Written by Rose King


The A Word

Filming has started on a new BBC comedy drama tackling autism. Rose King has high hopes that the six-parter will get it right for once.

The cast of The A Word, including Christopher Eccleston. Photo: BBC.

The cast of The A Word, including Christopher Eccleston. Photo: BBC.

Representation in the common media is a huge milestone for a minority, but whether or not it is good representation can be a gamble. As an autistic person, I unfortunately haven’t seen very much of who I am in the very small pool of media involving or about autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The most common portrayal of the autist that I have seen in the media is that of the archetype: a spiffy white guy with glasses who knows a lot about trains and/or maths, the Star Trek convention type, covered in acne and socially inept.

Basically, a bunch of neurotypicals watched Rain Man once and decided that that was how all autists must be. In reality, of course, anyone, no matter what race, national identity, class, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, eye-strength, or level of passion for trains can be autistic, and it has a very large spectrum. An individual who cannot speak at all and another who will never stop talking can, and often do, have the same condition.

Another way I’ve seen autism represented is as a punchline. Many autistic characters are the butt of jokes, only there to be ridiculed by the other characters. Of course, when an autist says or does something funny, it’s fine to laugh, like when a neurotypical does something funny.

“It’s like autistic brains are Xboxes and neurotypical brains are PSPs; they do the same thing, you can play the same games and do the same things with them, they’re just different models.”

But this is rarely the case; often the joke is linked purely to the condition, and not to a joke the character tells. Ever seen The Big Bang Theory? It’s basically four neurotypicals laughing at an autistic man and his symptoms, inviting the audience to laugh with them. (It’s also hours upon hours of product placement and casual misogyny.)

Autists are also shown as having Savant syndrome, where somebody with ASD or a similar condition possesses remarkable abilities that surpass that of a ‘normal’ person, such as rapid calculation (Rain Man again. We can never escape bloody Rain Man).

Actually, only 10 per cent of autists hold skills of this kind. Our brains serve the exact same function as a neurotypical brain, they are just wired differently. It’s like autistic brains are Xboxes and neurotypical brains are PSPs; they do the same thing, you can play the same games and do the same things with them, they’re just different models. But people get all worked up acting like one is superior to the other, creating this whole meaningless war that doesn’t do anything but divide people. That was the nerdiest analogy I could’ve made, but my point still stands.

I haven’t seen or read very much autism-orientated media that actually represents me. The only pop culture I feel has successfully portrayed autism well are the books Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (guess why I bought that).

mind connectionsHowever, something that could be a new contender is the upcoming BBC TV show The A Word, a six-part comedy drama about a family whose youngest son is diagnosed with autism. It’s written by award-winning screenwriter Peter Bowker, who said, “We have the opportunity here to make something funny, tough, realistic and inventive about contemporary family life and autism.

“In a society where imperfection increasingly comes with blame attached, it seems timely to look at how autism is regarded both within a family and the wider community – and to give some insight into how that experience might be for the child on the autistic spectrum. It’s a drama full of ideas – about parenthood, about disability, about communication, about community – and will emphatically engage an audience whatever their experience of the subject.”

These sound like the words of a man who knows what he’s doing. As well as empathetic to the autistic community and their loved ones, it also seems that the show will be educational to those previously unaware or ignorant of the condition.

The BBC’s Boy Meets Girl was very similar to this: another six-part comedy drama, focusing on the relationship of a cisgender man and a transgender woman. This show portrayed transpeople in a great light, as well as clearing up some common myths and rumours about the trans community. It was also hilarious without being offensive, and extremely touching. If the BBC handles The A Word as well as it did Boy Meets Girl, I know it will be a fantastic show. I feel that the representation of autism is in very good hands.

Also, Christopher Eccleston is in it, and that’s always good.


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Written by Rose King

Rose King is 17 and in her second year at college. She is very passionate about human rights and does all she can to raise awareness for minority groups, particularly autism and disability rights. She also loves to read and write, especially comics and classic literature. She lives with her family in West Yorkshire.