Maverick Life


Dog Rose looks behind a mother’s masking — and the wide spectrum of a disorder

Dog Rose looks behind a mother’s masking — and the wide spectrum of a disorder
Sophie Joans (left) and Anthea Thompson rehearse a scene in Dog Rose, a play about a mother and daughter coping with the fallout of the mother’s undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder. (Photo: Supplied)

Dog Rose sheds light on autism spectrum disorder from a range of perspectives — from how hard it is to have it to living with those who do.

A 10-year-old girl is on a rooftop, decked out for rollerblading as though anticipating disaster. She’s threatening suicide, though she’s helmeted and padded up to mitigate against injury. She doesn’t want to die; she’s looking for attention and emotional support – unconditional love – from her mother.

For some, knowing what to say and do can be tricky. Responding appropriately to an emotionally stressful situation and handling all the feelings that might come bubbling up is much harder, perhaps impossible, for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The girl on the roof is played by Sophie Joans, actress, comedian, clown and now author of two plays. Dog Rose, her second, is an intimate dive off the proverbial roof into the troubled and oftentimes vexing relationship between a girl and her mother, who has lived with undiagnosed – or “undiscovered”, as some ASD specialists prefer – autism until quite late in life.

She is part of what might be referred to as a “lost generation” – women who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s when autism, then widely known as Asperger syndrome, was believed to exist only in boys, and consequently went undiagnosed.

The rollerblades-on-the-rooftop histrionics are how it kicks off. “I think it’s a great scene to demonstrate the tone of the play,” says Joans. “It’s not A Beautiful Mind. It’s a family that’s completely fucked and trying to hide it.” She describes her play as Lady Bird (a film about a turbulent mother-daughter relationship) meets Shameless, and says she leans into the messiness – the dysfunction – quite strongly.

“A lot of my work is finding the humour in complete dysfunction that we find in families,” she says. The reason the girl is on the roof with rollerblades on is that her mother, familiar with eccentric and frequently inappropriate behaviour, has told her that her Halloween costume looks more like a chicken than the seagull she’d been hoping for.

That’s comedy for you. You chuckle out loud, but feel the heartache underneath.

Dog Rose, theatre

Sophie Joans (left) and Anthea Thompson rehearse the opening rooftop scene in Dog Rose, a play about a mother and daughter coping with the fallout of the mother’s undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder. (Photo: Supplied)

Sophie Joans and Anthea Thompson rehearsing the opening rooftop scene. (Photo: Supplied)

Tender but violent

Dog Rose is a tender portrayal of a sometimes broken relationship. It is heartbreaking, it is extreme and it is laugh-out-loud funny, although there’s a violence to it, which is a theme that runs through the play.

Joans was raised on theatre, studied drama at university and then discovered clowning and stand-up comedy, both of which inform her creative process. She says it’s in her blood to mix laughs into the sadness, the playmaker’s formula for getting the medicine down more pleasurably.

Although there’s loads of levity, the play also faces up to, for example, the shame that sometimes surrounds autism, particularly where violence is a kind of expression or coping mechanism for people who struggle to express themselves and might act out physically while pent-up emotion is released.

Autism itself is a difficult subject to pin down because it is, as the name implies, a spectrum, a wide-ranging condition that can manifest in vastly different ways.

The existing canon of autistic representation includes the stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is about a very fragile boy, and A Beautiful Mind, the film about a mathematical genius.

In both of them, “there’s quite a lot of support and empathy for the autistic characters”, Joans says, but she wanted to delve into the experiences of a woman living without a diagnosis, “someone who spends a hell of a lot of time masking”. Masking is an autism adaptation or coping strategy in which people on the spectrum hide that they’re struggling in social situations. Also called camouflaging, it’s used consciously or unconsciously to appear typical in order to blend into society. It involves suppressing autistic traits and compensating during social interactions with neurotypical people, often by adopting observed and learnt behaviours.

“There are many pressures on women to perform in a certain way and autistic women do a lot of masking as a result,” says Joans.

Sophie Joans and Anthea Thompson rehearsing the opening rooftop scene. (Photo: Supplied)

Sophie Joans and Anthea Thompson rehearsing the opening rooftop scene. (Photo: Supplied)

Masking has also been described as giving an Oscar-winning performance every day. It’s mentally and emotionally draining, and it means that many autistic people miss out on being themselves because they essentially create an avatar through which to navigate the neurotypical world as they try to fit in with everyone else.

With Dog Rose, Joans says she also wanted to show some of the difficulties of living with and loving someone who is difficult for reasons that aren’t easily understood. It can be emotionally gruelling for family members, especially children of autistic people who look to parents for nurturing and guidance, and also instinctively learn from them how to behave in and access the world.

She also wanted to delve into the widespread phenomenon of undetected autism among women, something that’s rooted in Johann Asperger’s conducting his research on boys. A consequence is that it was assumed for a long time that females were not affected by autism.

Although this sounds preposterous, there are reasons autism in females was completely overlooked, including widely documented reports that girls and women are simply better at masking.

Reflecting on their undiscovered childhood autism, many women consequently diagnosed in their 50s and 60s say they were referred to as “awkward” or “rude”. Many learnt to fear a recurring question, “What’s wrong with you?”, which is a common reaction to neurodivergence among children perceived to be acting or responding outside the parameters of neurotypical social behaviour. It is also deeply hurtful – and accusatory.

And the eye-rolling, frowns and sideways glances continue among adults who don’t know how to deal with the unexpected actions or faux pas that can make neurodivergent people seem antisocial or even uncouth. Such patterns of intolerant reactions can be especially hurtful when ASD is undiagnosed because the person being teased or bullied or frowned upon has no point of reference for the cruelty they’re being targeted with.

Though the play grapples with the relief and sense of vindication that can come with an ASD diagnosis, it also lifts the lid on some of the stigma that an autism diagnosis might attract – the idea that being on the spectrum is a kind of mental abnormality or illness.

This notion that autism means there’s “something wrong with you” relates to early reporting on ASD in the 1970s, when documentary and news programmes would, in the words of one late-diagnosed woman, “feature children who alternated between banging their heads on walls and playing the piano like reincarnated geniuses”.

Of course, today the scope of resources and references is much wider, with online forums and social media offering connection with and insight from other people with ASD. More people are talking about the challenges faced by people on the spectrum.

The mother-daughter focus in Dog Rose enables some of the specific issues faced by autistic mothers to be addressed. Autism can, for example, include sensory sensitivity to touch and smell, and so an aversion to having a baby or toddler with a specific smell climbing all over her and touching her can hamper an autistic mom’s capacity or willingness to nurture. It can cause guilt and anxiety, and bring on feelings of self-doubt and incompetence.

Anthony Attwood, the British-born, Australia-based clinical psychologist who is probably the world’s foremost expert on ASD, says autism can undermine the confidence mothers have in their ability to raise their children, perhaps simply because their priorities are unconventional, or because they don’t meet social expectations.

Being undiagnosed as an autistic mother can be debilitating because of the potential for a constant sense of failure. Knowing there’s a reason for feeling and being a certain way can mitigate against this underlying anxiety. However, applying a label can itself be stigmatising. A diagnosis can put pressure on the mother to guard against acting in ways that might suggest that she’s “not parent material”.

“That’s really what I wanted to explore in the play,” Joans says.

“That balance between being empowered by knowing you have ASD and having access to support versus a label being potentially stigmatising and isolating.”

Attwood says such stigmas, to a large degree, go back to “a historical accident” of mistakenly assuming that autism is schizophrenia. Historically, the refusal to accept an autism diagnosis resulted in widespread misdiagnosis. People were told they have obsessive-compulsive disorder or social anxiety, or that they’re shy or simply not making an effort. Or that they’re solitary or a loner.

For women who spend their lives feeling as though something is wrong, but refuse to seek help for fear of being stigmatised or categorised as mentally unwell, undiscovered autism can be a source of endless unhappiness or strife. For many, a late-in-life diagnosis can be a source of significant comfort.

It’s true that the past cannot be undone, that there is no “cure”, no switch or reset to suddenly become neurotypical. But what Dog Rose aims to do, apart from make you laugh and cry, is generate empathy for people who may be wired differently to you, who may not look you in the eye, who may not wish to engage socially.

And for those moms who cannot quite fathom why their eccentric daughters are on the roof wearing rollerblades. DM

Dog Rose is at the Baxter Theatre Centre from 23 May to 1 June.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.


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