Tuesday saw the finale of a show called “The A Word”, a live-action drama that was praised by critics for its realistic portrayal of what it’s like to raise an autistic child. This is a major step forward considering how little representation autistic people have on TV, and usually when autism is even mentioned on TV, it’s presented with every stereotype that the film Rain Man invented, and probably more, so to hear that a TV show with autism as the focus of the plot was airing on a major TV channel, I was definitely interested.
In case you haven’t seen or heard of it yet, I’ll fill you in on the details. The A Word revolves around a five-year-old boy named Joe Hughes, who in the beginning of the series is diagnosed with autism. As his parents, Paul and Alison, cope with the revelation, they struggle to try and help him, leading to arguments over who’s idea of helping him is right. Basically, Paul wants to help Joe integrate with the real world, while Alison doesn’t want the rest of the world to label him as “autistic”, and they’re both very stubborn when they think they’re right. We also see a number of other characters who, in some way, are involved with Joe’s life, but the show has a number of side-plots related specifically to them.
Throughout the show, I saw a lot of similarities between Joe and the way I was when I was a kid. Like Joe, I was very much a denizen of my own insular world. In Joe’s case, he feels safer listening to music (mainly 1980’s punk and new wave songs), and so for most of the show you see him wearing headphones. In fact, at the start of every episode, you see him walking along a road wearing his headphones, until he’s eventually picked up by his babysitter Maya (the subject of the show’s fifth episode).
The acting in the show is powerfully convincing, and throughout the show’s run it genuinely felt like there was some serious discussion about autism conducted through the characters. It also portrays the subject of autism with nuanced objectivity, with a number of characters who don’t quite understand autism trying to help in their own way. Alison’s father Maurice (played by the Ninth Doctor), for example, has an old-fashioned approach to parenting, which bothers Joe’s parents, but doesn’t seem to faze Joe himself, and that’s one thing I notice about the show – it tells the story from the point of view of everyone except Joe. We never hear what he thinks of all this. Granted, you could argue that this approach is more realistic, but I still long for a show from the point of view of an autistic kid, teenager, or even an adult.
This leads me to the other thing that bothered me about the show. Even though the show’s premise was chiefly about autism, a lot of the show focuses on the sex lives of its adult characters, and Joe’s teenage sister. I know this is meant for an adult audience, but I think they should have focused less on the sex (though to be fair, it’s not very graphic). For me, this is why I felt the series finale was such a strong ending. It was ultimately a more focused episode.
The episode, which aired on Tuesday, saw Joe’s parents reconciling in time for the opening of their new restaurant, but Joe goes missing, prompting a mass search party to blast music in the dead of night to look for him. It kept me on the edge of my seat, mainly because for the time that Joe’s missing, he is never shown until one of the characters finds him, and later the episode ends on this soaring note of confidence and familial harmony.
Even though I was disappointed with certain aspects of the show, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the show, mainly because the writers did a good job at representing its subject matter in a realistic and engaging way. It didn’t sacrifice any of its artistic integrity, nor did it fall prey to the mentality espoused by the likes of Autism Speaks. In the end, though it was sometimes flawed in terms of narrative and focus, BBC 1’s “The A Word” was good drama, and it’s arguably the nuanced representation of autism that TV badly needed. Let’s hope that other TV producers take some lessons from this.