When you don't like human contact, you need a machine like this to give you hugs.
Imagine a first date when you can’t make eye contact and speak at the same time, or when a goodbye hug sends you into an anxiety attack. Most of us deftly navigate the invisible web of social rules without giving it a second thought. Squeeze Machine, a new play written and performed by Georgina Beaty, is about a woman who… doesn’t.
The show was inspired in part by Temple Grandin, a woman with high-functioning autism (who will be portrayed by Claire Danes in an upcoming biopic), who realized at a young age that she craved deep pressure stimulation, but the human-to-human contact of a hug was overwhelming. On a visit to her aunt’s ranch, she observed cattle being vaccinated in a squeeze chute and noticed that the pressure of the chute was calming. Inspired by this observation, Grandin developed the titular “squeeze machine” for herself, which she uses to this day to relieve the symptoms of her anxiety.
Squeeze machines are specialty tools, mostly used by individuals and occupational therapists, but the underlying concept of deep pressure is familiar to the autism community. Kim Ward, a psychologist with the Society for the Treatment of Autism, says that people with autism experience different sensory processing; some over-respond to stimulus, while others under-respond.
“With people who under-respond, you could set off a bomb behind them and they wouldn’t flinch,” she says. “I find that these people in particular crave deep pressure techniques.” In Ward’s experience, this deep pressure can be achieved through massage, therapeutic balls and weighted blankets or vests. “Many of them find light touches annoying,” she says. “They crave a touch that’s deeper and more intense and so we try to find methods that are less dramatic than, say, running into a wall.”
In working with autistic children, Beaty became fascinated with their perspective on the world. “I was really curious about the difference between what’s going on inside and external behaviour,” she says. “There can be this very rich internal life that has trouble being expressed.” With Squeeze Machine, Beaty wanted to explore the life of autistic adults, who must navigate the world of relationships and sexuality. “You often see kids with autism in the media and in fundraising,” she says, “but there’s often a missing link in what happens to those kids when they grow up.”
Beaty’s character, Adele, spends her days fixing cattle machinery and feels a huge degree of empathy with the cattle. “She’s hoping to parlay that empathy into an understanding of ‘neurotypicals,’ which is her word for the rest of you folks,” says Beaty. Adele has memorized a list of rules about how to interact with people and she has used her knowledge of cattle processing plants to design a system that will hopefully allow her to develop a relationship.
“She’s basically adapted the cattle processing plant into a dating plant for the audience,” says Beaty. “She’s designed a controlled environment so that they can get all the information they need about her, where they’re not going to run away before she says her piece.”
Adele has a sensory integration problem, wherein she can only interpret one sense at a time. “It’s hard for her to look at somebody’s eyes and still hear what they’re saying,” says Beaty. She also has what she calls a “touch quotient,” whereby she can only handle a certain amount of human contact. “Unsurprisingly, she’s got a bit of a crush on Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He’s kind of the perfect guy.”
Adele is able to mitigate some of her difficulties with the help of her squeeze machine. “She finds it easier to think like a neurotypical when she comes out of the machine,” says Beaty. “She can feel several emotions at once and she can breathe a bit easier.”
Beaty previously explored these concepts in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a one-woman show performed at NextFest 2008 in Edmonton. There, she portrayed a similar character, also named Adele, on a dinner date with famous American psychologist Dr. B. F. Skinner. In this new production, however, Beaty wanted to explore the ideas in a different way.
“In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, I interpreted the character in the way that I interpret things, which is verbal and involves a lot of language,” she says. “This time, I wanted to use images as my primary mode of communicating.” To accomplish this, Beaty has been working closely with director Ellen Close and designer Leon Schwesinger, who is building the titular squeeze machine and a cow with some surprising features. “It’s basically a one-woman, one-cow show,” says Beaty.
Temple Grandin described herself as “an anthropologist on Mars” in trying to understand the social rules that most take for granted. Squeeze Machine has the potential to rocket its audience outside of our brains and make us re-examine the behaviours that make us tick.