As someone for whom autism is a part of everyday life, Sarah Hendrickx really wanted to love Peter Bowker’s primetime family drama The A Word. They’ve got tonight’s last episode to get her on board.
I’ve been late to the proverbial party with The A Word, having missed every episode and mini-bingeing this week on catch-up.
Ironic really, since I’m usually early to every party I’ve been invited to due to being unable to fathom exactly what time I am supposed to show up, having been told, “anytime from 8”, which is far too woolly for an autistic person like me, and in my mind means five past. At least I get first dibs at the buffet.
I wanted to love it, I really did. As an autism practitioner, author, parent, partner, friend and relative, anything which proposes to increase understanding and make life easier for my clan is good news to me.
My own son was an oddbod like Joe (played by Max Vento), never looking anyone in the eye, hiding when his grandma came to visit and insisting on the precise placement of ketchup on his plate, giving the offending waitress the evils if she did not adhere to his condiment positioning instructions.
Perhaps coming from a family of neurodiverse people made it easier for him and us. We all just thought he was brilliant, quirky, fragile and beautiful. We had zero knowledge of autism during his early childhood and didn’t care what he had or didn’t. He only went for an assessment when he wanted to. Not once can I recall having any emotion or reaction displayed by Joe’s mother, Alison (played by Morven Christie).
I’ve met many parents with autistic children and many of them experience shock and sadness at the discovery that their child will always struggle, but mostly they quickly move on and become their child’s biggest ally.
I get it that some parents look for the child ‘under the autism’, but I think for balance it would have been good to also show us another family who didn’t feel that way; a family who just got it. And as an autistic writer and performer, I’d like to see something written by autistic people from the autistic perspective, and ideally featuring autistic actors, rather than about us and pretending to be us.
“I’m hopeful for a mass family epiphany where they all just get on with life with the fabulous little boy that they always had, realising that actually they’re all autistic themselves – because they all bloody seem that way to me.”
Suffice to say, I didn’t love The A Word. This isn’t a programme about an autistic child; it’s a programme about everyone else. Joe is the most functional person in the whole show: he has the ‘communication disorder’ but is surrounded by people who fail to communicate.
I know it’s a drama and not supposed to be a lecture, but such forays into disability cannot help but carry a weight of responsibility of educating an audience that may have limited exposure to the topic, and thus, I believe, should take that seriously and do a good job for the sake of those they represent.
Has this programme changed the public perception of autism? I hope so. There have been elements of good information: the table tennis analogy was wonderful and Joe’s natural magnetism to two other socially atypical children and subsequent sleepover was a joy to watch. Joe himself is a nicely dramatised autistic boy, mostly delighted in his world. The autistic profile is so unique that no one can be described as typical, but he’s a believable representation.
Other portrayals have been, in my opinion, less than helpful. The diagnostic process seemed vague, fast and strange. The clinician’s statement that, “We don’t describe anyone with autism as autistic” is simply inaccurate. A recent National Autistic Society study found that autistic people prefer this term as many feel that autism encompasses who they are and is not an attachment, not a ‘with’. Interestingly, it’s their parents that don’t always feel the same.
We have seen this small child dumped on his aunt and other family members without warning and without explanation, all highly unacceptable ways to care for an autistic child who typically needs certainty in a baffling world.
Ultimately, this is a show about how not to parent a child with autism. We are told that Joe sings and listens to music to keep the world away. This may have some truth: the song’s always the same every time you hear it unlike a person’s conversation; but this ignores and negates the deep and utter joy that many autistic people get from their interests. Not just avoidance, but happiness.
The last episode airs tonight and I’m hopeful for a mass family epiphany where they all just get on with life with the fabulous little boy that they always had, realising that actually they’re all autistic themselves – because they all bloody seem that way to me.
Fingers crossed that they realise that Joe’s sister, Rebecca’s (Molly Wright), immediate response to everyone’s catastrophising is all they need to hear: “He’s Joe, he’s always been Joe. Why wouldn’t we want him to be Joe?” Fingers crossed that this week, I finally don’t want to punch Alison.
The A shouldn’t stand for autism. It should stand for acceptance, because, ultimately, that’s what every single human wants. Fingers crossed we get to see some of that yet.
The last episode of The A Word is on BBC 1, tonight, 9pm.3911 Views
Sarah Hendrickx is a writer, author, autism specialist and occasional standup comedian. She lives part-time in rural Portugal where she tries to make friends with geckos and grows broad beans. Her book about moving overseas, How to Leave the Country is available on Kindle/e-book. She blogs at www.bicyclesandbiscuits.com.