Writing Autistic Roles

Sia has attracted attention by casting a neurotypical actor to play the autistic lead in her new film “Music”. Like almost everyone who has expressed an opinion about Sia’s casting choices, I haven't seen Music. I will reserve my opinion for when I have. More generally though, as an autistic person and also as the writer of Henpire, an audio drama about three gay women, one of whom is autistic, I feel compelled to enter this debate about “autistic ableism”.

Let me say from the start that asking whether an autistic role should be filled by an autistic actor is a fair question, and the right question. It is also fair to ask how autism presents in each character. Autism is a series of traits and the only thing that autistic people (and hopefully, by extension, autistic characters) have in common is that we are all unique. Add to this the fact that autistic people, like everyone else, have many facets to them beyond their neurodiversity.

I am Sam. I have many labels. I am gay, married, a mother, female, apparently middle aged, from Yorkshire and autistic. I received my autism diagnosis just two years ago. To be honest, it rocked my foundations. But I channelled the energy it generated into writing about adult autism, both as a way to work out my own feelings and to raise awareness about autism diagnoses in females (an under-diagnosed group).

I wrote Henpire as an autistic person because who else can I be? Should I have worried about me writing the dialogue for the 2 neurotypical characters, since I am not neurotypical? All 3 characters are lesbian, and I am a lesbian, so that seems to be ok. Should I anticipate criticism for writing any straight roles though, as I haven’t ever lived this lifestyle?

Whenever you write a character, if they are gay or homeless or rich, you can never seek to represent everyone that is gay or homeless or rich. All you can do is faithfully portray the character that you have in mind, bringing them to life and putting them through a story arc that stretches and challenges them. Hopefully, this opens the audience's mind to a different world. You can never portray a whole community. You just can’t. As a writer and director, after weighing it up, at some point you have to take the plunge, set the stage and let the story be told.

And now we turn to casting. All three characters in Henpire are lesbian. Two are from the north of England and one is from London. Two are neurotypical and one is autistic. And here lie the reasonable and right questions. Do we cast actors that are all lesbians? Do we cast neurotypical or autistic actors? Do they have to be from Yorkshire if the character is from Yorkshire? Ultimately, it is a balance of many things including talent, chemistry, fit, availability, contacts/network, reputation, prominence and budget.

When we cast the character of Drax in Henpire, we did not find anyone suitable who was lesbian, autistic and from Yorkshire (like Drax is). I even considered playing the role myself (I’m all three) but I am not an actor, and that’s key - we need actors to act.

We cast Heather Peace as Drax because she was the right actor for the part. She has a uniquely quirky comedic energy that accentuates Drax’s persona in a way that is realistic and relatable. Yes, Heather has a Yorkshire accent and is a real life lesbian, but ultimately neither quality was salient in her getting the part. Having spoken to Heather at length during auditions, she recognised many of the traits that Drax exhibits, in herself and was willing to be micro-directed in order to portray my exact vision of Drax.

Heather is not autistic, but she is an actor. She took my writing and my direction and portrayed Drax exactly how I wanted to see her portrayed. Drax is not every autistic person. Nor is she every lesbian. Or every Yorkshire Woman. She is just one character I created to tell a story and raise awareness of later life diagnoses in women who are autistic.

Did we get it right? That’s an individual opinion. I think we did. In fact, I’m so sure we did that I’ve cast Heather as the lead role in Crocodile, my next audio production, and a far more serious play, and with autism as one of many dimensions of her character. I don’t doubt that decision, but there is also a glaring reality: autistic actors, especially female ones, are hard to find. On an actors’ networking site that apparently has two million members, I could only find one who openly identified as autistic.

As an autistic woman, an autistic writer, and an autistic viewer, I welcome the conversation and the much-needed awareness this debate is raising. I continue to write about autism and to create characters who are neurodiverse (as well as those who are neurotypical). It is my goal to create as many paths to inclusion for autistic people as possible. But in order to cast autistic actors, we need to know who they are. And to facilitate the openness required, in what is basically another “coming out” process, we need to facilitate more conversations about autism.

P.S. If you are reading this and you are an autistic actor, please get in touch.

Henpire on Spotify

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Part one