The A Word, Series 2 Episode 6

This series finale sees Joe’s old school hold an end-of-year show, led by relatives Alison and Becky, and inviting him back to perform.  It was great to see everyone involved doing all they can to include Joe on his terms rather than aiming for “normal” (especially given Alison’s track record) – incorporating his special interests (admittedly not difficult in an already very musical production) , allowing him to “dress up as Joe” rather than struggle with the uncertainty and sensory overload of a costume, and even the entire family getting up on stage with him when the big night came. I would have liked to see more exploration of the sensory aspects of stage performance – the bright lights, the noisy rehearsals, the expectant faces – but that side of autism has at least been covered elsewhere in the series, notably through Joe’s ever-present headphones.

Another advantage of this setting is the return to prominence of Joe’s former classmates, who are often far more accepting than the adult characters and demonstrate that Joe doesn’t need to change who he is in order to make friends. I was a little uncomfortable with Ramesh noting that “some people think gluten is bad for autism” without going on to dispute it (which would be entirely consistent with his wise-beyond-his-years character), given that many people still hold that belief and further restricting the diet of children who are often already limited in what they will eat can be dangerous,  but it is evident that he and Bill do not view Joe’s autism as a problem, speaking to him as they would to any other child.

It was a little jarring, then, for Becky to assume that “one day, I will be the only person Joe has in the world” later in the very same episode. In a society where accessibility and support for autistic adults are often even more limited than for children, Becky’s concerns are very real (if a little premature – Joe’s only seven, who knows how he’ll develop as he gets older?) and are no doubt shared by real-life siblings. It only becomes a problem when the focus is almost entirely on autism as a “burden” on neurotypical relatives at the expense of the autistic person themselves – and unfortunately, that framing is also reflected in the vast majority of media representations of autism.

Similarly, whilst many of Alison and Paul’s marriage problems have very little to do with Joe, and the range of ongoing storylines such as this continues to be a strength, I can’t help but be reminded of the “autism ruins relationships” trope that has also formed a wider media stereotype. Their arguments often refer to an “all this” that can too easily be substituted for “Joe”, and the general marketing of The A Word as a drama about autism doesn’t necessarily help matters. Having said that, as with previous episodes, I appreciated the camera angles making clear the impact of Joe witnessing these arguments (in this case, thanks to his headphones, seeing but not hearing). This is stressful for any child, but autistic children are too often talked directly about in their presence and assumed not to understand – Joe’s parents have been guilty of this in the past, and this week I was pleased to see them actually realise and respond to Joe watching on.

A recurring theme in this episode – and, to some extent, the series as a whole – is summed up by Ramesh: “What will you do after?”. Joe’s sudden exit in response, and Paul’s confession that he doesn’t see future possibilities for Joe (gee, thanks) echo many real-life conversations and, as a recent graduate currently grappling with that question myself, highlighted something strange in the way the issue is handled: with a lot of hand-wringing and Deep ConcernTM over the future of autistic children, yet still very little acknowledgement (and therefore support) of the autistic adults they will become in that future. Children like Joe can have similar possible futures to children like Emily, but only if we work to tackle the barriers faced by autistic people in the present. On the plus side, Mark’s growing independence and hopes of going to college provides a positive counterpoint (and his previous meltdown scenes will hopefully mean he can’t be dismissed as “but you’re so high-functioning”, as real-life autistic people in his position often are), and at least Becky later acknowledges that when Joe is older he might travel and go on to university as she is about to do.

Throughout these blog posts, I’ve tended to focus on the representation of autism sometimes at the expense of other aspects of the plot – and the finale, aiming to go out with a bang, features particularly dramatic moments which you’ll have to watch for yourself! Nevertheless, The A Word does position itself as being about the ups and downs of raising an autistic child, and in a climate where so many portrayals of autistic people do more harm than good, it is crucial for such a high-profile drama to get it right. Unfortunately, too often that hasn’t been the case so far, but for the most part I would say series 2 of The A Word has at least been an improvement on the first. With many now keeping their fingers crossed for a third series, and an ending ambiguous enough to suggest that will happen, I just hope the understanding and acceptance of autistic people on the part of all those involved in The A Word continues to grow as Joe does.


The A Word, Series 2 Episode 5

This week, The A Word came perilously close to self-awareness.

Nicola has prepared a film highlighting Joe’s autistic traits for a presentation at work, much to Paul’s anger: “He’s a syndrome now, is he?” “She’s turned our little boy into a freakshow!” “I’m not having Nicola use Joe to get a foothold in the autism industry!” Most, if not all, of the footage shown from Nicola’s film is taken from last week’s episode of The A Word. The irony of this was not lost on me.

We then see the fallout of the difficult position Joe’s parents are forced into, and everyone in the family has a different opinion – everyone, that is, except Joe, who despite being the subject of the film is not asked about it once. Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme not only within The A Word but in real life, as recently highlighted by the controversy surrounding Judith Newman’s To Siri With Love and resulting #BoycottToSiri hashtag on Twitter (this brilliant Twitter thread by Marie Porter sums up the problems with invasion of privacy).

Nicola’s intentions are good, and I was pleased to see discussion of the misrepresentation of autism as a binary and the fact that many autistic people “show a social face to the world”. However, things go downhill from there during the presentation, with stimming framed as a “retreat” and “reverting… despite parental intervention and attending a specialist school”, as if natural and harmless movement is a bad thing to be trained out. It’s worth noting that when Nicola explains stimming as “comfort”, what she means is “not literally having a meltdown in an overwhelming and confusing neurotypical world”. At the same time, we see Paul’s attempts to stop Joe rocking as he watches TV at home, resulting in Paul trying to physically restrain Joe who then walks off – and for what? Why does rocking being a stereotypically autistic behaviour make it a bad behaviour?

Things then go from bad to worse when, in an argument between Alison and Paul, Paul blurts out “Does that mean I have to pretend his autism isn’t a burden?”  and “I love Joe, I do, but I hate his autism”. Thankfully, Joe does not appear to be in the room at the time,  but too many autistic people hear or read comments like this from their loved ones. To give credit where credit’s due, these remarks are firmly challenged (and by Alison too, whose attitudes have clearly progressed since the first series), but unfortunately this is still how a lot of people really think. It’s worth considering this alongside sister Becky’s situation, with all the adults in agreement that she will go to university and her saying otherwise is just acting up or a phase – the details may be very different, but in both cases involve the Hughes’ refusal to accept that their children are not exactly who they wanted them to be.

Alison says of the film about Joe “It was watching other people watching him, y’know?” Inadvertently, she sums up the experience of watching shows about autistic people but clearly not by or for autistic people. This episode ends with some really lovely footage compiled by Paul of Joe having fun and being himself, with autism and autistic traits referred to only when relevant, and that’s exactly what autistic representation should be – it just feels a little hollow when, the rest of the time, The A Word doesn’t quite get there.

The A Word, Series 2 Episode 4

Much like the previous episode of The A Word, the fourth instalment of this series is a relatively quiet one for Joe as the plot switches between locations – while Joe experiments with his new bicycle at home, parents Alison and Paul head to Manchester in an attempt to rebuild their relationship. It’s also worth noting that the other confirmed autistic character, Mark, is not seen on screen at all this week, only being heard playing drums upstairs towards the end of the episode. As discussed last week, I don’t think this focus on the wider cast is necessarily a bad thing, but in the context of media representation of autism often prioritising neurotypical family members over the autistic people concerned, and in a show promoted on the basis of autism, it’s important that The A Word does not gradually lose sight of the characters it should be exploring.

I was very pleased to see the return of the traditional music-based introduction on the road, which also served to re-introduce Joe’s bicycle from last week. I also enjoyed Eddie’s criticism of the assessment questionnaire as narrowly focused and deficit-based: “The measuring, assessing, the things he can’t do… measuring against who? Against us?” The constant focus on “deficits” (which, as Eddie says, are only deficits in comparison to a neurotypical standard) sets autistic people up as lesser from the start by failing to capture our strengths. In Joe’s case, his encyclopaedic knowledge of music is the obvious example, but this episode’s setting with Eddie and Nicola also highlights his growing attachment to new cousin Emily and, in turn, just how loving and caring he really is.

In an attempt to spite the questionnaire and focus on what Joe can do rather than what he can’t, Eddie sets the goal of teaching Joe to ride his bike without stabilisers – but throughout the episode, it remains unclear whether this is what Joe wants or simply a way of making his relatives feel good. We are initially led to believe that Joe’s gradual exploration of the bicycle, spinning the different parts, is “processing” the removal of the stabilisers, until older sister Becky says what I’d started thinking: “Is this him still processing, or is this him telling us he doesn’t want to ride the bike?” While the answer remains unclear, it is important to note that not everything an autistic child does should be framed as part of slow progress towards “normal” – some things will be different, some kids will just prefer spinning the wheels to riding them, and that’s okay. In the same vein, it was interesting to see the contrast between Eddie’s initial delight and Joe’s fear as he tries to ride away for the first time, echoed late by Paul’s amazement as Joe finally cycles off on his own at the end, swiftly followed by a declaration of “I’ve done that now!” and walking away with headphones in tow. It’s a huge achievement, but who was it really for?

As ever, there were a couple of unfortunate lines, and Paul responding to a difficult question from Alison by mimicking Joe’s usual “let me see now…” made me particularly uncomfortable – with Joe not even present, it was clearly a case of laughing at him rather than laughing with him. It also carries the implication that Joe uses that phrase to avoid the question, as Paul is doing, rather than to buy processing time or simply making use of the fairly limited verbal scripts he has to communicate with.

All things considered, though, I didn’t find much to complain about in this episode or the last – I just hope that hasn’t come at the expense of sidelining the autistic characters who are supposed to be leading the way.

The A Word, Series 2 Episode 3

[As usual, spoilers to follow!]

The main thing that struck me about this week’s episode of The A Word, a drama about autistic child Joe, was that there wasn’t very much of autistic child Joe – and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If there is a plus side to the unending focus on how autism affects everyone other than the autistic person (which might be okay if it wasn’t replicated in virtually all portrayals of autism in media), it’s the development of a strong set of supporting characters. I also find that the more nuanced representations of autistic people tend to come where autistic characters are included in a general setting rather than specifically in programmes about autism – Community‘s Abed Nadir being one famous example – and this episode gives viewers a chance to see Joe as part of the wider world rather than just as a set of diagnostic criteria. Having said that, The A Word does position itself as a programme about autism, and as ever, with that comes the risk of erasing Joe from his own story.

However, Joe is no longer the only autistic character present. The introduction of Eddie’s possible new love interest Holly made me wonder if she would also turn out to be autistic, at least until she was compared to ex-wife Nicola. I’ve previously wondered the same about Nicola, but so far it seems unlikely that the plot will pick up on the autistic traits of either character, which is a real shame given the under-representation of autistic adults and particularly women in the media. On a more positive note, the increasing role of Mark (played by autistic actor Travis Smith, who recently took part in a Twitter Q&A for National Autistic Society) is a huge asset. At first, Paul seems unable to see past Mark’s previous meltdown, only joining him and Sophie at a gig reluctantly after trying in vain to find an excuse to get out of it, but thankfully that doesn’t last for long…

I really enjoyed the gig scenes –  in all honestly, the noisy, crowded bar didn’t exactly strike me as the best place for Mark to be and I’m surprised the sensory aspects were not directly mentioned, but of course all autistic people are different! It was great to see Paul’s assumptions being challenged as he saw Mark’s personality and most of all his capacity to have fun and enjoy the music, as well as the others accepting and respecting Mark’s need to avoid conversation without it being framed as a tragedy. This also made sure the focus on music wasn’t too damaged by the lack of Joe’s usual introductory singing, no longer feasible with the change of school. It’s interesting that Mark’s (and indeed Paul’s) love of music is not pathologised in the same way that Joe’s often is, for the simple reason that Joe expresses this in a more stereotypically “autistic” way – special interests are often seen as harmful because it’s an autistic trait, when in reality they are a huge source of joy.

My main complaint this week is the use of the tired “autism tears families apart” trope, not once but twice within the space of a single episode.  It could have been much worse than it was – Sophie blames the breakdown of her marriage on the judgement of others rather than Mark himself, whilst the brewing tension within the Hughes family seems to stem from the separation as a consequence of Joe changing schools – but again, this comes up repeatedly in media representations of autistic children, creating another harmful stereotype and reinforcing the view of autism as a tragedy. Incidentally, if “the change with Joe is taking a toll” on Alison and Mark, what kind of toll is it taking on Joe, who we know particularly struggles with change? Has anyone asked? Does anyone care?

Joe remains the backbone of The A Word‘s main plot, and I assume he will return to centre stage in the second half of the series. Meanwhile, this week’s treatment of Mark in particular shows the writers are very capable of portraying autism as something other than a problem to be fixed – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they will not return to those same traps as the focus returns to a younger and more “visibly autistic” child…

The A Word, Series 2 Episode 2

The opening episode of The A Word Series 2 gave me the impression of a show finally heading in the right direction, so in the days that followed I was really disappointed to see other autistic people being attacked on Twitter for their own criticisms. For the purposes of this blog I’d rather focus on the episodes themselves, but I felt this was worth mentioning because shows like The A Word are often praised for “starting a conversation” – that sounds amazing in theory, but whose voices are actually heard?


Episode 2 of this series focuses on Joe’s transition to a new school – a difficult process for any child, and particularly so for a child who struggles with even much smaller changes. It’s clear that the Hughes family have recognised the need to prepare Joe for the big move, making a picture book similar to the “social stories” frequently used to support autistic people, but I was surprised that nobody seemed to consider the impact of changes to the routine before and after school – not even that all-important walk with headphones – until it was too late. This episode highlights the issue of adequate support services for autistic pupils being few and far between, further increasing the level of change for the autistic person. As ever, the problem is not autism itself but inaccessibility and negative attitudes from mainstream services: in this case, Joe’s old school. As many parents on social media have pointed out, it’s also sadly unrealistic for these transitions to happen so quickly and smoothly in amongst EHCP bureaucracy.

As with previous episodes, this episode sometimes falls into the trap of framing autism as a scary condition to “save” Joe from or at least to minimise in Joe. Paul’s immediate reaction to Joe’s new school, mirrored for the viewer by the many close-ups of the other children, is “there are kids more autistic than him in there”  – what message does that send about the many people who might be deemed “more autistic” than Joe? The problems with simplistic descriptions of autism as some kind of sliding scale are worth a separate post altogether, but ironically Alison later highlights their inaccuracy in noting that Joe has a “spiky profile – it means he’s autistic in some ways but not in others”. Yep. That’s all of us. It’s sort of how the whole “spectrum” thing works. Again, Paul’s response of “I prefer it to autistic” is unfortunate.

On the other hand, I really like that Joe’s special interest in music is embraced by those around him. We see how important special interests are for regulation when Joe’s iPod dies (How has this seemingly never happened before now? Why do they not know about emergency chargers?) and he ends up at meltdown point on arrival at school – he does know that Alison can’t just repeat the radio like an iPod, but understanding that doesn’t solve the problem. Thankfully, his school also embrace this and we later see Joe calmly matching song titles – special interests don’t have to be “productive” to be valuable, and sadly many autistic children still have their interests being taken away almost entirely and turned into “therapy”, but here the use of song titles in Joe’s education seems to be mutually beneficial.  Special interests are certainly one of the perks of being autistic, and as someone with my own fair share of music-based special interests this is by far my favourite aspect of the show, although I do worry that many neurotypical viewers would see even that as just another autistic trait to be feared.

It was great to see more from Mark (played by autistic actor Travis Smith), and his meltdown scene was handled particularly well. Meltdowns are obviously very distressing to see, but it’s sometimes forgotten that they’re even more distressing to actually experience for yourself, so it was a relief that Mark’s own experience was centred throughout. However, with news from across the Atlantic that The Good Doctor will feature an autistic actor in a forthcoming episode, I can’t help but notice a trend also found in Atypical earlier this year – a minor autistic character is introduced and played by an autistic actor, and the team make a big song and dance about inclusion, yet the main autistic characters are still played by neurotypical people. It’s certainly progress, but it’s not enough, and there’s a danger of becoming tokenistic. I was pleased to see Travis Smith’s role expanding, though, and if the Episode 3 trailer is to be believed I expect we’ll be seeing Mark a lot more in future…

It’s fair to say that, again, The A Word has everyone talking – but how many are also listening? Shows like this really do have the potential to start a conversation, but only for those willing to hear out the autistic people they’re talking about (and not just the ones they already agree with). It’s important to remember that while for some people this is a fun and interesting debate, for others it’s their real lives being turned into a discussion topic.

The A Word, Series 2 Episode 1: “Naming Day”

Now in its second series, BBC One’s The A Word first came to our screens in March 2016 – and back then, in all honesty, I wasn’t exactly a massive fan.

I did really like some aspects of the show’s portrayal of autistic child Joe Hughes – I loved the positivity of the music-themed opening scenes, and in a society that often continues to focus on the “odd behaviours” of autistic people without considering what’s behind them, the emphasis on Joe’s sensory differences is not something to be taken for granted.

On the other hand, as the title suggests, the first series of The A Word and its characters often treated autism as a dirty word and something shameful to be hidden – an attitude that sadly persists in real life, at great detriment to the mental health of autistic people. To give an example, Joe’s specific routine with doors – opening and closing once before entering, very rarely in the way in others – is framed as unsettling simply because such routines are an autistic trait. Meanwhile, mother Alison spends much of the first series trying to “help Joe” by trying to make him appear “normal” rather than focusing on how he feels and what would actually help him navigate the neurotypical world – a particular low point for me came in Episode 4, in which Alison claims to have found “the real Joe… underneath all that autism” when he was less energetic due to illness, bringing the subtle prioritisation of conformity over well-being into sharp relief. The A Word did not necessarily condone these attitudes – the programme is about a family learning about autism for the first time to support Joe – but unfortunately, many people (including parents left with little information and support) do carry those attitudes with real consequences for autistic people, and without directly challenging this, there is a risk of perpetuating it further.

However, this could all be about to change. According to Morven Christie, who plays Alison, in a promotional interview with autistic filmmaker Gerard Groves: “Alison’s adapted quite significantly to how to deal with him and how to communicate with him. She’s got a lot better at that, thank goodness.” With Joe being older and, if the preview synopsis is anything to go by, more self-aware, I also hope we get to see a little bit more of his perspective this series. Although one of The A Word‘s strengths is its range of fully developed characters, the first series sometimes falls into the trap of erasing Joe from his own story, focusing instead on how Joe’s autism affects other family members. Again, this is symptomatic of the real-life issue that autism is often described from the perspective of a neurotypical outsider (so “odd behaviours” rather than the underlying sensory differences, for example) and discussions of autism still centre non-autistic people – ever wondered why, even though we know autism is a lifelong condition, the media focus is always on children (and therefore their presumed-neurotypical parents)?

Series 1 of The A Word struck me as a show for neurotypical people, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as education on autism is so badly needed – but that does make it all the more important to get that education right. I was looking forward to seeing what Series 2 has to offer and I’m trying to keep an open mind – cross your fingers, and remember there’s spoilers for Series 2 Episode 1 ahead…


The main plot point of The A Word‘s Series 2 opener is that Joe – shock horror – uses the word “autistic”, and takes this to mean “nobody wants me”, much to everyone’s dismay. In other words, the Hughes family spend most of this episode trying to undo the damage they did in Series 1 by refusing to talk to Joe about autism or even use the relevant words. Hiding a child’s autism diagnosis from them because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t actually make them less autistic, and if they never hear autism discussed in a compassionate, accepting way then all they have to go on is the false and harmful words of bullies. If Joe has only heard autism discussed negatively, of course he’ll see it negatively. Still though, at least those around him now want to challenge these attitudes – better late than never!

Possibly my favourite line in the entire episode was when Becky’s new boyfriend James goes out with the family for the first time: “So let me get this right, Joe’s the only one who doesn’t know he’s autistic?” When you point it out like that, hiding a core part of someone’s identity from them and only them – while all the time they’re still being treated differently for it – is absurd, and hopefully this will encourage real-life parents of autistic children to be as open as they can. Later, Alison highlights the importance of giving Joe “a sense of who he is, an identity” – husband Paul jokingly dismisses this as “Club Autistic” and my first thought was “yeah, that basically exists”, not literally or in one place but in the form of so many autistic communities, online and offline, where we might realise other people have similar experiences and feel a little bit less alone. That, in itself, is a huge advantage of knowing you’re autistic. When Alison and Paul do finally get round to talking to Joe about autism, it’s mostly done well (aside from the unfortunate choice of words “we’re all a little bit broken”… not helpful). It’s pointed out that while some things are harder for Joe, other things are easier, and Joe’s immediate reaction of apologising for being autistic is genuinely heartbreaking.

Given how those around him respond to his autistic traits, though, I’m not surprised he feels that way. Paul’s response to possible bullying and insults from other children attempts to change not these negative attitudes but Joe himself, attempting to coax him into a “normal” interest in football because being autistic he must like dates and stats (the only dates and stats Joe has actually shown interest in so far are from his own interest in music). Sadly, many well-meaning people still try to tackle bullying by forcing autistic people to “fit in” rather than, y’know, actually tackling the bullying – and, as in Joe’s case, this usually isn’t very successful. Meanwhile, at school, the teacher tries (and fails) to make Joe talk when he’s clearly overloading despite a sea of raised hands from the rest of the table, not only showcasing his differences but needlessly delaying the other children from leaving, which certainly won’t help his popularity much! On the other hand, I really liked the constant music quizzes – it clearly helps Joe communicate, and the others go along with this to improve communication rather than berating it because it’s an autistic trait. I also still really like the musical opening scenes, as with the previous series – Joe engaging with his special interest, seeking sensory input, being autistic and being happy.

Another theme of this episode is presuming competence – in short, just because an autistic person can’t communicate in the way you want doesn’t mean they can’t understand what’s being said. Alison and Paul learn this the hard way when Joe repeats “We don’t want another baby, we have enough with me” – clearly a version of something he’s heard – in front of the entire family. We might be literal-minded sometimes, but it’s very possible to say “autism is bad” without actually using those words! Paul later says “Let’s say Joe understands what autistic means… let’s say he sees some other kids, more severely autistic… does he think that’s how the world sees him, how we see him?” This never gets back to Joe, and it’s just as well, because the implication there is that “those other autistic kids”, so similar to Joe in many ways, are seen negatively by them. Alison and Paul end up talking to other parents at the school about Joe’s autism before Joe himself (in an incident where the school seems to rank the other parents’ feelings as more important than Joe’s own safety after he climbs the roof…), again suggesting an assumption that Joe can’t understand, although at least they do talk to him about autism in the end. It looks like they’re finally starting to recognise that Joe might have his own perspective – “We were getting more out of him being integrated [in school] than he was” – it will be interesting to see how Joe actually feels about changing schools next week!

When Alison’s parent support group first came up, I was worried it would turn into even more of a harmful focus on “autistic people are hard for everyone else” than we’ve already got. It turns out I was wrong, and the scene was very positive – I particularly liked fellow parent Sophie highlighting her son Mark’s relief at being told he was autistic! Incidentally, Mark is played by autistic actor Travis Smith, which is really exciting to see – it’s a shame he only had a couple of lines this episode, I hope his role is expanded over the course of the series! It would be nice if Joe also found a group to meet other autistic children, particularly given the “Club Autistic” discussion in the following scene – perhaps one week he’ll come along to the parent support group to meet Mark and others?

During the last series, many people (this household included!) speculated that grandfather Maurice might be autistic, and in promotional interviews for this series, actor Christopher Eccleston also acknowledges this idea. The opening episode of Series 2 also made me wonder about Nicola – the bluntness, the foods labelled by day, “I don’t like surprises”. I think it’s unlikely either of these will be confirmed any time soon, which is a shame given how underrepresented autistic adults are. In general, The A Word often highlights possible “autistic” behaviours of other characters, with promotional material pointing out the whole family have difficulty communicating with each other, and it’s great to show the hypocrisy of neurotypical people shaming autistic people for the things they do themselves. On the other hand, there is a risk of veering into “everyone’s a bit autistic” territory, which erases the very real barriers faced by autistic people. When Paul tells Joe “no-one’s the same”, Joe’s response is “so I am the same?” and that sums up what a lot of us hear when we’re told, usually by people who are well-meaning, that “really everyone’s autistic” – and as highlighted above, if we don’t know we’re different, we’ll probably just start blaming ourselves for the barriers.

A common defence of The A Word is that nobody’s perfect and the Hughes family are no different – but again, showing harmful attitudes without also challenging them can have real consequences for autistic people in the real world. This is a chance to educate on a huge scale, and if done badly it can cause more harm than good. Thankfully, it looks like the characters’ attitudes to Joe – and to autism – are finally improving, and that could also make a massive real-world difference.