My Thoughts On The A Word

As many of my UK readers will probably be aware, the BBC recently aired a 6 part drama series called The A Word. The programme featured an extended family, at the centre of which was a young boy called Joe who was autistic. I had seen The A Word advertised several times in the fortnight prior to the first episode airing and I felt it would be a good series to watch.

The series follows Joe and his extended family through the diagnostic process and examines their feelings towards Joe’s autism as they go through the journey from denial to anger to acceptance. There were some aspects of Joe’s condition that really resonated with me. Firstly, his obsession with music and listening to the same tracks repetitively. As most people who have lived with me can verify, I can listen to the same song hundreds of times in a row without getting bored. I found it very fascinating when the speech therapist said to Joe’s parents that his constant repetition of song lyrics was his way of shutting the world out. I remember attending a training session on autism in a professional capacity, hearing the trainer say that the ultimate way to block sensory stimulation for autistics growing up today is through personal headphones and IPods and suddenly realising that’s exactly what I do on a daily basis. Yes I enjoy listening to music but it also serves a much more specific purpose for me in that it allows me to retreat into my own inner world and cuts out certainly all other auditory stimulation. Without music, I would definitely struggle a lot more than I do on public transport, for example. Music is my number one coping strategy for life in general.

His withdrawal from activities always resonated with me. He does display destructive behaviour on a couple of occasions, once when he rips all the photos from the photo album and trashes the living room and then when he trashes his classroom after his makeshift au pair Magda is forced to leave due to issues with her immigration status. On most occasions, however, he isolates himself and plays on his own, even sitting on the floor seperately from all the other children at his own birthday party. He is a sensory avoider rather than a sensory seeker, hence the headphones all the time, and this reminded me so much of how I was as a child. I still avoid certain types of social environments such as bars or nightclubs because the amount of people and noise is too overwhelming for me.

I have seen several discussions online in which people on the spectrum have commented that they feel the views expressed by Joe’s parents in the programme are too harsh, particularly the view expressed by Joe’s dad that he wants a “normal child” in the episode where he talks about wanting another child. However, I actually think the programme showed an honest portrayal of the process of accepting a diagnosis of autism for your child. Very few families accept straight away that their relative has autism-it’s often a very long journey and sadly not everybody ┬áreaches the stage where they can see autism as a part of who their child is and seek the positives in the condition. I would also like to point out that I have met a lot of people on the spectrum who cannot accept it themselves and lots of us have times where we wish to be “normal”-if we cannot accept it and embrace it all the time, how can we expect families of newly diagnosed children to do so? I thought the progression was sensitively portrayed. At first, Joe’s mother refuses to allow the word “autistic” to be used in her house. In the final episode, when Joe, as happens to a significant percentage of children with autism, wanders off and is declared missing, you can see her finally voicing to the small rural community that Joe has autism and explaining how this may mean he can be unresponsive when people call his name. The crisis forces her to accept Joe’s differences. I did appreciate the sensitivity and tolerance that Joe’s older half sister, Rebecca, displayed towards her brother. In fact, Rebecca and Jo’s uncle and auntie Eddy and Nicola were the three characters who embraced Joe as he was and had no desire to change him. I thought this was refreshing and is similar to most families in real life. You will always find some people are more accepting than others whereas some, like Joe’s mum, confuse wanting the best for their child with wanting a “normal child”.

What was plainly obvious to me was that Joe’s parents loved him dearly-this was never in question. It is because they love him so much that they are so scared for his future. His mum is determined to find him the best therapy available and her obsession with helping Joe means that Rebecca feels emotionally neglected and ends up turning to her uncle when she has sex rather than her parents because they are so busy searching for people that can help Joe. Rebecca’s opinion was that Joe is the same boy he has always been which was charming to see. She is annoyed that her mum cannot see this. The programme deals brilliantly with the plethora of emotions and opinions that a diagnosis of autism brings but at the core of it all was love and devotion. By the end of the series, there were signs that Joe’s mum was now beginning to accept Joe for who he was which was the best ending.

Another criticism levelled towards the programme from parents going through the diagnostic process for their children is that the diagnosis seemed to be given very quickly. In reality, depending on where you live, a diagnosis of autism in the UK can take up to 4 years from when parents first suspect that their child may be autistic to when an official diagnosis is given. This means that, by the time autism is diagnosed, most parents have already accepted that this is what the diagnosis will be, unlike Joe’s parents in the programme. I think this is generally a case of artistic licence to fit in with the timings of the programme. I do think it would have been interesting to have a set of parents who were relieved at the diagnosis rather then initially in denial though.

Others have expressed the opinion that the character with autism should have been a girl or from an African, Asian or Far Eastern background as these factors often make diagnosis harder and cultural factors mean that autism is treated very differently in certain communities and thus under diagnosed in certain communities. Some people thought that the programme should have explored an adult receiving a diagnosis rather then a young child. Much as I agree that exploring different options would be interesting, I did think the programme was brilliant anyway. I particularly liked the fact that it showed people’s misconceptions about autism. Joe’s grandad Maurice says when he first hears the news, “But he talks, he smiles, he looks people in the eye. How can he be autistic?” I know that the producers of the programme worked very closely with the National Autistic Society to ensure that they portrayed every aspect of autism as accurately as possible and I thought it was great that this misconception was addressed early on. This misconception can be a very damaging one-I have come across people in the autism community online who have been told by medical professionals that they cannot have autism because they can maintain eye contact with the professional who is assessing them. These are people who are desperately fighting for a diagnosis because they are struggling only for a diagnosis to be dismissed because they can look into someone’s eyes. It sounds unbelievable but sadly it’s true.

Overall I loved the programme. I would love for there to be a second series following Joe as a teenager to explore the many issues with puberty and the spectrum and also to explore the mental health problems that often come from years of feeling different from others, such as depression and anxiety. Joe did not seem to care that he was different during this series because of his age but I can guarantee, from my own experience, that, as he grew, he probably would start noticing and caring and it would be interesting to see how this was tackled in a separate series.