Being the mother of a five-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, I was interested to see how new BBC drama The A Word – about the family of a five-year-old boy diagnosed with autism – would handle the subject.
There’s a lot of autism on TV at the moment – well, considerably more than before anyway. With primetime dramas like this and ASD characters being introduced in popular shows like Holby City, maybe the time has finally come that the portrayal of spectrum disorders are finally moving away from the Rain Man stereotype.
“He talks, he laughs, he looks you in the eye, he smiles. How can he be autistic?” Maurice (Christopher Ecclestone in his first ‘granddad’ role) asked, echoing the standard conception of how those with no experience of autism view the condition.
And this is what makes The A Word stand head and shoulders above other shows that have attempted to tackle the subject. Writer Peter Bowker has 14 years of working with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) under his belt and knows that the old adage of ‘when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism’ is true.
To the untrained eye, Joe – the youngest member of the Hughes family played excellently by newcomer Max Vento – is just a dreamy boy, who really likes music. He appears eccentric and a little unimpressed by other children, much like my own child. When Joe lies down on the floor in the middle of his own birthday party, no one would think ‘now, there is an autistic child.’
Bowker says he deliberately avoided the usual portrayal of autism when he was writing the show. “I wanted to write about a child who was on the spectrum but didn't correspond with the prominent images of autism,” he told us. “We might be used to seeing children or adults in documentaries with severe autism. I wanted to find a way to look at the condition without the audience being too distressed.”
In fact, it’s a medical professional – Joe’s adulterous aunt, Nicola (Vinette Robinson) who suggests there is possibly something not quite right about Joe’s behaviours. Writing from experience, Bowker got the reactions from Joe’s parents absolutely spot on. Mum, Alison, (Morven Christie) went into a fierce denial banning ‘the A word’ from her house. Dad, Paul, (Lee Inglby) took a more pragmatic approach, insisting their son was still their son. But his frustration was palpable when Joe, the only child not invited to a classmate’s football party, refused to kick a ball about with his dad. The resulting scene, Paul, trying to coax a bewildered Joe down from a tree, his attempts to console his child met with a slap, rung heartbreakingly true.
With The A Word, Bowker and his team have managed to create a family drama with disability at its core. But while the subject matter could have easily been dark and depressing, the music and humour manage to stop it going down that route. It’s actually a beautifully written account of a situation that a lot of families have been through, are going through and will go through.
My only criticism would be the unrealistic speed with which Joe was diagnosed. Those of us who have been on this journey in real life know that the whole process is long and painful – but one that would be impossible to compact into a six-part drama. I guess there are only so many shots of someone banging their head against a brick wall that could be shown.
Very much looking forward to the rest of the series.
The A-Word Continues Tuesday at 9.00pm on BBC One.