What I (Don’t) Know About Autism: A riveting celebration of difference

Theatre review: Jody O’Neill’s timely new play has a wide emotional register


Peacock stage, Abbey Theatre, Dublin
Scene 17: A History of Autism sums up the premise of Jody O Neill's riveting new play. An upbeat musical number, it charts the first diagnoses and evolving treatments of autism. We learn about its initial definition as "childhood schizophrenia" and a variety of early "cures": institutionalisation at best, electroshock therapy at worst. The final verse becomes a rousing celebration of the contemporary neurodiversity movement, which encourages a celebration of difference and an accommodation of need. All against a backdrop of "loud music, singing and dancing", as helpful captions alert anyone who might be sensitive to noise.

The live captioning is just one of the resources that director Donal Gallagher adopts for the relaxed performance, the first of its kind at the Abbey Theatre. House lights also remain dim throughout, with the actors giving due notice of Eoin Winning’s lighting cues or atmospheric noises from Carl Kennedy’s sound design.

Inclusivity defines the aesthetic as well as the experience of the show. Medb Lambert’s costumes, for example, are drawn from a palette of stylish everyday clothes in bright primary colours, while her set has the dull grey functionality of a health service waiting room. Performers Shay Croke, Paula McGlinchey, Jayson Murray, Jody O’Neill, Matthew Raili and Eleanor Walsh, who play a wide variety of invested parties – children, parents, doctors, teachers – speak clearly, and, mostly, straight out to the audience. If autism is often associated with lack of empathy, they use an abundance of intimate eye contact and a wide emotional register to ensure the charge of the stories they tell. Some of these stories are shocking (the use of bleach and physical punishment as medical cure) and all are drawn from real life.

In this sense, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism is educational for anyone who has no experience with what one of the interviewees describes as “a trait not a disease.” However, as a celebration of difference and as an invitation for its diverse community to participate in theatrical culture, it is also, perhaps more importantly, a timely political gesture.


At the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until Saturday; then at Everyman Palace, Cork, from Tuesday, February 11th, until Thursday, February 13th, and at Mermaid Arts Centre, Bray, Co Wicklow, on Saturday, February 15th