The A Word: Is autism a spectrum or a label for life?

The Lake District provides a stunning backdrop to BBC’s The A Word, as the extended Hughes family gather for Joe’s fifth birthday party. As much as this family try to be perfect, nobody can avoid the fact that Joe (Max Vento) is disinterested and avoids people and emotionally charged situations.

Joe is painfully adorable, and you can’t help wanting to save him from the pressure to be ‘normal’. It’s nigh on impossible to not hate Max’s mother, Alison (Morven Christie). She’s controlling, confrontational, and determined to put her son centre stage no matter how much he doesn’t want it. Perhaps the most painful scene to watch however is when the ever-supportive dad (Lee Ingleby) pressures Joe into playing football. If Joe hadn’t slapped him, I very well might have.

The show falls into a few pitfalls in the characterisation of an autistic child. Joe naturally has a ‘gift’; that special thing, that is intended to compensate, make him somehow special. Nobody wants an autistic child on TV if they’re not Rain Man smart. Joe loves music and knows the words, date of release and writer of every song of his father’s generation. In one scene, dad Paul actually asks Joe, ‘who’s a genius?’ Cue the world’s oldest autism trope. There is so much more to the autistic experience that this. The parents claim that Joe is funny and charismatic, but his limited screen time fails to capture this. Perhaps the show tries to cover too many character subplots. Although the stories all add a touch of humanity, when first introduced they appear a little tired and predictable (the hoity adulteress, the phone-obsessed teen). The short comedic bursts do become more effective once you settle into the family dynamic, the personal highlight being when granddad Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) is propositioned for sex by his music teacher.

Where the show does succeed is in portraying the diagnosis and the frustrations of the family. Peter Bowker, who taught children with learning disabilities for 14 years, captures the frustrations and anxieties of both the family and Joe himself excellently. The theme of communication, although common in autism narratives, is nonetheless handled effectively. As Mark Haddon (author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) noted, ‘disability is a way of getting some extremity, some kind of difficult situation that throws an interesting light on people’. The communication difficulties the adults face between themselves are addressed as the adults begin to learn something of communication from the boy who struggles with it most of all.

The diagnosis scene is not merely one of exposition; it is a very revealing glance at the conflicting emotions of parents in such situations. How many small niggles of doubt does one suppress before seeking help? Is autism a spectrum or a label for life? This is a definite turning point, with harder hitting ideas being addressed by the parents and the frustrated Maurice, who can’t wrap his head around his grandson being autistic and the lack of a cure. Hopefully, this means that the rest of the show will challenge some of the stereotypes that have governed popular attitudes towards autism, and continue to ponder the difficulties of reconciling who you want your child to be, with who they really are, and what is really the best way to help them?


Anastasia Kennedy


Image courtesy of The Guardian. 

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