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My guest this this week on my monthly ‘All Things Autism’ segment, shown yesterday at Sky TV’s ‘The Chrissy B Show’ was Fiona Whitelaw. Fiona is the script writer from the film ‘Acceptable Damage‘
Fiona shares her story with Chrissy and I: ‘I made the choice to have the central character of Katy as a teenager with Asperger syndrome for many reasons. The biggest one is my drive to enable us all to understand and guard against “othering” people in society for their difference. Often someone who is neurodiverse can be bullied or “othered” because of lack of understanding of their difference. There are few examples of female characters who are autistic being represented on screen or stage.
‘The most consistent feedback we have had has been the representation in the film; it’s gender balance in front of and behind the camera, the positive representation of a black family in the story and the overall message about dismissing and marginalising people and the authorities failure to understand the needs of the autistic community.
‘As an actress with her own experience living as an autistic young woman, finding where to separate my own story from Katy’s was the most challenging thing. I’ve found that playing someone who is neurodiverse can often be more difficult than playing a character who isn’t; I’m less attached to the subject matter so it makes it easier to disconnect and play that characters story truthfully. When it’s so close to home the lines can get very blurred. It was especially challenging dealing with scenes wherein I had to have a ‘meltdown’ – as anyone on the spectrum will tell you – they are the worst, so replicating that in a safe way was not easy.
‘My next project is a film set in 1984: Tinned Goods, where the characters Sue and Rachel have not spoken since the miners walked out on strike three months earlier. Will the strain of politics, picket lines and principles, prevent these women winning a battle to save their relationship and their way of life?
‘I’m really excited to be involved with Seahorse Films next short Pennywort about a young woman with Asperger’s, with elements of magical realism involved. It’s going to be beautiful, you can help realise the films goal of further female neurodiverse representation and follow the progress over on Twitter (@Pennywort12)
‘Acting is my job and I am interested in all kinds of roles, most of the times I play characters that are not neurodiverse. The challenge of representing a neurodiverse character on screen is that although there are similarities between some of Katy’s experience and mine during my teenage years, she is not Katy and it was important to make that separation.
‘There is a lot of talk in the media about wanting to see more representation on screen of invisible disability and representative stories; however when approaching cinema’s TV companies, newspapers and funders, there is less enthusiasm. This will not stop me getting stories that have not been told in front of an audience any way I can. We have been selected in competition for the British Urban Film Festival, which is a huge honour. The film is nominated for ‘Best Film’ , ‘Best Actress’ and ‘Best Actor’. Our screening is on Wednesday 4th September at 6.30pm and you can find the details here.
‘There’s a real diversity push happening at the moment which is incredibly important and vital for our industry, however it still feels like those with ‘disabilities’ are last on that list. Not to mention “invisible disabilities”. It can often feel like it’s all just a big exercise in box-ticking and that by being neurodivergent you’re not visibly “disabled enough” to fulfil that criteria. That being said, there are some fantastic people and companies making work and widening the nets and telling these stories.
‘Making a work environment accessible is particularly challenging on an indie film set as budget constraints can make the pace of shooting quite fast. We considered Elinor’s needs in the planning of the shoot, but on reflection there are lessons for me to learn about spacing out very emotional scenes across several days, to give time for recovery. We had a deaf actress Emily Salter to play the role of Ayesha (one of Katy’s school friends) and I was able to use my BSL to communicate the director’s and crews notes and instructions. Being open to advice and willing to make changes during a process is vital.
Have small animals on set. That’s my advice. Petting the bunny rabbit (that sadly didn’t make the cut of the film) was my saving grace during an incredibly intense night of shooting.
Fiona’s interview will be available to see this week on Chrissy B Show Youtube channel.
Dr Anna Kennedy OBE is an educator who has worked to provide an improved education and other facilities for children with autism spectrum disorders.