Autistic critic Jess Flint reviews A_tistic Theatre’s Helping Hands, a show that explores how ‘help’ can sometimes be the opposite
Helping Hands, the new performance by A_tistic Theatre, seeks to define exactly who is benefited by the “help” given to Autistic individuals. They explore this topic through a series of skits that make use of multiple forms of performance, including movement and dance.
Early on a monologue introduces us to the words of philosopher Eva Kittay, who says that the point of care isn’t just to meet someone’s needs, but to help them to flourish. If care is to count as flourishing, it must be okay with the person being cared for… which is a difficult thing because “being cared for shapes what we’re okay with”.
The narrator goes on to explain that “flourishing” can mean multiple things. They talk about different forms of gardening throughout history as an illustration: from very geometric and perfectly neat, to wild, sprawling and free, to bonsai trees, where the perfectly natural appearance in reality takes a lot of effort.
Finally, the narrator tells us about a method of growing tender, sweet rhubarb: after two years in a field, the plants are moved to a pitch black environment where they grow desperately for a month trying to reach the sun, burning through all their stored up energy: “growing so fast that one can actually hear the stems squeak and pop”. They point out that this is technically considered “flourishing”, too…for the farmer.
The scenes are largely unconnected and involve the actors playing multiple roles, but there are three main narratives: Sheridan (Tara Daniel), a single mother trying to find the right support for her Autistic child, is up against the beauracratic nightmare that is the Department for Very Differently Special Needs; Alice (Dee Matthews), a transgender woman trying to find a psychologist who understands anything about autism and gender, and Donna (Aislinn Murray), a non-verbal child who is sent to multiple therapists before finally finding the right fit and learning to communicate her own way, via text to speech software.
A_tistic has done a brilliant job of talking about serious topics respectfully, but in a way that confronts the viewer. They weave in humorous skits about school detention, dealing with bosses, a talk show where an Austistic “Allism Mum” (a twist on the all too common “Autism parents” who write memoirs) is interviewed about her experience parenting an allistic/neurotypical child, and a yoga class for Autism parents where no negativity is allowed (but totally is).
Some of these skits could have easily been pulled from my own life and caused me to get emotional and teary… especially Alice’s desperate search for a psych. I went through so many psychs trying to find the right fit, just as Alice did (though, as a cisgender woman, I can’t imagine trying to find that unicorn of a psych who understands both!) and heard so many of the things that were said to her.
For a very long time, I decided that it was useless trying to get help because none of them seemed to understand the anxiety and the heavy masking that were the underlying cause of my anger and sadness. And, like Alice, I thought that denying my needs and masking 24/7 were the solution, which only caused me to get more and more depressed. Finally finding a psych who understood how to help an Autistic adult was like stepping into the sun and soaking in the warmth.
Another thing I related to deeply was the scenario about an Autistic worker trying to talk to their boss and having their needs brushed off as irrelevant or ridiculous, then being silenced with the threat of having shifts cut because “you seem stressed”. So many companies like to pat themselves on the backs for hiring Autistic staff, but then feel like they’ve done their part and get annoyed when asked for ongoing support. Finally, I really liked and identified with the movement and dance scene where performers moved cohesively but not identically, and another performer (wearing red, to differentiate) attempted to copy the movements but was not always successful. It was such a fantastic way of explaining our struggle to understand the unspoken rules that allistic people just seem to know.
I loved a scene in which Donna is being put through ABA therapy and a second character relays all of the harm being done and what she is really learning, as the therapist puts her through the exercises. I never went through ABA myself but I think this topic is incredibly important, needs to be discussed more, and was well portrayed in the show. ABA is condemned by the Autistic community and multiple advocates have talked about the PTSD they have from being forced into it as children, yet many Autism parents continue to tell the advocates “you are too articulate to be anything like my child so you don’t know what you’re talking about”, insist that their child “loves” ABA and that “they are so much better now”. That it’s helping them. Flourishing for the farmer, indeed.
My favourite (and the most confronting) scene was two narrators running dual narratives about the Milgram Experiment, and the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, a special needs school that uses electric skin shocks as punishment when students misbehave, despite its being ruled as torture by the United Nations. One Milgram experiment participant, who turned the dial up to 450, said he was thinking of his disabled daughter and about experimenters looking for a cure and that he “would do anything to help humanity”.
Parents of students at Judge Rotenberg are adamantly against closing it, claiming that other schools turn their children away and that the staff know what they’re doing and that they want their children to get help. One narrator then concludes that “people will do anything if an expert tells them it’s helping”.
The horror of this scene was underscored by zappy sounds and flickering lights. Watching it, I thought about how often I was punished at school when I had no clue what I’d done wrong. Those punishments were mild in comparison, but I was still terribly upset for doing “wrong” and being punished. Thinking about those kids being administered electric shocks for things like hand flapping or failing to remove a coat devastated me to the point of tears.
I appreciate that A_tistic made the show as inclusive and accessible as possible: they offered a Relaxed performance for those with sensory overload concerns (including a full document available from their website that explained exactly how the night would run, photos of the actors, and a full list of detailed content warnings), an Auslan interpreted performance, a quiet chillout space, free tea and coffee and biscuits, gender neutral bathrooms, and, in a few weeks time, streamed and captioned performances. The performers and directors also held a Q&A session after every performance, which I really enjoyed.
This show is cathartic for those of us who are Neurodivergent and it’s a chance to listen, learn and understand for everyone else. It was fantastic.
Helping Hands will be streamed online from August 27-September 6. You can book a video streaming ticket at this link.
Jess Flint taught herself to read at the age of three after getting indignant that her Mum wouldn’t read to her 24 hours a day. This indignation and determination is still her reaction to the obstacles that life has thrown her way. She is a writer, cake decorator, gamer and an advocate for accurate Autistic representation in media. She made a huge cake for her friend’s book launch back in 2016, and to her surprise and excitement, kept getting requests for more. Tweeting about her “stacking debuff” Autism and ADHD led to her doing paid authenticity reads for YA novels. She lives in Melbourne with her girlfriend, a cat and two rabbits. She hates being called inspirational. You can find her on twitter at @cakeandmadness
Helping Hands, directed by Hannah Aroni, Jess Gonsalvez and James Matthews. Creative consultant: Hari Srinivasan. Sound design by Jacinta Anderson. Set and lighting design by John Collopy. Costume design by Hannah Aroni, with Aislinn Murray, Tara Daniel and Emily Griffith. Relaxed performance consultation by Tom Middleditch. Devising cast: Tara Daniel, Vanessa Di Natale, Emily Griffith, Dee Matthews, Artemis Munoz, Aislinn Murray and Alexander Woollatt. La Mama Theatre. Closed.