Autism diagnosis in adulthood led to writer Rhi Lloyd-Williams exploring her life in The Duck, a one-woman play coming to The Spring, Havant
As a child Rhi Lloyd-Williams was labelled as naughty, arrogant, and lazy.
It wasn’t until she was 35 and came across an article by a woman who was late-diagnosed as autistic that she found herself recognising many of the same traits the author detailed.
As a fellow writer Rhi ultimately decided to use her own story to make sense of her subsequent diagnosis, and share it with others.
The result was The Duck, a one-woman play that is both funny and moving. It comes to The Spring Arts Centre in Havant on Friday, January 24.
Rhi tells The Guide: ‘I hadn't realised that I was autistic for the simple reason that I'd never really seen autistic women.
‘I didn't know what an autistic woman looked like. You have all these stereotypes and what you see in the media of autistic people – they have no sense of humour, well one of my interests is stand-up comedy, so that’s a problem right there; they can't have any empathy, well I’m really caring – I've got five kids, I'm married – I like to think that I'm quite a loving individual; you’re not supposed to have relationships and I am married.
‘Or they’re not good at communicating, I’m a writer. I'm quite good at that.
‘You see all the images of people in things like The Big Bang Theory and they’re always male, usually young, often geeky, into IT. Or maybe Rain Man, so then you’re into savants, and none of them are like me. I'm not in IT, I'm in the arts.’
It was only on reading the article that ‘everything clicked’.
‘She was describing all the things that I don't tell anybody about – how does she know? So I showed it to my husband and he said: “Oh my God, that's you!”’
But initially, it was her own preconceived ideas about autism that stopped her taking it further.
‘I'm guilty of the stereotyping as much as anybody else, but eventually, I thought: “I need to know one way or another,” so I sought a diagnosis.’
Rhi began writing about autism on her website, and found it opened her up to a whole new community of autistic women having similar experiences, even though they were thousands of miles apart, or they lived in huge cities, while Rhi grew up in rural Wales.
It got her thinking: ‘If we've got all this common shared stuff, there's more to this. Being a writer I thought: “If there isn't an image of an autistic woman out there, then I’m going to have to write one”.
‘I'm a poet, not a playwright, but I knew a brilliant director, Jo Loyn, and she asked me to write the play.’
Rhi’s autism manifests itself in her daily life as a need to be in control of herself and her surroundings, which leads to her planning as many aspects of her life as possible. If that sounds exhausting, Rhi agrees.
‘I have so many coping mechanisms. I need routine, I don’t cope with change at all.
‘I don't cope with going to new places very well – I have to prepare for every single thing.
‘Every day I would wake up an hour before the kids, and I would sit and plan what I was going to do that day in the minutest detail: I'll be walking down here, I'll be going in through this door, I'll be meeting this person, when I meet this person I will say…
‘I would have these elaborate scripts for dealing with small talk because I find small talk very difficult.
‘So I can talk about the weather, or I've learned that this person likes watching EastEnders so I will watch EastEnders even though I don't like EastEnders, so that I will have something to talk about to this person at work.
‘You end up spending so much of your free time planning and dealing with that, because that really helps with working through your day and not having to do the work when it arises.
‘I don’t have to make up the response on the spot because I've already planned it.’
And going to anywhere new throws up even more challenges.
‘Before going to new places, I would be looking at Google Maps, which is brilliant. I’d look at the buildings, work out the route.
‘The amount of detail I go into every day to work out how to do everything is immense.
‘It’s utterly exhausting.’
Then there’s also the drain of social interaction.
‘And masking is exhausting, it’s one of the most difficult things to do.When I'm talking to somebody, I'm not only trying to consciously work out what your body language is doing, what your tone is doing, work out the subtext, work out what you really mean, work out whether you're saying what you really mean.
‘At the same time, I'm trying to project myself - am I responding, right?
‘Am I moving my hands in the right way?
‘Am I smiling at the right point? Am I nodding at the right point?
‘And so every interaction can become very, very tiring and exhausting.
‘My ideal, my natural communication method would be really quite direct. I'd get rid of all the small talk, we’d talk about our interests, I'd give information, you get information. I wouldn't have to do any of that: “Hi, how are you?” unless it was relevant.
‘If it's relevant, it's important, but if it's not, it's just noise. I don't get anything from it. For other people, that helps them to build a connection with somebody. For me, that is exhausting and boring and hard.’
Direct Jo already had actress Lucy Theobald in mind for the sole part in The Duck. And Rhi admits she was nervous about meeting her for the first time.
‘They were based down in Plymouth, so I had this long drive down there to meet them both and I was thinking: “What if she's awful?”
‘What if she’s a terrible actress? What if she mangles my words and she does all this stereotypical autistic stuff and doesn’t get it?
‘What am I going to do if she’s rubbish?’
‘Luckily she was utterly brilliant and just got it.’
Rhi later discovered that Lucy is dyslexic and dyspraxic.
‘I think because of that, she's used to thinking in ways other people don't. She got what it was like to think differently to other people.
‘We spent the first day with me just pretty much explaining all my autistic traits.
‘Then we spent a week turning it into a performance, which was amazing to watch.
‘What was really interesting doing all that was realising how I built my social self – I had to build it because I don't have a natural one. Well I do have a natural one, but it doesn't fit with norms.
‘I did a lot of watching and masking and then mimicking and I realised as we constructed this character of The Duck on stage, that's exactly how I constructed myself.’
Given her difficulties coping with new situations and casual interaction, it may be surprising to hear that Rhi takes part in a Q&A with the audience after each performance.
‘I expect to be exhausted afterwards.
‘I always plan for downtime afterwards a show. I'm going to spend maybe a week after it absolutely shattered, and I’ll find it very difficult to do things in that week, so I have to plan my downtime.
‘But I love doing the Q&As. It's one of those things that you think: “Oh, well, no, you won't like that because that's communication”. But it's talking about my special interest. All autistic people love talking about their interests. Try and stop us, it’s really hard!
‘And people can’t interrupt me – I have centre stage. I get to talk about what I want to talk about and it's really lovely.’
One of the joys for Rhi has been seeing how different sections of the audience respond to the play.
‘It's amazing hearing responses from the audience, especially since it's been such a weird thing writing a play for more than one audience.
‘I want autistic people to see it and recognise themselves.
‘I want professionals to see it and understand it.
'And I want people who know nothing about autism at all to get it as well.
‘It's three really different audiences.
‘Some of the play is funny, some of it’s sad. I like to say that I've got jokes in there that are specifically for autistic people and jokes in there that are not, so I can hear different parts of the audience laughing at different times, which is brilliant. It's one of my favourite things.
‘The response from everyone has been amazing. I've had autistic people say: “You put me on stage. That was me”.
‘And I've had professionals say: “Oh, my goodness, you made me feel really uncomfortable with your bit where she's being a diagnostician because I say all those things and I've just realised how patronising I sound”.
‘I've had regular theatregoers just loving the language and saying they've learned something about autism.’
The Spring Arts Centre, Havant
Friday, January 24