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Thursday, 2 June 2005

Only Human: Make Me Normal, Channel 4

What to say if you liked it
An insightful portrait by Jonathan Smith and Zac Beattie of how teenagers struggle to cope with the blight of autism.
What to say if you didn’t like it
An exploitative film which prostituted the tragic, confused lives of four autistic children for the amoral pleasures of the complacent viewing public.

What was good about it?
• Jude Ragan, the head teacher of Spa School in Bermondsey, south London, which was attended by the three pupils profiled. She must have her patience regularly topped up each night as she remained stoic, yet compassionate in the face of some awful provocation from her charges. She always tried to improve each child’s understanding of their condition and only came close to losing her temper when confronted with the gratuitous violence perpetrated by Moneer.
• The interest taken in Roy’s obsession walked a very fine line between genuine intrigue and the sort of mockery Chris Tarrant specialises in, but we’ll give the film-makers the benefit of the doubt. We were told Roy had memorised the birthdays of all the EastEnders cast and we saw Roy ask the camera if an “A” on a videotape label “EASTENDERS” was clear enough (it was) before tearing off the strip in frustration anyway because it was slightly misapplied to the tape’s edge. Roy planned to snap the tape and throw it away as useless.
• The evidence of autism's terrible effect when we experienced little Moneer's emotional illiteracy when talking about the death of his mother during the filming process. He could only open up about her when either enclosed inside a box or when he was alone with a video camera and even then he concentrated mostly on the physical description of her funeral or meaningless platitudes (“Life must go on”). In the funniest moment of the documentary, he also revealed: "I saw an uncle I'd never seen before." "Where did he come from?" "Butlins."
• Pleasingly, Moneer did make progress, and expressed guilt and regret over the upset he’d caused his mother with his tantrums – "I feel like killing myself because of all the nasty things I've done to my mum. Bad, nasty things that I can never say sorry for now. I miss my mum very much. Very, very, very, very, very much. If there's any people out there who don't like their Mum - or any of their parents - just know they won't be there for ever. I know that now. I used to think my parents would be with me for ever. I was wrong." It was heartbreaking.• Moneer’s visit to a signing of the new Star Wars DVD which was attended by Anthony Daniels (C3PO). Moneer was very excited but this anticipation was unfortunately manifested through some of his more boisterous traits and Daniels eventually asked "Where's the off switch?' and almost seemed to give him a good-natured shove when he’d finished signing the DVD. Tellingly for Star Wars addicts, Daniels had no idea Moneer was autistic and seemed to regard his outlandish behaviour as typical of the film's fans.
• Though often extreme, some of the more violent incidents did elucidate the problems cause by autism such as when Roy was thrown into a screaming fit when he saw a bus travelling along a new route because autistic people often find great comfort and security in routines.
• Esther who sat in front of the camera and articulately explained the difficulties she experiences as an autistic teenager such as the lack of friends, the derision of her peers and an inability to find a boyfriend. Speaking in an emphatic style she may have borrowed from The Apprentice's Saira, she explained, rather amusingly: "The real world is much better than the autistic world. It's got trees, estate agents, shops, places where you can go out for meals, job centres. You name it."
• The unobtrusive style of the documentary which meant very little interference and when it did occur, often when the unsure Roy asked about things, the answers were always agreeable.
• Poor Roy’s first nervous encroachment into romance. He’d met Kirsty at his swimming club and believed she was his girlfriend because they held hands on the bus (though didn’t seem to sit next to each other), but soon was spurned in favour of Grant. Later he said: “What’s that emotion when you want to cry?” It exposed Derek’s sobbing later on Big Brother, which followed, as the facile and indulgent act of self-pity it so execrably was.

What was bad about it?
• The children profiled, except Esther, could be incredibly unpleasant teenagers because of their condition. And this perception was made worse through the documentary often characterising them through their most excessive behaviour such as Roy kicking, spitting and swearing in the playground after a trivial disagreement with his friend Nadia; Moneer destroying a lunchbox because he didn’t want to lose his reward for “not hitting” other pupils or threatening Jude as he played in a park, “I’m really angry with Jude, and when I get back to school I’m going to punch her lights out, or push her down the stairs.”
• Television is now getting like a trip to the zoo with each cage promising ever more exotic beasts as last night there was Paul Danan and Fran Cosgrave feuding on Non-Entity Island, any number of virulent disputes in Big Brother, stroppy girls on Ladette To Lady and, here, teenagers who mostly express feelings through anger.
• There was a touch of exploitation when Roxanne stormed out of a music lesson and continued to be filmed through the classroom windows slapping herself about the head and pulling irritably at her own hair. Her paroxysms of violence had already been comprehensively recorded earlier.
• The lack of input from those outside of Spa School. We didn’t hear from Moneer’s father or Roy’s girlfriend Kirsty about how she really felt about him.

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