Directed by Hannah Aroni, Jess Gonsalvez and James Matthews
Helping Hands explores the many meanings of “help” in a neoliberal society in which caregiving remains feminised and economically undervalued. Yet it is also a society in which the lived experiences of autistic people continue to be marginalised in favour of those of their parents, teachers, therapists and other “helpers”.
Co-created by directors Hannah Aroni, Jess Gonsalvez and James Matthews in collaboration with a majority autistic or otherwise neurodiverse cast, Helping Hands puts the spotlight on the perspectives of autistic people themselves.
The play draws on a diverse range of influences, from philosopher and disability scholar Eva Feder Kittay to writer Julia Bascom, whose essay Quiet Hands is about the long-term impact of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) on her ability to authentically express herself. In Australia, ABA remains one of the most common interventions for autistic children. It draws on behavioural psychology to reward desired behaviours and discourage behaviours considered inappropriate. ABA been condemned by many autistic adults who were subjected to harsh punishments – slapping, shouting or, in the worst cases described as “state-sanctioned child abuse“, electric shocks – to encourage them to mimic neurotypical behaviours.
In Helping Hands, three narratives weave in and out of a loose collection of sketches and choreographed pieces that cover issues from workplace discrimination to “social stories” in the schoolyard. In one of these narratives, middle-aged Sheridan (Tara Daniel) fights an indifferent bureaucracy to access financial support for her autistic daughter. In another, Alice (Dee Matthews) needs a friend to convince her that her issues with autism, depression and gender identity do not make her undeserving of mental health care. In the third narrative, a non-verbal girl, Donna (Aislinn Murray), is subjected to ABA in a confronting scene that vividly demonstrates that those who require assistance are not deemed worthy of bodily autonomy.
The participation of autistic and otherwise neurodiverse people in Helping Hands is central to every aspect of the performance. A_tistic – the team behind Helping Hands as well as past productions Alexithymia (2017), Pinocchio Restrung (2016) and Them Aspies (2014) – describes their approach as “Spectrum Theatre”:
Spectrum Theatre is the theatrical mode or practice of making a theatrical space autistic… Spectrum Theatre can involve elements like extreme inputs, split focus, ambiguity and uncertainty. Spectrum Theatre often speaks its own language and expects the audience to decipher it, in the same way that autistic people are expected to decipher the neurotypical world.
As part of this approach, A_tistic puts the emphasis on inclusivity. The “relaxed performance” – a crucial element of their project of making theatre more accessible for neurodiverse people – is prefaced by content warnings, with Aroni telling the audience that they should feel free to use the “chillout space” set aside for those dealing with sensory overload. The audience is also told that they should feel free to make noise, move around and respond to the show in whatever way feels natural to them. This explicit welcoming atmosphere makes it clear that autistic people and those with disabilities are the intended audience of Helping Hands, rather than just the subjects of a show attended primarily by their allies.
In neoliberal Australia, many helpers – such as full-time carers, single parents and others – live on a pittance. Yet as Helping Hands makes clear, helpers can also be gatekeepers to services that are necessary for the very survival of people with disabilities. They can withdraw financial support; limit access to medical and mental health care; and open doors that Sheridan, in all her hours on the phone to the Department of Very Special Needs, cannot budge. They can withhold special consideration on a whim, potentially ending a university education.
Helping Hands is a refreshing look at what “help” can mean, and the damage that can be done in its name.