Broadway is making history for Autistic representation in media. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to see How to Dance in Ohio with my Uncle Geoff. How to Dance in Ohio follows seven Autistic young adults transitioning into adulthood and facing challenges: college, romance, jobs and even driving. What is notable about this musical is that all of the Autistic characters were played by Autistic people. They are not stereotypes. They are characters not like Rain Man and or The Good Doctor. The play presents an authentic Autistic experience and there are things that the neurotypical audience may not notice at first glance that are deeply intrinsic to these characters. I wanted to share some of my takeaways from the play that best show how Autistic media is evolving.
Takeaway 1: Diverse representation of Autistics
Autistic people are not all tech geniuses. They are not all into fandoms or video games. They are all different. Just like neurotypicals can’t be boiled down to a single stereotype, neither can Autistic people. The play introduces this concept with a disclaimer. “There is a saying that if you have met one Autistic person, you have met one Autistic person! And today you will have the opportunity to meet seven Autistic people!” I include a similar disclaimer any time I speak to a group. Unfortunately, Autistic people get generalized all of the time. Sometimes people treat me the way they have treated other Autistics because it worked for those people but that does not mean it will work for me. The play embraces the diversity of the Autism spectrum and lets each of its characters be themselves. I also appreciate the gender diversity present in the play. Often Autism is seen as a condition only affecting males but it appears in all demographics. For example, compared to the neurotypical population, many more Autistics are part of the LGBTQ+ community, and the play showcases this with the two non-binary characters. The play couldn’t possibly attempt to cover the vast array of Autistics but it sends a clear message that if you think all Autistics are the same, think again.
Takeaway 2: Autistics face challenges with similar stakes to neurotypicals
In the play, the characters face varying challenges but at the same time, present a universal message. In the end, regardless of whether you are neurodiverse or neurotypical, we still have similar obstacles in life. For Mel, the challenge is finding a promotion at their job. Tommy works on passing his driving test. Drew works on finding the courage to ask Marideth to dance. I think everyone can relate to these challenges on some level. Most of us are going to struggle with jobs, with driving, and with love. The play does something unique by putting an Autistic lens on these challenges. This is authentic Autistic media. It’s taking a challenge or a conflict that people have every day and saying what extra challenge would an Autistic person face.
Takeaway 3: Neurotypical People are not the heroes
Of course, there are neurotypical leads in the play as well. Dr. Amigo and his daughter Ashley are not villains but they are not perfect. Throughout the play, they learn that some of their notions and attitudes are harmful and should be corrected. Dr. Amigo learns the important lesson that Autistics should get to speak for themselves. Ironically this is why I started blogging. I did not want my mother to define who I was as a person. In the play, Remy is quite vocal that Dr. Amigo has screwed up and must give them, the Autistic characters, the chance to speak for themselves. Dr. Amigo hands over the reins of the dance to Drew and allows his clients to choose their paths. This sends all of us an important message. We are empowered to choose how we want to live our lives and we should respect what others choose for themselves.
Takeaway 4: No Inspiration Porn
A big problem with Autistic media created by and for neurotypical people is that it often leans into inspiration porn, an issue that has plagued the disability community for some time. What is inspiration porn? It is the infantilization of Autistics in puff pieces for local news in which we are portrayed as examples of how you can overcome anything. It’s condescending, insulting and degrading. I shouldn’t be a circus prop to make you feel better. I think Stella Young, a disability advocate, said it best when she said that inspiration porn makes disabled folks not appear to be real people. This was what I was worried about going into this play. At a certain point in the play, one character, a blogger, writes a pretty insulting and ableist article about the dance, claiming that Autistics can never amount to anything but they should be proud that they get to dance. This is not the attitude people should have and I am so glad the play addresses it. The play calls it out as false and wrong. We all have challenges, some more than others, but still, we are all capable of trying to do everything. We shouldn’t be made to feel less because others have done what we have not and we certainly should not degrade others to serve an agenda of blatant hate or inspiration porn.
Takeaway 5: The Future of Autistic Media
Autistic and neurodivergent media is here. It needs to be led by Autistics and Neurodiverse people themselves, not neurotypicals who spin or present inaccurate portrayals. This play is a golden example of what Autistic media should be doing. Autistic media has a unique role in promoting inclusion and acceptance. LGBTQ+ characters on television are credited for assisting the gay rights movement and African-American music helped bridge divides in segregationist America. I see Autistic media as a tool to humanize Autistics, for others to relate. I saw audience members treating these actors and characters with respect. They are not lesser than. They have their struggles and our goal is to help include them. I do not expect this to be the last review I do for something like this. I hope for more and more Autistic media to come out in the future. For now, go see How to Dance In Ohio on Broadway if you can – it is a great show with a powerful message.