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The A Word: Are the public that clueless about autism?

April 1, 2016

Since I hit my early teens in 2003, my understanding of the world has been coloured by the knowledge of autism. My friend’s brother had it, it made feature sections of newspapers, it was the subject of famous pieces of fiction, we learned about it in PCHE (“Personal Care and Health Education”), which was the ever-changing name for he lesson that taught us about disability and diversity. Celebrities and reality TV stars talked about it, soap operas covered it, documentaries about it unfolded at the rate of knots. They’re still going on.

Yet, anyone watching The A Word would think think that Middle-England had absolutely no exposure to the disorder, let alone 13 years of over-saturation on the subject. Much arm flapping and to-do over the very term “autism”, as if the word is doom-laden. But representations of autism as the hopeless disorder passed into the night some time ago – the world woke up to Aspergers syndrome to such an extent you could be forgiven for thinking it was in Vogue.

The A Word wishes to impress upon us something my generation and those slightly older than me (say, the age of The A Word protagonists) have known for a long time – that autistic people vary a lot from each other and many of them have distinct talents. Surely anyone who watched Rain Man picked that up, and if anything Rain Man presented a character who was unusually talented for someone on the autistic spectrum – he was a savant, which is rare in itself.

Watching the show with my parents, it was pretty clear that my knowledge of autism is more comprehensive than theirs, but they were still far from clueless. The were able to recognise the disorder and compare the traits of the autistic characters to traits they are more familiar with from other fiction. Compare that to The A Word parents, who are flapping around all over the place, in tediously aggressive denial, which predictably caused more problems than it solved.

I’m led to wonder, how many people in this country really respond and behave so badly to the news of moderate autism? As they said themselves, the boy speaks, he makes eye contact, he smiles. The major worries and horror stories of people with autism are not evident in that particular individual, nor will they become so. All the parents got was an explanation for the problems they had already witnessed. All that would come of an official diagnosis is the offer to be taught more advanced coping strategies than the ones they already developed organically, as parents observing and responding to their son’s personal idiosyncrasies.

I feel like it is patronising to suggest that the parents of a five-year-old autistic child, who would have put up with so much already, would be so useless. They would have already faced countless trials in his development, already been faced with the practical reality of his condition. I expect a large number of parents would accept the diagnosis quite soberly, as if they were not expecting to hear anything different. Parents may hope blindly that their children will be “normal” and “healthy”, but I feel that this denial could have been portrayed with more nuance than we see in The A Word.

The problem is that the characters are dislikeable. They’re supposed to evoke empathy and sympathy, so that the audience think they would be equally as lost in that situation. But in fact, their rather stupid, stubborn, miserable response to firm news of their son’s differences does a disservice to regular people in the audience, who in large part probably reckon they would at least handle the response stage better, if not necessarily the practical action. I for one do not empathise with the characters, but instead would rather give them all solid slap round the face for unduly panicking and overreacting. How dare you take an interest and show concern about our son! How dare you speak truths! How dare you presume to know more about autism than me, with your years of medical experience! I know of no one who acts, or would act, like that. Real people tend to be somewhat more stoic.

Speaking of doctors, there is another group not-well represented by the series. Someone must have a dim view of them, because they all come off as startlingly cold. I know there are problems with individuals working in the NHS, but I certainly hope the representation of the specialist was not based on actual experience. Fiddling around with her phone in a consultation, switching on a camera without reassuring the parents, leaving them sitting around in silence awkwardly while she deals with other things, not smiling or encouraging the parents in the face of their obvious enthusiasm for their son’s personality… That would be a bad specialist.

Someone in that situation, with that training, would know that it isn’t enough to be clinical and direct. Part of the professionalism involves making sure – by whatever means possible without actually lying – that the parents do not, under any circumstances, panic. Certainly, every medical professional I have ever consulted has done much better at putting me at my ease than the specialist in The A Word.

Apart from the autistic boy himself, who is superbly represented, the only character I liked was the granddad, played brilliantly by Christopher Eccleston. I liked him for the simple reason that I believed that such a person could exist. Flawed, but a decent bloke. Not very politically correct, but trying to keep up. Willing to educate himself and intervene where necessary. Critical, concerned and as close to objective as you could possibly hope for a family member – considering both sides, considering the future. In other words, things which parents have to do, and routinely do. He isn’t bursting his way into rooms, shouting the odds and playing the victim all the time. This is what the parents do and it is exceptionally immature – something which parents and cannot afford to be, and experienced parents generally are not. If The A Word was attempting to represent a typical nuclear family, it failed.

I suppose what I object to is the trend for overwrought drama, whereby the only way we can be sure that people Feel Deeply is if they get into arguments and shout at each other. In real life, people’s personalities and range of emotions vary greatly. Not everything is a dividing force, not every detail is a great emotional upheaval. People put a lid on their worries routinely, as part of their culture and everyday lives. But too often in contemporary British serial drama, it’s all Grey’s Anatomy or Holby City style communication. There is An Emergency! Prepare for Imminent Death! Death! No, no! Someone has Died! Died! Dead!

I much preferred The Night Manager. Yup, the serial about spies and an evil arms dealer was comparatively understated.

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