This drama about an autistic boy and his family does not quite hit the spot for Penny Gotch.
Television shows that tackle the topic of autism are few and far between, so when I found out that the BBC was broadcasting a drama with an autistic main character, I was intrigued. Having watched the first of six episodes, I must confess that I was left underwhelmed by it.
The BBC website describes The A Word as a “family drama with a boy with autism at its heart”, which is the first sign that this would not be the show for me. Like many in the autistic community, I am not a fan of person-first language and prefer identity-first; in other words, I am autistic, not a person with autism, in the same way that I am a woman, not a person with femaleness. While this is a small issue, it is still a good indication of the type of show that The A Word is.
The plot is simple enough: five-year-old Joe Hughes (Max Vento) is obsessed with music, but otherwise comes across as odd or strange. When his uncle Eddie (Greg McHugh) and his unfaithful wife Nicola (Vinette Robinson) suggest that he may have a communication difficulty, the family is led down a road they never expected. Joe is autistic and his mother Alison (Morven Christie), his father Paul (Lee Ingleby), his half-sister Rebecca (Molly Wright) and their grandfather Maurice (Christopher Eccleston) must learn to adjust to this life-altering information.
To its credit, The A Word does a lot of things right. The casting is superb and every single actor does a splendid job. Special credit should go to Max Vento as Joe, who is charming, sweet and convincing in his role despite being neurotypical. I was also particularly impressed with the way that Joe was written as a character. His quirk of always having to close and reopen a door before entering and his specialist interest of music are both handled well and it was a very welcome change to see a deviation from the more stereotypical special interests of trains or building blocks. His use of movie quotes to communicate, an autistic symptom called echolalia, was also skilfully employed. And the relationship established between Joe and his parents was heart-warming and loving, which is refreshing and pleasant.
However, I still came away from the first episode dissatisfied, and for a variety of reasons. Joe has a meltdown during his birthday party when he’s asked to stop listening to music and blow out the candle on his cake, yet his behaviour doesn’t ring true for me. When I was a five-year-old and had a meltdown, it was not something I could be jollied out of in a few moments: it was a huge emotional turmoil that left me exhausted. Perhaps this is a case where my own personal experience doesn’t match the experience of the majority, but it didn’t resonate for me as an autistic person. Nor did a moment later in the episode where Joe ends up slapping his father. It felt like a considered, deliberate action rather than a slip in a moment of passion and that didn’t work for me.
The show contains a subplot concerning Joe’s grandfather, Maurice, and his singing teacher propositioning him for a no-strings-attached sexual relationship that feels like it was taken from a different show entirely. Perhaps it was inserted to add a little light counterpoint to the more emotionally taxing drama of Joe’s difficulties, but if that was the intention, it doesn’t work. Maurice’s subplot felt forced and cringe-worthy, distracts from the main plot, and should not have been included. As of the first episode, Joe’s older half-sister Rebecca has been given very little development or screen time, and I would rather that the time spent on Maurice’s farce had been spent on her.
But perhaps the biggest problem for me is that this isn’t Joe’s story. This is the story of his mother’s desperate denial, his father’s attempts to joke his way around things, his grandfather’s difficulty with adjusting to contemporary treatment of disability. It’s the story of Eddie and Nicola’s relationship problems. In short, it’s the story of every single person around Joe. We’re not let into Joe’s head. We’re not given his thoughts. Joe is an enigma, a mere catalyst for the conflicts around him.
Autistics are rarely protagonists, often an impediment to the lives of our families, and rarely the main focus. We are a side thought. Our voices are silenced. Our families are valued above us. And while this may make the experience more palatable to a majority neurotypical audience, it left me cold and distinctly uncomfortable.
For a first attempt at tackling autism in a drama, The A Word is by no mean all “bad”. However, it is very much a neurotypical eye looking in rather than an in-depth autistic experience, presented in a way that puts the focus on the family of the autistic character rather than on the autistic character himself. If you’re a parent or family member of an autistic person, this drama could well reflect your own experiences and help you feel less alone. If you’re autistic yourself, however, then the “a” word in this case is “average-at-best”. Look elsewhere.