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helping hands: a powerful message about autism

Helping Hands, La Mama Theatre

Helping Hands, La Mama Theatre

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to see the show Helping Hands. Held in the La Mama Courthouse black box space, it created a vivid picture of some aspects of living as an autistic person in an allistic—not autistic—society. Not only was it compelling and entertaining, but it was also incredibly informative on the issues that autistic people face. This included depictions of different kinds of ableism, and their impacts.

The show itself began on a comedic note, introducing the topic through a talk show segment. The show’s host sat down with the parent of an allistic person to discuss some of the barriers their child faces daily. This included the incredulity of being able to make a phone call without worries, or desiring eye contact during conversation, which are both things that many autistic people struggle with. On the surface this was comedic, as it sounded completely ridiculous. But the darker tones of the message portrayed a common stereotype that autistic people face; one that suggests their instincts towards certain situations are “wrong” or “antisocial”. This provided the tone for the rest of the play, setting the audience up for an array of emotions.

Throughout the show we were met with a wide array of stories and situations, stemming from research and self-reflection. I found one of the most powerful stories to be that of Donna. Donna starts the series of scenes as a young child, working with a professional to “help” her with various life skills. These first moments are played out with a specific style of behavioural therapy, leaving a young Donna distressed. Her fixation on a ball that is being offered to her as a reward is used as a motivator for what is deemed “appropriate” behaviour. As an audience member I felt quite heartbroken for Donna as it was clear her involvement in this therapy was not only a situation she was forced into, but one that undermined and belittled her experiences. However, this situation felt more promising as a new therapist stepped in to work with her, one who was kinder and recognised that Donna had her own method of communicating. The conclusion to these scenes showed Donna using a text-to-speech program to convey her thoughts to her therapist. The monologue that this entailed was emotional and at moments heartbreaking, as she detailed her struggles with having her natural method of communication dismissed and disconnected.

I was impressed by the thorough research that was done into autism itself, therapies designed to support it and how, even today, people are being treated like sub-class humans in some parts of the world. There was a significant amount of work taken directly from prominent scholars in the field, respectable people, some whose opinions were less than tasteful. Using this as a foundation for creative exploration reinforced the rejection of ableism this show portrayed. It also added a professional and academic element to the message, turning it into a semblance of an argument. If this was the intention, then it was done incredibly well, and honestly, it convinced me!

My only criticism of this show is that it wasn’t longer. I would have loved to have seen more in-depth explorations of the stories, as well as more character development across some of the larger characters. As compelling as it was, there were some instances where I felt less connected to the characters than others. I do understand the limitations of running a show for the first time however, so despite this, I would not hesitate to see this show again. If they ever rerun it in the future, I would buy a ticket in a heartbeat, and would encourage you to do the same.

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