Sister's struggle with autism diagnosis inspires debut play

Sophie and Emma Jackson

Siblings Sophie and Emma Jackson appear in Sophie's play Just Be Normal at The Phoenix Theatre Golders Green. - Credit: Courtesy of Akimbo theatre company

Teenager Sophie Jackson has penned a deeply personal play inspired by her older sister's struggle to be diagnosed with autism.

The siblings appear together in Just Be Normal at the King Alfred Phoenix Theatre in Golders Green next week. Started as a lockdown project, Sophie's debut play centres on their sibling bond and Emma's struggles with the education system.

The 19-year-old, who recently finished a Foundation in Acting at ArtsEd school, said: "I went to school with my sister until I was fourteen, but I never realised the injustices she experienced, not so much not by the school, but by how ‘the system’ approached the diagnosis of autism - specifically girls with autism.

"After doing some research I realised it was a rarity to diagnose girls at a young age, simply because it was under researched and not much spoken about. The word autism wasn’t on my radar, or if it was it was a disability that I thought would be obvious to see. When I was at school the phrase “are you autistic” was used a lot, as a casual insult, and probably still is."

Jackson recalls how growing up, Emma was always labelled as ‘difficult’, ‘a nightmare’, or a ‘troubled teen’.

"I find it really upsetting when I look back and think about those times because she and I have always been so close."

Emma was finally diagnosed at 17 after being out of education for nearly two years. Sophie feels her life and schooling would been easier if it had been recognised earlier.

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"She would have achieved different outcomes, her life would have progressed along an easier path, and her family would have been able to understand and support her."

She hopes Just Be Normal will aid understanding of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, which some deny exists or believe is a "disease to be cured."

"My sister is an inspiration to me because she has navigated everything the neurotypical world has thrown at her, when every day can be a huge struggle. Emma’s story deserves to be told. The world needs to know more about autism and learn to be more understanding of the neurodiverse and appreciative of the huge amount they have to offer society.

"I hope Just be Normal can play a small part in challenging prejudices and shifting the viewpoint of the neurotypical majority. Not all the events in the play actually happened, but they are all true."

Just Be Normal runs at The Phoenix Theatre from September 22-24.