wrist bone and I was told that this was an acquired disability from which I was unlikely to make a full recovery. Yes it hurt. Yes it was inconvenient.
What it also showed me was that people, some people, rally in the face of adversity. Of course my family and close friends queued up to support me and kept me laughing even when the pain was blinding.  Then there were also those people who stepped up who were not expected to. Those who didn’t have to. My daughter’s carer who stayed all night in casualty with me and stepped in to care for both my complicated people and me for months on end even volunteering to do an overnight so Chris and I could get a break. There was the woman I hadn’t seen for years who came to chat with me whilst I was stranded in a hospital far away from home, the woman I barely know who brought me a huge gluten free pasta bake to feed my kids so I didn’t have to cook, my new group of students who constantly carried and fetched for me and even drove me to and from work keeping me entertained even when I was fairly delirious on pain medication. These brilliant humans. They are not part of a tragedy.
So 2018 has been a shitty year to say the least and I will be glad to see the back of it. However, aside from managing challenging health issues and disability needs and watching CBeebies midsummer night’s dream at least 300 times, this year I also, in no particular order:
– I went to India to research a new play and ran a wonderful R and D with inspiring actors.
– I was privileged to get to know and learn from my daughter’s carer and have her brighten all our lives.
– I cared for my mum who had a hip replacement and she now has far more mobility.
– My marriage didn’t just survive this challenging year but thrived and every day I am reminded how lucky I am to have that strength of love in my heart reflected back by my husband.
– I saw one team of brilliant young actors graduate and welcomed another.
– I wrote three new plays.
– I won my appeal to get my eldest the school provision she needs.
– My youngest learned to give kisses.
– I started a new contract working with autistic women and girls which is fascinating, run by really interesting people and has opened up a new world of creative collaboration and critical thinking for me.
– I have submitted to transfer my PhD to a university more able to support me.
– We’ve hopefully (if cross everything if my hand injury would allow!) found a new house where we will have more space to do therapy with our girls.
– I dyed my hair purple just because.
So I’m not going to let myself believe some bullshit tragic narrative. So don’t feel sorry for me and remember you get to choose how you cast yourself.
It’s your story.

He’s letting me go to India!

On Monday, I leave for a week’s research trip to Mumbai. It’s the culmination of a lot of work, and a big step in bringing a play tackling the challenges faced by young people in urban India to life.

The most amazing thing about it though is that my husband (of 15 years) is letting me go!

Now, before I am deafened by the collective outcry of my fellow Feminists, let me explain a thing or two.

I have not been out of the country for ten years. I have never travelled outside of Europe and the US, and even then hardly at all. I haven’t spent more than a night apart from my husband or kids in twelve years. We have never spent Valentine’s Day apart.

From this description, you might assume that I am a risk adverse, home-loving kind of woman, who lives her life very much in her husband’s shadow. I am not.

I’m a successful playwright, theatre maker and entrepreneur. Eleven years ago, I set up Peer Productions – a youth arts charity – and we reach in excess of 15,000 young people a year, employing a team of six permanent staff members. I am also studying for a PhD.

The thing is that I am also a special needs mum. My eldest daughter has severe brain damage and autism, and my youngest daughter too has developmental delays. Travelling, even within the UK, is a huge challenge and internationally, both practically and financially, impossible. Having disabled children is very expensive and Government benefits, whilst helpful, don’t come close to covering everything that they need. The mental load, the admin of constant appointments, form filling and fighting for their rights is exhausting and all consuming. The care required is extensive, and it is not currently really possible for one of us, on our own, to leave the house with both children.

When dealing with things for the children, I am regularly assumed to be a stay-at-home parent, who is readily available at all times. “Yes, I know we promised you your prescription and this is the fifth time you’ve come in, but could you just pop back later?” – With kids in tow, I cannot ‘pop’ anywhere.

Having disabled children strains relationships and, sadly, often fathers leave.

Going away for a week means leaving my husband to manage all of this on his own and that’s an enormous ask. Yes, we’ve booked in respite and we have carers coming to take some of the load, but ultimately the buck is going to stop with him. That’s why, when the opportunity first came up, I said no, as I couldn’t imagine being able to cope if it were me being left to my own devices.

He, however, is a better person than I am, and immediately wanted me to do this. He knew I really wanted it and he didn’t want to stand in my way.

Letting me go to India is an incredible gift and makes me so grateful for my marriage.

Happy Valentine’s Day, darling!

Market forces rip off those most in need of help

Okay, so we’ve been up since 3am. Sadly, this isn’t unusual. Lots of SEN, Special Educational Needs, parents like me live off of caffeine and nervous energy, as our kids struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Last night, however, our daughter woke up because her incontinence pad leaked and soaked the bed. This is unusual, and this only happened because (owing I am sure to competitive tender) the incontinence supplies brand has been changed to a cheaper one. They’re too big, they leak. For the same reason, yesterday she had an accident on the school bus.

A choice to change suppliers was made by bureaucrats seeking to save a buck or two. It’s the same, but it’s not the same. We’re lucky that our daughter copes quite well with these kind of changes, but for other ASD kids, the change of colour alone could cause meltdowns. So, I’m emailing, complaining, consulting other SEN parents with the same issue – I’m filling up my coffee cup again. Incontinence services do their best to be helpful, but they are inundated and the products they have to use prove inefficient. I’m so tired of having to fight for the basics just to get by, and as austerity continues to bite, it only gets worse. 

Now, you may be thinking “just buy better nappies”. The truth is that, because children’s incontinence supplies for Over 4s are thankfully NHS funded, there are very little available on the market. The only real choice is overnight bed wetter’s nappies. These usually cost £8 for twenty, so 40p a nappy. Let’s say she uses 5 in a day… that’s £2 per day, or £730 per year!

A couple of weeks ago, Surrey announced the results of their competitive tendering process for short breaks. ‘Short breaks’ is basically a euphemism for respite care. It’s not a luxury, but a necessity that stops millions of us from becoming so exhausted and mentally unwell that we are unable to cope with the burden of caring. It saves the nation millions. In some areas, well-established, trusted and loved schemes that are able to accommodate even the most complex of medical or behavioural needs have lost their contracts. Again, let’s cue ASD meltdowns due to change, even if the alternative providers are up to par, which seems unlikely when they have less specialist knowledge and are unable to offer the same level of one-to-one support.

Let’s just look at that for a second. One-to-one. If, like me, your child requires one-to-one, that means they need constant supervision either for their own safety or the safety of those around them, or both! If they need supervising constantly, this means that exhausted parents are supervising them constantly, and it will be those families for whom respite is the most vital. 

If you think this is unacceptable, what can you do? 

Have your say with the online Surrey survey about proposed changes to short breaks –

Like the Save Our Respite campaign page and get involved in direct action –

Finally, and most importantly, when you go out to vote next month, don’t just think about how this will effect me. Think about how this would affect me or my family if luck dealt us a different hand. Think about whether you want a system that protects and cares for the most vulnerable, or one which assumes vulnerability is a choice, or a result of fecklessness. Think about what kind of society you want to be part of.

Then vote.

“But you wouldn’t change her.”

Many years ago a well meaning family member uttered those dreaded words.

“But you wouldn’t change her.”

I am mum to a severely disabled little girl who is now nearly 8. Now when I say that, most people assume she’s a wheelchair user and that her disabilities are primary physical. She’s isn’t and they are not. My daughter can walk, run, climb and jump after a fashion. Her disabilities are learning/cognitive/ intellectual disabilities (call it what you want). She is what generations before would call retarded and in she would have been institutionalised.

She has brain damage, global developmental delay and we are expecting an ASD diagnosis soon. She cannot speak, has little communication at all, requires around the clock support with all basic life skills, is not toilet trained and has extreme behavioural problems. She is, after lots and lots of therapy, biomedical, diet and holistic interventions, happy. This is something for which we are extremely grateful and it has not always been the case.

Following her traumatic birth my baby girl screamed for hours every day. It was constant and heart breaking. Medical people only conceded hat she would not need a wheelchair when she was running around the physio room. She learned to run but lacked the muscle strength to stand still so would career around the room in a discombobulated and chaotic manor. By three she was so frustrated that she was self harming banging her head on the floor and still screaming.  From the age of four until a few weeks ago she suffered from rumination disorder which involves persistently regurgitating and re-swallowing her food – yes it is as disgusting as it sounds! Until a year ago, when we finally started to give medicine for this, with support from a behavioural nurse, she would not sleep through and is still awake almost every day before 5.30am.

People assume that when you have a child like that the medical profession swoop in with support. This is not true. I have lost count of the number of doctors who have shrugged their shoulders and told me that there is nothing that they can do including the one insightful practitioner who genuinely asked “what’s wrong with her any way?”

Having a child with needs like mine costs a lot of money.  There are the insane therapy bills which have almost bankrupted us. Then there is additional costs for specialist childcare. The five point harness car seat to support an older child with low muscle tone with the £850 price tag. The ridiculous special needs toys that cost a fortune. The additional cups, bottles, crockery, utensils you have bought in the hope that she will develop more independence. Specialists supplements, gluten free and casein food, washing powder, baby wipes, nappy bin refills (and before anyone suggests reusable live a day in my life and then see if you still think that’s a good idea). The mainstream toys we bought because she once showed a passing interest.

The emotional cost in enormous too. I am thankful that I have a wonderful husband and family support. Lots of people don’t. Marriages break under the strain. Watching your child struggle and be in pain is horrible and it kills your soul.

Then there is dealing with other people. Well meaning passers by who tell you how to raise your kid when they have no clue. People who helpfully criticise your parenting loudly and publicly. The people who tell you that that God only gives special children to special parents. F*** OFF! The prejudice she faces on every interaction ever.

I know that there are many brilliant, capable and insightful neuro-divergent people out there. I am lucky enough to count them amongst dear friends. For some of these people their difference brings unique gifts and the world would be a far poorer place without them. However, there are many children and adults, like my daughter, for whom their cognitive disabilities makes living in our world the biggest challenge. They are not happy in their own little world but trapped in a lonely world without the skills to break out. They have the types of disabilities people don’t talk about and their suffering (and in her case she has been suffering) is often not acknowledged. I, like many other parents, fear for her future.

Is living with this hard? Yes. Is it frustrating? Yes. Is it exhausting? Yes. Do I love my daughter profoundly and deeply? Yes with all my heart. Would I change her? Yes in a heartbeat. Will I keep trying to help improve her life chances by trying to ‘cure’ her neuro diversity? Sorry but yes.  Does that sit in direct opposition with my disabled ally status and political stand point – unfortunately yes.