When I watch a programme about autism I feel anxious. For people who don’t know much about autism; who don’t have a child with ASD; who don’t have it themselves; who haven’t ever had any reason to spend hours and hours reading and talking about autism, TV shows like The A Word might be the only education on autism they get.
And that’s quite scary for someone like me: for someone with autistic children, for someone with other family members with and without diagnoses who are on the spectrum, for someone who may or may not try to get a diagnosis herself one day.
Programmes like The A Word can realistically affect how some people out there view and treat my children, my sister, my cousin, me and I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who sat down to watch with a sense of trepidation.
So, how did they do?
Well, it’s fiction and as such needs to be taken with a pinch of suspension of disbelief.
The fact the parents got a report immediately after attending an appointment is ridiculous. After any appointment we had to wait at least days and – in one case – months before we got a report through. I was also unclear on whether the boy had an official diagnosis after said appointment (rather than after months, if not years, of appointments and meetings with various professionals). If so, that’s about as true to real life as showing childbirth taking a few minutes instead of hours or days.
…But childbirth is often sped up in this way because who wants to see hours and hours of a woman grunting and worrying about whether she’s going to poo in front of the midwives? Just as I accept characters never seem to need the loo (unless it’s significant because they’re ill or perhaps something embarrassing happens to them if they have the misfortune of being in a sit com or teen film) I accept the writers of The A Word decided there were certain things they just didn’t have time to include.
I must admit, I wasn’t sure about Joe’s (the boy) encyclopedic knowledge of music. On the one hand, it meant the show had a pretty awesome soundtrack. That’s always good. On the other hand, it seemed like an updated Rain Man/everyone with autism has a ‘special ability’ trope, which isn’t necessarily helpful. being autistic does not equal being a savant or having a ‘special power’ (we don’t actually live in the Marvel universe).
However, I understand it can be hard to make a child (played by a child actor – often with…questionable skills) likable at the best of times. When you’re trying to portray a child who is ‘different’ and hard for many people to empathise with I can see why the temptation would be there to pile on a couple of ‘positive’ characteristics that are easy to show quickly onscreen.
To counterbalance some of these inaccuracies and oversimplifications, they did include some myth debunking. They managed to comment on the fact some autistic people do make eye contact. That was refreshing.
Joe’s parents also made adjustments in their daily life they didn’t even seem to notice (having to sing snatches of songs to get the little boy up off the floor, taking him out in the car to get him to sleep). That’s very common and I’m willing to bet a lot of parents of children on the spectrum felt a connection there. You do what you need to do to get by and it’s not until someone from the outside sees your strange rituals you even realise it might not be quite…normal.
Most of all, The A Word was human. The characters were human, their responses were human. Autism was a human condition/disorder (pick your language of choice).
Sometimes I think it would be helpful to be able to crack open other people’s heads like a music box and watch all their thoughts and experiences turn around inside.
‘Don’t understand what it’s like to be the parent of an autistic child? Well then, take a little peek at that dance.’
‘Can’t get your head around why someone with autism might behave in certain ways? Gently lift the lid and have a look.’
The closest we can really come to my – admittedly slightly violent seeming – vision is hoping people watch TV shows like The A Word and hoping such shows do a good job of portraying the little dancing figures. Good enough, at least, to aid understanding and empathy.
After all my anxiety sitting down to watch it I feel…relieved. And that’s best I can hope for.