Springboard to a story of autism

Springboard to a story of autism
The cast of 'What I (Don’t) Know About Autism'

Actress and playwright Jody O’Neill remembers being four years of age and copying everything her best friend did. It was a survival strategy for O’Neill, who was diagnosed with autism last year at the age of 39.

In her teens, she developed an eating disorder and at one stage, weighed just five stone.

O’Neill, who stars in her self-penned play, What I (Don’t) Know About Autism, says a high percentage of females presenting with an eating disorder are actually autistic. “It’s about controlling yourself when you can’t really control the world around you,” she says.

It’s commonly thought that autism affects boys more than girls. But O’Neill says that is not the case. “The diagnostic criteria was based on boys because up until a certain point, it wasn’t really acknowledged that girls could have autism.

“Also, females are better at masking. So they tend to be misdiagnosed with things like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.”

When O’Neill was researching autism on account of her son’s diagnosis in 2016 with the condition when he was four, she became fascinated with the subject and saw similarities between herself and her child.

She was also concerned at the way autism is treated. This led her to do a course on autism.

O’Neill and her partner were recommended to use ABA (applied behavioural analysis) on their son. But by the end of the course that O’Neill was studying, she felt it wasn’t suitable.

“ABA is all about trying to modify the behaviour of the child and trying to change the person. We didn’t want to change our son. We just wanted to help him with his anxiety as his autism was manifesting as extreme anxiety.

What was being advised was definitely going to make him more anxious.

As she was reading more material about autism, it began to resonate with O’Neill’s own experiences. She decided to get a formal diagnosis for herself.

“I would have had certain sensory processing differences. They’re not so strong now but certainly as a child, I remembered not being able to be in certain rooms because the smell or the light made me feel ill.

“Also, I took things very literally as a child. If someone said ‘I’m going to kill her for doing that’, I would think the person’s life was in danger. Also, some people just know the right thing to say. As I’ve gone through my life, I’ve built up an artillery of things to say in certain situations.”

Four of the six actors in O’Neill’s ensemble play have autism. O’Neill, from Cork, studied theatre at Trinity College. Her play, a co-production with the Abbey and directed by Donal Gallagher, is being rehearsed in a way that is not stressful.

Jody O'Neill
Jody O'Neill

“We didn’t need ego,” says O’Neill. “We just wanted to make the whole process as relaxed as possible with yoga mats and blankets on hand if the actors need to take a little bit of time.”

The play, described as both comic and heartbreaking, contains 26 scenes, each exploring differentfacets of the often misunderstood condition of autism.

O’Neill, who is against segregating children with autism in schools, says the diagnostic criteria for the condition has widened considerably.

One of the huge things with autism is that 80% of autistic people end up with mental health issues. It’s because of the way the way the world treats them.

O’Neill says the Netflix series, Atypical, which features an autistic character, has helped members of the public to understand the issue.

“But the central actor in Atypical, Keir Gilchrist, is not autistic which is a bit of a blow,” she says.

O’Neill mentions eco-activist, Greta Thunberg, as a great role model and “an icon of what autism can look like”.

She also mentions broadcaster Chris Packham, who made the documentary, Aspergers and Me.

“He comes across as someone who has been hugely damaged because he didn’t get his diagnosis until he was forty-five.”

O’Neill says her own late diagnosis means it took her much longer to figure out who she is. “I’m still working that out now.”

- What I (Don’t) Know About Autism is at the Abbey, Dublin, until Saturday. It then moves to Everyman, Cork, Feb 11-13. All shows are ‘relaxed performances’, with a post show talk on February 12

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