Changing the Face of Autism

On the 2nd April, Spot the Dog’s Birthday Party was performed in the Oxford Playhouse.

The performance was a special one – staged on World Autism Awareness Day, it was designed to make children on the autism spectrum, as well as their parents, feel included and at ease. Spot has been romping about on paper and on screen since the eighties: however, the series was only adapted for stage in 2000. It was first staged at the Playhouse, and this month Spot came home to enjoy a special matinee performance: lighting was less intense so that children who have sensory issues were not distressed, and children could make noise and come and go as they pleased.

The idea of welcoming autistic children into the world of drama has long been championed by autism campaigners. Lizzy Clark is a young actress with Asperger’s Syndrome who played Poppy in the film version of Jacqueline Wilson’s Dustbin Baby. Poppy the character had Asperger’s, and the decision to choose a child with Asperger’s to play her sparked debate across the
dramatic community. 

Lizzy Clark and her mother, Nicky, began a campaign called ‘Don’t Play Me, Pay Me’, the idea being to change how disabled people are represented
onstage and on screen. The campaign took issue with how disabled people’s storylines are often centred around their disability, and – worse – these storylines often involve them needing a non-disabled character’s help. The Clarks’ campaign also challenges the practice of hiring non-disabled actors to play disabled roles. 

The Clarks see non-disabled actors playing disabled characters as the “blacking up of the new millenium”, and yet, five years after the campaign began, we see a non-disabled Luke Treadaway assuming the mantel of Christopher in the West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

When I tweeted Nicky Clark about this, her reply seemed more measured than her campaign’s rallying cries: according to her, directors should “ideally cast authentically, but always choose the best actor”. However, she stipulated that castings should “always include people with disabilities/impairments”. 

Related  Review: Long Day's Journey Into Night

At one point in The Curious Incident, Christopher Boone asks “Is acting a lie?” – for some, Treadaway’s performance of an autistic boy is an unforgiveable untruth.