What I (Don’t) Know About Autism: An Autistic Review

After all our press on Jody O’Neill’s play, we couldn’t wait to see the play ourselves. Our Vice-CEO Fiona Ferris came as part of the Q&A at the end, whereas myself and policy officer Gaibhinn attended in the audience. Unlike other articles this is more of an opinion piece. Before working at AsIAm I wrote a comedy show about autism. However, my show was a stand up show at a quarter of WIDKAA’s length and far less ambitious. I was excited to watch it both as a advocate and an entertainer.

The play’s story is non-linear but guided by a helpful social story on the stage. The relaxed format was helpful,  and it was heartening to see audience members stimming in their seats. It was also helpful to have enough light to take notes! The play also included two opportunities for audiences to ask questions, aided by a helpful egg timer to avoid running overtime. Despite the many scene changes the cast make the transitions seamlessly, no doubt helped by the steady direction of Dónal Gallagher

Photo taken just after the Q&A by yours truly!

O’Neill’s writing ambitiously covers a huge range of situations that every autistic person in the audience will empathise with.  From the childhood trials of school and family photos to the more adult concerns of relationships and disclosing a diagnosis, the script covers a number of key points in the autistic lifetime. The play is a powerful articulation of autistic identity. The play’s characters refuse to see themselves as defective and insist upon their own humanity.

The show is Abbey Theatre's first "Relaxed Performance" (Photo: Ros Kavanagh)
Photo: Ross Kavanagh

Despite this positivity, the play does not shy away from darker subject matter. The historic use of damaging treatments within the medical model, turning the ‘cures’ publicised online into the stuff of nightmares. Through a musical analogy one scene tackles the controversial and potentially traumatising aspects of ABA. Without spoiling too much, these scenes are rather the tip of the iceberg.

Music and choreography blend into the show, which makes sense given O’Neill’s dance background. Not only is there an excellent stim sequence, the cast comes together in a magnificent song explaining the history of autism. Music features in other points and consistently manages to strike the balance between educational and entertaining.

What really shines through the play is an emphasis on family. O’Neill’s son led her to research the play and ultimately get her diagnosis but I think it goes beyond that. Parents are shown in a number of different contexts in the play. The tolerance of the parents varies from scene to scene. O’Neill emphasises the role of understanding and acceptance in childhood in fostering good mental health in autistic people of all ages.

Once the show ended, the cast (joined by Fiona) answered various questions from the audience, which was a mixture of parents, professionals and autistic people. The questions were complicated but the crew persevered and answered them with a depth of knowledge no doubt informed by both lived experience and the research involved in putting the show together. The questions weren’t easily but it was heartening to see the neurotypical audience members engaging seriously with the show’s content. Questions ranged from the legal obligation to disclose one’s diagnosis at work, to the difficulties of autistic adulthood after school.



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