When Tom Middleditch, a vocal advocate for neurodiverse representation on stage, saw Robot Song, his first response was rage. But then he changed his mind. This is what happened…
One thing I value, both as a personal trait and as something people expect of autistic people such as myself, is that I can be very honest. This forms a large part of my ego; or at least, the ego-driven part of me would like to think so.
When I go to the theatre, people often ask me for my feedback on the night. I try to be courteous, and to frame things in a positive manner: a process I refer to as Hot Gives (because I intend to give ways to enjoy, rather than just Hot Taking away reasons to feel good). But I’m not afraid to say nothing if a piece has angered me needlessly, confused me without cause, or just straight up bored me. Because I know hearing my personal reaction can be hard if you’re not ready for it.
So let’s talk about Arena Theatre Company’s Robot Song, a family show about an autistic child. Jolyon James, the writer and director, came into my world through the show’s assistant director, Sarah Branton, with whom I had worked with on earlier projects. Jolyon is a BFG of a man, with a grand cheeky smile and a comforting demeanour. And he is also interested in autism, so we became fast friends.
Before the show opened we had discussions about autistic representations on stage, and Jolyon had talked with me about specific inspirations for the piece, such as the true story of an autistic child who had received a letter saying he was hated and signed by all the children in the class, but which was later revealed to be the work of only two children.
‘When it finished, I had never wanted to leave a theatre faster’
The show itself received praise across the board, after a year or so of development. It premiered in Melbourne in early 2019 at Theatre Works, before setting off on a tour of regional Victoria. When I went to see it for myself I brought my partner, Lizzie, the smart one in our partnership, because I was certain that we would both enjoy it.
As I sat down to watch it, nestled among an audience of families, peers and general robot enthusiasts, I anticipated a lovely romp for children and their parents about an autistic girl and her robot.
When it finished, I had never wanted to leave a theatre faster.
I hated it.
Through and through.
I talked Lizzie’s ear off all the way home, angry and confused that a show for children could have so upset me. We both agreed it was a remarkable piece of craft; you couldn’t fault it there. But the content, the story, the characters: they all hit me wrong, deeply wrong. Even writing this now, I remember the feeling of that frustration. It sits hot and heavy behind my navel, and a thin film of it coats the front of my skull, under my skin.
After simmering for a few days, I managed to crystallise my anger with the piece down to three critical points.
1: A major song, sung by the father, was about an incident when the lead character, Juniper, did a shit on her carpet, and her father picked it up. The use of embarrassing moments in autistic children’s lives as ways to demonstrate the parents’ frustration is a defilement of autistic children’s consent, and should be reserved to private discussion between parents and children. To sing about it so jovially felt like the worst possible way to define the relationship.
2: The girl was suspended from school because she had pushed a child over, breaking her arm. She was subsequently confused about why people didn’t like her. It struck me as obviously demeaning of her character that she could not put two and two together, that she had broken a child’s arm, and that children would rightly be scared of someone who was that violent.
3: The core tension of the show emerged from an incident when Juniper received a note from her classmates that said they all hated her. The climax of the show was the Robot telling her that the letter meant the exact opposite of the literal meaning of the words. This was, to me, gaslighting of the highest form. If Juniper was encouraged to read all criticism, in good faith and bad, as compliments instead, she was being set up for a very hard time in high school. Anyone who sees this as a positive is setting themselves up for a similar fall.
‘He showed me the text and asked me to look again’
Finally, the play ended with the main character asking all the audience to stand up and clap along to the end. In a play that encourages the idea that being different is ok, the end reinforced the idea that everyone in the audience needed to stand up as one and validate the world of this particular girl.
The fact that something I found so awful could have been getting such praise, such love, made me want to stop making theatre. If this was the kind of story that people found uplifting, fulfilling, worthy of rewarding with full houses night after night, then there was nothing I could make that would ever please anyone, without having first to deeply upset myself.
And then Jolyon asked for a coffee and a chat, because he wanted to know what I thought.
We sat down at a table a week or so after I saw the show. I opened the conversation by saying that craft-wise the piece was wonderful, and that all the thoughts I had were being shared in the interest of autistic representation. He told me he was a big boy, and not to censor myself for the benefit of some squishy emotional thing in him.
So I didn’t.
I laid it all out for him, everything that had frustrated me. I think I spoke calmly, but the earnestness of my tone must have given him an indication that this piece had hurt me.
But Jolyon wasn’t fazed at all. He was smiling. In response, he pointed out that they had considered all these points, and incorporated responses in the text of the show.
So he showed me the text and asked me to look again. And I was faced with the reality that I simply hadn’t heard the dialogue.
For example, on my first criticism, he pointed out these lines:
JUNIPER …Dad! Let’s do ‘The Poo Song”.
DAD Ohh, I don’t think we should do that one Juniper, that’s just a silly thing we do at home/
JUNIPER /It’s good for the show, it gives the audience valuable background information. It’s a true story about Dad accidentally picking up one of my poos in his actual hand. I mean gold…
DAD Well it’s your show.
The Poo Song happened after Juniper repeatedly requested it. She was made fully aware of the nature of the story, comprehended the social stakes, and insisted it be sung anyway. She saw it as important that people understood how much her father loved her.
As for when Juniper pushed the other girl and broken her arm: she hadn’t meant to hurt her, so she couldn’t see how she was at fault. But there was a reason why Juniper had done this: the other girl had wrecked a VHS that belonged to Juniper’s dad. Worse, it was the original source of Battletac, the Robot of Robot Song. Of course Juniper was angry and didn’t want to go back to school: that is a perfectly reasonable reaction from a child.
Other dialogue suggested that the re-interpretation of the class letter wasn’t about gaslighting.
BATTLETAC Why would you want it to disappear? This letter is proof.
JUNIPER Proof of what?
BATTLETAC Juniper, there will always be letters. If you weren’t smart, kind, strong, creative, – different, this letter would never exist. Life is full of letters but you get to decide what colour they are.
It was about how she would always have, in her life, people who would say bad things. It was up to her to decide which words mattered and which didn’t, which ones she would let drag her down, and which she would let be other people’s problems.
‘My frustration was still there but it could no longer be called anger’
The only criticism that Jolyon had no textual response to was my final point. He conceded that on a night when the audience included wheelchair users, they had made an exception. The resolution to this problem was to make the request more inclusive: people didn’t have to stand if they chose not to, for any reason they might have.
I left the meeting stunned.
My frustration was still there but it could no longer be called anger. Calling it anger had clouded my capacity to see the show that was happening in front of me.
How could I have missed such clearly stated text? It was a text designed for children. It wasn’t a matter of interpretation or subtext: it was so obvious that all I needed to do was read the script.
How had I got it so wrong?
As I thought it over, I realised that Robot Song had led me to a place that was all too familiar.
I’ve often asked my friends what they consider to be non-toxic expressions of masculinity. I’ve received many wonderful responses, such as sing-shouting in a circle or jumping up and down with arms wrapped around your friends. Effortlessly carrying a child. That hug where you give the other person two or three moderate thumps with an open hand and then settle in. Above all, though, the most common thing touted as wholesome masculinity is being vulnerable with your emotions. If I want to be a good feminist, a new kind of man must be validated. So. Here goes.
As a child I was on ADHD medication, because on top of Asperger’s, the old diagnosis for Low Needs Autism, I am also ADHD. I needed that medication – it got me into university – and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But it had some drawbacks. The most notable was that I didn’t really eat much, because food didn’t really taste of anything.
Watching videos of me at 12 years old, Lizzie has said I looked like Mr Burns in that episode of The Simpsons when everyone thought he was an alien. Gacked out of my mind and, above all, sullen. A white, freckled child with curly ginger hair, skinny as a rake and with a mouth full of teeth more appropriate for a puppy than a boy, which he did everything to hide.
This boy was with me in the cupboard. He was face-down on his knees, which were sodden with tears.
He’d had a bad day at school.
I wanted to start this sentence with “unsurprising”. That it was unsurprising he was a weird kid, that he was friendless until high school because he didn’t understand how to be friendly on other people’s terms, and no one could explain it. I wanted to start the sentence with “unsurprising”, because it’s unsurprising that this kid was bullied.
I was beaten up several times, in front of others who could have done something to stop it. Once, a bored group of children followed me home and chanted outside my home for me to come out. My father chased them away with a car.
But “unsurprising” is a villainous word, because it implies this is fair: that my treatment was justified, that I learned lessons from it that served me well. I didn’t. All I learned was that I was a pasty, specky, awkward creep who deserved nothing but scorn and rejection.
This particular day, the day I found him in the cupboard, was a week after I had been told about my diagnosis of Asperger’s. Somehow that news made it to the school. It made it to the ears of the worst bully, a bully whose life was more full of chaos and anger than my own, who – maybe for power, maybe for attention, maybe just because he could – decided to reveal that fact to me. That he would remain my taunter, my haunter. And now he had a medical reason to do so.
‘All I learned was that I was a pasty, specky, awkward creep who deserved nothing but scorn and rejection’
The rest of that day was unsurprising.
That day I ran home and locked myself in that cupboard. I ignored everyone else. I don’t know what my parents thought. I’ve never asked them. I don’t know what my brothers thought. I’ve never asked them. All I did was hide in that cupboard, crying and beating my head and screaming: “Go away, Asperger’s. Go away.”
As I look at this child now, I know the word that describes my feeling, but I can’t say it. Is this…?
I find myself asking that question seriously for what feels like the first time. Maybe it’s happened in the past, but it didn’t lead to any therapy. So I shall call it what it is. Trauma. But is it? Do I have the right to name my own experiences like that? Do I really think I could use that to get therapy for free? No. Never. I’ve never been diagnosed with trauma.
And yet I find myself being angry at a children’s show, and back in this cupboard, with the white carpet on the floor and pale walls and a pale, pale boy, who no one is checking in on.
Guess checking in is up to me.
So even if I cannot diagnose it as trauma with the authority of a psychiatrist, what I can do is call it traumatic. I can give myself permission to say that this memory still hurts. That the kid is still in that cupboard asking for his mind to go away, because maybe then he will be acceptable.
In calling it trauma, I gave myself permission to care for this hurt, with the tools I had at my disposal. Just as I have with autism through my arts practice. And guess what: I had just seen a show that had given me the tools I needed.
As I knelt down to face that child, I realised that, until now, I had been outside that cupboard, defending that child. Defending that misery. Defending it from anything that validated that trauma, any representation that suggested, even indirectly, that what happened to me was expected, deserved and fair. And this extended into my art, into the way I created stories that explored autism, and into my arts criticism.
Whenever I saw a story that was being panned for bad representation, I would jump into the argument. I would logically deduce that it was bad. I stand by my deductions for other pieces of media I’ve done this to, but I can’t deny that my impulse to do this was partly fuelled by this need to protect that kid. And then along came Robot Song, and my impulse was completely fuelled by that need to defend myself.
‘I can give myself permission to say that this memory still hurts’
But I didn’t need to.
I knelt down to face that kid.
Here’s the thing.
They are wrong.
And this is why.
That Poo Song reminded you of the story that your parents told you, from before your memory started taking notes. When your family visited that motel, and you were so hungry that you ate eight gourmet sausages, and then, later in the bedroom, explosively vomited them back up. Your parents were so shocked and embarrassed that they fled with you and your brothers. Years later, they laughed about it. You always thought that was a moment of shame, but there’s another way to see this. That your parents were willing to defend you from consequences shows how much they love you.
The story about the broken arm reminded you of those bullies who beat you, of how no one defended you. It will take you a long time to learn this, but the ways you were trying to be friendly to other people were not the ways that they felt comfortable with. And that is ok.
There was no way you could know that, and no one explained it to you well. Those beatings were never justified. They never are. You don’t have to lie about knowing karate in high school, or saying some nonsense about being proficient with a sword: those lies don’t work. You can’t be critical of mistakes you made as a child, when the knowledge of how to navigate the world was invisible to you and no one understood you as you understand yourself now. Everyone was simply trying to look out for themselves, like you were.
The letter that Juniper received reminded you of the end of that year, where everyone wrote compliments on the back of the school photos of the other children. On your photos, everyone only wrote “funny” and “tall”. Those weren’t the only valid things about you: you just didn’t know how to make others comfortable and they didn’t know how make you understand that. You don’t need to defend yourself from that.
‘You were young and in a world that didn’t know how to teach you and be with you. But you aren’t in that world any more.’
One day, you will meet a friend from high-school. (Yes, you will have many.) And you will catch up and laugh and have coffee. And you will comment about how much bullying you experienced in high-school, and she will say it was because people didn’t know how to interact with you. But they wanted to.
And right now, this wishing away Asperger’s. Don’t. It isn’t what separates you: what separates you is their ignorance and your naivete. You were young and in a world that didn’t know how to teach you and be with you. But you aren’t in that world any more. Now you get to be the person you needed back then, you get to be that person for other children who might be at risk of having a similar sadness, and thinking it is justified. If you are going to work to defend them, you owe it to yourself to give yourself what you need. Robot Song gave me that, and now I give it to you.
And I stop.
And that boy looks up.
And he smiles his puppy dog smile.
It is here that I ask the toughest question of this show. Robot Song was, for me, a re-traumatisation. It also helped me find the tools to deal with my trauma. But is that a morally acceptable thing for theatre to do?
I can’t answer this question for anyone other than myself. So I shall answer only for myself, as an incomplete, doing-his-best, all-too-human puppy of a man.
I don’t believe that I was owed a warning. A general content warning about bullying and autistic representation would not have given me the information I needed to make such a decision, and the amount of detail I would have needed to understand is not a standard I would imagine ever extending to other arts. That would be tantamount to validating the reasons people avoid certain content, and in my case not validating it made it easier to absorb.
‘Sometimes Hard Representation…can feel like bad representation. But it isn’t always bad.’
Indeed, going in with the assumptions that I did removed barriers that I had erected to protect myself from effectively and affectively engaging in those other stories. Those stories that had conditioned me to believe that bad representation was the kind that made me feel bad when I watched it.
But in this instance, what I learned – and the point I would hope is taken away – is that sometimes Hard Representation – not even intense, but the kind of representation that asks the hard questions – can feel like bad representation. But it isn’t always bad. Sometimes it makes the best stories. These are the stories that point to the places that are cold and unloved and say with a knowing smile: “I think you deserve to do something lovely about that”.
Robot Song has been nominated for a Helpmann award. Of course, this news is fantastic, both for the Robot Song team and autistic stories in general. And it’s terrible for the part of my ego that thinks only I can and should tell autistic stories, and is frustrated when others’ efforts are validated.
That part of me gets chipped away more and more, as I realise that it was only there to protect me. Now I have the tools for self care, I don’t need to protect that part of myself so vigorously, and am able to open myself up more to stories that hold harder lessons.
That’s not to say I’m going to suddenly love all autism stories. Far from it. This critical eye of mine still knows what it’s doing. If anything, I expect I will become more withering in my critique, and more supportive of the genuine heart in the work of others.
Here is one.
I’ve insisted Juniper is autistic, but that label is not applied to her in the show. I think this is a mistake. If she isn’t called autistic, people will continue to believe that you can’t empathise with an autistic person if they are called autistic; that it’s more important to have a precocious child, a unique child, a special child. Any label other than what she actually and obviously is: autistic. Let them empathise with an openly autistic character, and they will empathise with an openly autistic child.
What this does mean, right here and now, is that I can stop worrying, and love the Robot Song.
Just don’t ask me to sing it. It isn’t my song to sing.
A special thanks to Lizzie Lamb, who was the source of many of the good ideas in this text.