This week autism focused TV drama, The A Word returned to the BBC. Picking up 2 years after the original mini-series ended, Season 2 of The A Word catches up with the Hughes family and shows us how life has progressed in the Lakes, since their son was first diagnosed with autism.
A show praised by both those on the spectrum, those close to it and those far removed from it, today I wanted to create a list of what makes the A Word so relatable and why, for many, The A Word is such a highlight on the autistic calendar.
[this post will include spoilers for season 1 and season 2: episode 1. So If you still haven’t caught up with The A Word, do yourself a favour and follow this link to the BBC iPlayer, where you can watch every episode in a binge watching session. You won’t regret it!]
1. When Joe realises he is autistic:
‘I’m autistic, I’m autistic, I’m autistic, nobody wants that’ – Season 2 of The A-Word started with a bang this week, as along with the Hughes family, audiences were left with their jaw on their floor, as Joe made it very clear that he was aware of his condition (a surprise which may have been ruined by the spoiler-filled trailers).
This is something which many people with autism come to realise at some point in their life. Whether you have autism or just know someone who does, the dilemma the Hughes family face, is oh so familiar, as they struggle to find a way to communicate what autism is to their son, without making him feel that this is a bad thing.
2. When Joe protects himself with music:
‘Something better change?’ ‘The Stranglers!’ – When Joe’s sister, Rebecca, returned after her trip away, Joe used his knowledge of music trivia as a reassurance tactic, to help him deal with the sudden reappearance of this prominent figure in his life.
Many people on the spectrum, including myself, use questions like this to give themselves the feeling of control in uncertain situations. For me, I would constantly ask my parents ‘what is 1+1?’, as I knew that, as long as the answer was ‘2’, the fundamentals of the world were still intact. It’s nice to see that in the 2nd series of The A Word, Joe has moved on from blocking the world out with music and is now using his passion/obsession to help him traverse an unpredictable place.
3. When Alison is told Joe can’t be friends with a boy in his class:
‘Joe is lovely boy, but when things like this happen it’s always Joe that they happen to’ – Substitute ‘Joe’ for ‘James’ or any other autistic child’s name and it is scary how familiar this quote can seem. In last Tuesday’s episode, Joe caused a disturbance by climbing on the school roof. As he was brought down, A parent pulled her son away from Joe, apparently blaming Joe and his mum’s parenting for the incident.
Isolation through misunderstanding is an issue which many people with autism face. I believe The A-Word depicts this well: Joe was not scaling the building simply because he was being naughty, he was looking for an escape from the confusion he felt towards his diagnosis, which was making him feel different from the other children in his class. The sad result was this crisis for Joe resulted in him being pushed further away from his peers.
4. When Joe’s panic was a response (not a reaction):
‘He doesn’t say how he feels, so who knows!?’ – In the 5th episode of season 1, Joe had a ‘meltdown’ in class following the deportation of his helper Maya. The A Word deals with this realistically and sensitively. Instead of just showing Joe being destructive, as a reaction to this major change in his life, the show opted for a slow build up throughout the episode reflecting Joe’s growing anxiety about this massive loss.
Like so many of us with autism, Joe struggles to process his emotions during times of stress. It is this lack of resolution which often takes us to breaking point. Later, the episode discusses whether it is appropriate for people with autism to let go of their feelings, in this manner. Although I am uncertain if there is a right answer to this argument, I do I believe that, for Joe’s character, it felt very necessary and, in my experience, the only option.
5. When Alison realises there isn’t a straight line to progress:
‘is Mum sad? You look sad’ – In season 1 episode 4 Joe’s mum, Alison, witnessed empathy from her son during one of the show’s more touching scenes. Alison believed her son’s empathy were traces of ‘the real Joe’. However, this belief didn’t last long as, by the morning, Joe was back to his usual self – the real, real Joe.
This particular episode has come under a lot of criticism from the autistic community. Many dislike how autism is described as something which can disguise a real person. If I thought this was true, then I would be first to lead a march to the BBC studios. However, I’m fairly certain it is not. I believe that when Alison says’ ‘The Real Joe’, she is actually referring to the person her son could become, if, in time he could learn to manage the negative traits of his autism.
This is something which many people with autistic children will see over the course of a child’s development. Alison’s was frustrated because she felt Joe was taking one step forward and two steps back and this upset her. This is a struggle many with autistic family members are very familiar with.
6. When an entire family reacted differently to a single diagnosis of autism:
‘He talks, he laughs, he looks you in the eye. How’s he autistic?’ – What makes The A-Word such a great show is that, although you may not agree with every characters actions, there is always some aspect within an episode that you can relate to.
The Hughes family were varied with their responses to Joe’s diagnosis and in the past season reacted by denying it, becoming angry about it and even crying over it (and that was just his Mum). This season will take things even further: creating a life-like visualisation of what it’s like to have a child with autism. As over half of the examples I have given today are from season 2 episode 1 alone, I’m fairly certain that they are on the right path to achieving this in a very real and very relatable way.
Carry on the Conversation:
‘Let me see now….’ – Is there anything from The A Word that gives you a sense of Deja Vu? Let me know in the comments below. Also, out of curiosity, does anyone have any particular favourite scenes? I loved the episode where Alison brought in a speech therapist who turn out to an old classmate she bullied. But my favourite moment was when we were introduced to Joe’s hilarious (and potentially autistic) classmate, Ramesh.
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Thank you for reading and I will see you next Saturday for more thoughts from across the spectrum.