What I (Don’t) Know About Autism: Jody O’Neill and Dónal Gallagher

What I (Don’t) Know About Autism will shortly begin its run in the Peacock stage in the Abbey. The play, containing a mix of autistic and neurotypical actors, contains a wild mix of characters and situations. It is intended to promote autism acceptance and celebrate autistic identity. I sat down with the play’s writer (and member of cast) Jody O’Neill and director Dónal Gallagher.

Tell me about the relaxed performance aspect!

Jody: There will always be some light in the audience throughout the show and anyone is free to come in and out of the space if they need to. Loud noises will be signaled beforehand and a list of scenes will be up to follow. From a performance point of view; there’s no pretense to this and it really adds to what we’re doing. We know everyone is in the room.  There is a fourth wall but we break it often. We talk to the audience all the time; we can see them and they can see us!

How did the idea for the play come about?

Jody: A few years ago my son was diagnosed with autism and I didn’t know at the time that I was autistic. I just thought that he was really like me! When I started looking into the autistic community I started becoming really interested as a parent and an artist. I wanted to start developing work that promotes autism acceptance. I then met Eleanor because she knew Meadb, Donal’s wife. Eleanor was writing her thesis on relaxed performances an Meadb’s company (Equinox) runs exclusively relaxed performances. Shay, one of our cast members, attends KCAT where Equinox is based

Donal: In KCAT, the emphasis on the creation of art more than therapy. The course and company involved has people with a variety of disabilities but the focus isn’t on that. It creates a space where these people can play around with ideas. During their productions I have no idea what their disability might or might not be; the art is the focus.

Jody: When I met Eleanor, we had a cup of tea and I went “you’re cool, I want you in something I write!” I talked to Meadb about writing something and an Arts Council application and Donal was a ready choice for director. I knew I wanted something with a mix of autistic and non-autistic actors and I needed a director who could bring a team like that together. Off the back of that we approached Cindy as a choreographer.

Donal: I’d known Jodie’s work for years before this. I’d commissioned her in the past and we’d worked together once or twice. I didn’t really know what the project was; it was a yes straight away. From being married to Meadb I was very familiar and comfortable with relaxed performances.

Choereographer? Sounds exciting! How does that come into it?

We wanted to do the opposite of suppressing stimming, but elevating stimming! I don’t agree with telling someone ‘quiet hands.’ It really affects them negatively, especially if they’re self-regulating. Once when I was at a family fun day I saw a child doing the most amazing dance on a bouncing castle. She was stimming: I come from a dance background and I thought “if that went on stage in the Abbey that would be a beautiful piece of art.” If people are trying to repress this, we want to show that it can be beautiful. We discussed whether stimming can be performed when it’s spontaneous. What we settled on was demonstrating stimming but still integrating it into the dramaturgy of the play. Jayson drums a lot in the stimming scene which helps create a rhythm for the cast. We hope that we’ll have achieved a celebration of stimming.

The cast of What I (Don't) Know About Autism
Jody alongside her cast (credit: Emily Quinn)


The cast is a mixture of autistic and neurotypical actors. How does that dynamic work?

Jodie: It gives non-autistic actors freedom to play around. Jayson, Eleanor and Shay are incredible improvisers. I feel like autistic people are used to responding in the moment to unexpected things. In an early run-through Eleanor fell on the steps and instantly quipped something that made it funny. Similarly, Shay consistently says the lines but often tries new things out. There’s a real playfulness to it which enriches the script. The fact that autistic cast members were doing this so much sort of influenced the other cast to let loose and experiment themselves. They’re open and generous with each other; if people were uncomfortable or felt certain parts of the script didn’t reflect their experience we’d discuss it.

 (At this point Dónal had to dash back into the theatre to continue work. Jodie bravely agreed to answer for both of them!)

Are you hoping to put WIDKAA on again?   

I’m a sucker for repetition and I love rewatching plays to reanalyse it. I’m hoping for a chance to bring it back and bring it touring around Ireland. The only barrier is securing funding for the cast if we were to go across the country. An important part of the whole endeavour is providing paid employment for autistic actors. The opening line in the show is “according to the National Autistic Society in the UK only 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment.” We can’t have that line in the show and not pay actors properly. People have suggested coming into schools which I’m interested in. This isn’t across the board, but I find the people who’s minds we really need to change are the adults and teachers moreso than the students.

You’re in a unique position because you’re speaking as an artist, a parent and an autistic person. How do you think this influenced the writing?

Jodie. It’s a funny one, my son’s a bit cross with me. We spend a lot of time together. When I first became a mother I thought “I can’t afford to be doing theatre anymore because it means I’m missing time with him. If I am doing theatre it had better be bloody worthwhile!” Actually he’s doing brilliantly but I’m normally the one he sees at the school gates everyday. So I’m very aware for these four or five weeks it’s throwing his routine out of whack but he’s very much on board with changing perceptions of autism.

But my son is a subject everyone wants to ask about. I have interviews where they ask “what does he do? What’s he like?” which I don’t think is really relevant. I have a protective instinct towards him and his privacy. He’ll be a teenager in a few years and he might not want to be someone who’s been dragged through the media as an example of what we have to do about autism. He needs to make those choices for himself. It’s his decision whether he becomes involved in advocacy or just continues his life. I even sometimes get questions like “Were you devastated after the diagnosis?” No in fact we were really relieved; we had the same son! He’s well able to articulate his view of the world.

My diagnosis came during the writing process of the play. As an artist you’re already questioning yourself and self-examining so the I was formally diagnosed in June 2019 after self-identifying for a while. The writing uncovered it for me but it became really important to my son that I check it. Him and I are so alike and we’re very much part of each other’s lives to the point that he said “If you don’t have autism than I want mine taken away.” That’s what made me pursue it: the diagnosis was really important for him to know. It was good to go through the process because it removed any doubt.

If you wanted audiences to take away one thing from your play what would it be?

I would want autistic people to come away feeling validated and recognised. For non-autistic audiences, I’d like if there could be a little chink opened up in them through which they can view the world in a new way. The show is packed with information and this is deliberate to show how overwhelming info for autistic people can be. Curiosity is something we really want to build up. I hope any non-autistic people who watch the play will be encouraged to keep learning.


What advice would you give to autistic people hoping to work in the arts?

Don’t do it for money and glamour! You have to love it. The arts are a great industry for autistic people in a sense because we’re used to playing different versions of ourself. We even get a script! My son is already starting to write plays and he’s really good at directing and knowing what he wants. If you’re young go and find a youth theatre to work at; don’t just go to speech and drama classes.

It won’t always be easy. It’s still quite challenging. The hardest part of it is when you’re not working. I do really well as long as I have a routine and a schedule. My main advice would be not just to do one thing. Have a diverse set of skills so you can slot yourself into multiple roles. Which is why youth theatre is great: you can act, direct or do tech work depending on your interest. It makes you a much more rounded artist by the end.

What I Don’t Know About Autism is sold out in the Peacock. Tickets are also available on 11th – 13th Feb in The Everyman, Cork  and 15th Feb Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray.

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