When I heard that the Sundance Channel in the U.S. would be airing the British show “The A Word,” I knew I had to watch. I have often bemoaned the fact that there is not enough representation of autistic people in popular culture. (I have even been so bold as to point out a few children’s characters that may or may not be on the spectrum.) Needless to say, I was going to devour this show. And I have.
“The A Word” is about a large family – a husband and wife, a teenage daughter, and 5-year-old Joe. Joe, of course, is the one with autism. There is also a grandfather, and an uncle and aunt in the picture. So while the show is supposedly about little Joe, it’s really much more about the larger cast of characters around him. The drama ends up being a little more like “Parenthood” – if “Parenthood” focused on the character of Max a little bit more.
Each episode begins with Joe walking down a winding road, carrying some random colorful object, and listening to a rock song on his headset. (See picture.) The image is haunting and so understandable from my perspective as a parent of a child with autism. (My child has definitely “escaped” our home to run down a street. This is not an uncommon phenomenon for those with autism.) Somehow, each week, this blue van always shows up with the same group of people to rescue Joe and bring him back home, and no one makes a big deal of this. (We learn more about this blue van of people in one of the later episodes.)
There are just six episodes to this series, and it began with great promise. In the first episode, the parents (Paul and Allison) receive a diagnosis of autism for Joe after many people questioned his quirky habits and behaviors. It brought me back to my own experience with Quentin, and all the emotions that went with it. These people in this small village seemed completely unprepared and unsure where to start. Even though I live in New York City, I, too, felt a sense of being untethered and uncertain of the direction I should take. This episode also featured a birthday party for Joe, and I really related to the great lengths Allison goes to in order to make this a “perfect” day for Joe.
However, the subsequent episodes made me question the series a lot. For one thing, most of the drama was actually about this family and their relationships with each other. Bickering is at the forefront; rarely does this family celebrate anything or have much fun. This makes it a little depressing to watch, but I could get beyond that if the dramatic plots actually moved anywhere. Even more distressing to me, however, is the fact that autism is not portrayed as I know it.
Don’t get me wrong – the little boy who plays Joe does well as an actor. Clearly, casting that role must have been very difficult and they found a wonderful child actor. My complaints are more about the writing and how they choose to depict his autistic behaviors; there seems to be some key elements missing.
Some of Joe’s “autistic behaviors” do seem to be spot on. For example, seeing Joe repeat random physical actions, like opening and closing a door before entering, get at the heart of what autism can look like. Joe is a boy in love with music, and he insists on listening all the time. This, too, seems realistic, as many people with autism have a repetitive interest. I love the parts where he feels the need to rewind certain parts, because that’s another behavior that rings as true in my experience with Quentin.
It took me a while to figure out why I felt this portrayal of autism is not realistic. I had to reflect on it a lot. Then it dawned on me: Joe never has meltdowns. At least, not the kind of meltdowns I see in Quentin.
Every child with autism is different from the next, so I know that behaviors can differ and repetitive interests can change. Some children are more verbal than others. Intelligence can vary. However, it seems to me that the one thing most children with autism universally share is occasional all-out, completely awful meltdowns.
The meltdowns I know of in autistic children can involve kicking and screaming. These can be very public, causing family members great distress at the public embarrassment. These may or may not involve self-injurious behaviors. From my knowledge (and in my experience), five-year-old children with autism are extremely likely to have these kind of meltdowns on a regular basis. And yet, in “The A Word” – I have not seen Joe have any of these. The most upset he gets is a little bit of whining or holding his ears as he is upset. There is no falling to the floor, banging his head, screaming at the top of his lungs. And for this very reason, I question the entire show.
I will continue to watch “The A Word,” however. (I recently learned that the show is being picked up for a second season.) I want to see what happens to these characters. And really, I want to support a show that depicts developmental disabilities, even if it’s not perfect.