Open Theatre: Doing Difference Differently
The History of Autism Awareness
Happy World Autism Awareness day everyone!
You may be wondering what World Autism Awareness day is or why it matters, so I thought I would give you a bit of history about World Autism Awareness day. Since 2008, the United Nations general assembly, in America, has declared April 2nd to be World Autism Awareness Day. The day itself has swept across to Britain and it brings individual autism organizations together all around the world to aid in things like research, diagnoses, treatment, and acceptance for those with a developmental path affected by Autism. The day has become even more important though, as it gives those of us who live with the condition a way of educating others and supporting others to understand us and live in peace alongside us rather than label, ostracize or ridicule us. A significant charity who works alongside Autistic individuals is Open Theatre Company in Birmingham. Not only do they celebrate differences but they have the tagline; ‘Doing difference differently’, and for those who may be a little confused as to what that means I will try and unravel the mystery a little in the next paragraph.
Open Theatre: Doing Difference Differently
So what does it mean to do difference differently? Well, as a loose member and partner of Open Theatre for the last five years, I think that it means a few things.
Firstly, it means that not only do Open Theatre recognise difference, they also treat each member of the company and staff as individuals. They cater for each person’s specific needs For example, I have Autism and so do many other participants. Open Theatre do not think all their participants are the same nor do they treat us as a diagnosis. Rather they think ‘this person needs routine, structure and employment to keep them safe so we will support them to gain employment in the arts.’ Another participant may need support with housing or with universal credit in order to create their best artistic work and Open Theatre will support that too.
Company Director, Richard Hayhow, noted, ‘we do difference differently because it keeps our work alive, creative and exciting. We are always looking for our next adventure. Doing difference differently enables us to get away from ‘the tyranny of the norm’. The ‘norm’ doesn’t work for us. We do difference differently each time we do it because we don’t want to establish an alternative norm – ‘difference is the new norm.’
Associate Director, Melissa Daly, said, ‘doing difference differently is hard to describe in words as it links so closely with our nonverbal practice. For me, it describes the way we engage with participants through the work that we do, which is always celebrating the unique difference we all have as individual human beings.’
Many companies have diversity training which trains members of their employ to recognise difference but that is often where the training stops. Open Theatre not only recognise difference but they celebrate it and they support those who are different in a way that is specific, unique and individual to them. Secondly, doing difference differently means being compassionate towards those with differences. It means being caring towards them and supporting them to thrive and create art in their own unique way.
The Oxford English dictionary defines compassion as ‘sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.’ Not only do Open Theatre listen to the needs of those with Autism but they support them from a very young age to develop and figure out what they want to do in life and in the arts. For example, Open Theatre work in a variety of special schools around the Midlands and some of the individuals have known Open Theatre staff since they were as young as seven years old. Myself, I developed a relationship with Open Theatre later on in life but they have supported my theatre company ‘Alternative Voices’ to go from being an idea to a professional theatre company who have produced one piece of forum theatre and a radio play over lockdown. Open Theatre has supported me throughout my adult life in a way that is kind and heart-warming. In a way that I had never been supported before. A further example of compassion that Open Theatre has shown is over lockdown. Individuals who have Autism have really struggled over lockdown. Our routine has been turned upside down and there is constant change and uncertainty in the world which causes fear. Open Theatre has provided that routine and structure for their participants by running weekly online workshops. They even visited members in parks who were struggling with the isolation. Now if that is not compassion I do not know what is.
Key messages to take away
So what was the point in writing this article? Well firstly, it was to wish you all a happy Autism Awareness Day and to say that on this day there is a lot you can do to support individuals with Autism. You can celebrate the strengths of those with Autism, you can educate others, you can share your stories and struggles. Most importantly you can give compassion to individuals on the spectrum. Do not just extend your compassion to us. Give your compassion to everyone you interact with and soon you will see how much better the world is. Finally, on this World Autism Awareness Day you can do difference differently. Don’t just recognise and celebrate difference, but really listen to what each individual person needs. Be the change that you want to see in the world and help us truly include Autistic individuals in everything that the world has to offer.
All the best and stay safe!
The Author and the Team.
-Written by Madeleine Levy