10 reasons to watch “Are You Autistic?” (by someone who already knows it inside out!)

…Okay, as one of Are You Autistic?‘s lead presenters I’m more than a little biased, but this does also means I’ve seen it, multiple times, and can’t wait until it finally goes out beyond autism circles and into the wider world of people who could benefit from its messages! So here are just a few reasons why, this Wednesday at 10pm, you should see it too:

1. You definitely know at least one autistic person. I’m not just saying that because most people who read this will know me, either – we now think 1 in 100 people are autistic, and with so many people going undiagnosed and horrendously long waiting list for those whose autistic traits are picked up on, that number could be much higher. There’s going to be someone in your family, friendship groups, school, workplace, somewhere who is on the spectrum – even if you don’t know it, even if they don’t know it – and a little understanding and acceptance can go a long way.

2. It’s presented by autistic people. To be clear, it’s Sam Ahern and I who introduce the show and all its segments, provide the voiceovers, interview the experts, and generally guide the neurotypical newcomers through our world – and it should go without saying that we discussed, changed and contributed to every single one of our scripts. It shouldn’t be so groundbreaking or hard to believe for autistic people to lead the conversation about autism in the media, but I think this makes Are You Autistic? stand out.

Georgia Harper (that's me!) and Sam Ahern on set.

3. Two-thirds of the autistic people who feature are women. Autistic women are usually under-represented if not ignored entirely in media, but you’re going to run out of fingers trying to count them on this show. We discuss underdiagnosis, masking, and how stereotypes prevent women from accessing the support they need.

4. You’ll also see some really cool idents. Come on, it’s a giant person made of the Channel 4 blocks! What’s not to love?

5. We look at autism from the autistic perspective. Too often, the only autistic traits discussed are those that happen to affect the neurotypical people around us, and autism is framed as “odd behaviour” with no consideration for what the autistic person is actually experiencing. We go deeper, exploring sensory processing and executive function as two adults who suspect they might be autistic undergo assessments – with TV presenter and token neurotypical person Anna Richardson learning with the audience along the way.

6. It’s an example of how positive change can be made when you take action. Ambitious about Autism’s Youth Council contacted the producers last year because we had concerns – and how they listened!! We turned a project that was neurotypical-led into a show that is autistic-led. As well as Sam and I presenting, five other Youth Patrons feature in Are You Autistic?, directly speaking about their first-hand experiences. We chose to directly engage and are all very proud of the outcome, and I hope it will inspire others to do the same.

The Ambitious about Autism Youth Patrons sitting in a row, preparing to film vox pops.

7. It’s on straight after One Born Every Minute. Apparently, millions of people really enjoy watching childbirth, and you can all keep watching for a bonus education on autism with no extra effort!

8. We’ll smash a ton of myths. Think you can always tell if someone is autistic? Wrong. Think “everyone’s a little bit autistic”? Wrong. Think autism is overdiagnosed and professionals are too quick to use the autism label? Wrong. Take it away, Sherlock:

GIF taken from an episode of BBC's Sherlock - everyone at a press conference receives a text (from Sherlock) which reads

9. It acknowledges autistic parents of autistic children for once! I don’t want to give too much away, but this frequently sidelined group is represented, in a way which also nicely shows the huge diversity of abilities and needs within the autistic spectrum.

10. You might just see yourself reflected in this programme more than you expect… I mean, probably not, but you never know! The way I see it, adults who are autistic but don’t know it are the target audience of this show – and if we can help one person to finally understand themselves, then we’ll have done our job.

Are You Autistic?” will air on Channel 4 at 10.00pm next Wednesday, 28th March 2018.

Advertisements

Why autism is much more than an “excuse”, and why it matters

A collage of three separate headlines. Clockwise from top-left: "DR MIKE SHOOTER: Yes, some children suffer terribly. But I fear many parents want them to be labelled autistic... just to excuse their own failings", "Autism is vastly over-diagnosed. It's the parents' way out: We're too quick to label difficult children, the veteran child psychiatrist Dr Mike Shooter says", "Do some parents use autism to cover up bad behaviour?"

Recently, my Twitter feed has been full of a whole series of articles and so on telling the world that conditions such as autism and ADHD are a.) Overdiagnosed Actually and b.) used by parents as an “excuse” for “awful and embarrassing behaviour” or as “something to boast about”.

…Yikes.

To be fair to Dr Mike Shooter, he’s got a childhood psychiatry book to plug, so it’s entirely possible that either he’s exaggerating his views for maximum interest, or the media are doing that for him to maximise interest in them. Still, though, the end result is the same: a load of “ARE WE DIAGNOSING AUTISM TOO QUICKLY?” headlines. Sadly, this narrative is still all too common – and as much as we’ve heard it all before, it can have a hugely harmful impact on how autistic and other neurodivergent people are (or rather, aren’t) diagnosed and supported in future.

In many cases, autism is UNDERdiagnosed. Unfortunately, it is common for people who seek assessment for autism to face waiting lists more easily measured in years than months . Although attitudes are improving, many people have to make multiple GP appointments, and face multiple dismissals, before they are finally offered a referral, making the process longer still. That’s a long time to wait when schools, employers, and other bodies insist on seeing an official piece of paper before doing anything to accommodate you. It’s frustrating to see some of the myths blocking access to diagnosis being repeated, particularly the suggestion that children who behave differently at home, school and other activities can’t be neurodivergent – many thrive in more structured environments, or “mask” their traits at great cost to their mental health or overall functioning, and subsequently struggle to get the support they need.

And that’s just those who recognise that they or their child might be autistic in the first place, in a society that still often sees autism as the Rain Man/Sheldon Cooper stereotypes. In recent years, we’ve seen a generation of autistic adults who grew up in a time when autism was totally unknown finally get the answers they need. Indeed, some parents and relatives of newly diagnosed autistic children discover that they are also autistic in the process. We now also know that restricted autism stereotypes have contributed to underdiagnosis of autism in women and girls, and that race and class are also factors that may prevent diagnosis. To say that autism is overdiagnosed erases all these experiences, and hampers attempts to reduce these problems.

Autistic adults exist. I really don’t understand why this gets forgotten so often. Autism is not a terminal illness, children grow up eventually, this is not a difficult concept. Some are only diagnosed as adults, some without parental support at all. Perhaps it’s nitpicking to point out every time someone slips into only referring to autistic people as “children”, especially given that in this instance it’s supporting a book about childhood, but it happens every time and this contributes to the continued missed diagnosis, disbelief and lack of support services for autistic adults.

Refusing to identify autism doesn’t make it go away. File under: “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there”. Autistic people don’t suddenly become autistic because a doctor says so – people who seek an assessment are evidently already struggling in some way or another, and telling them they ~shouldn’t have to label themselves~ doesn’t solve anything. When even the most clearly well-intentioned people say “it’s the human condition” or “everyone has that”, I think “then I’m failing at life by not Just Dealing With It like everyone else is” – and it’s fleeting, because I know why, but many people don’t and internalise that message alongside all the other negative ways people react to autistic traits. With the prevalence of mental health problems in autistic people is already shockingly high, growing up undiagnosed is a particularly prominent cause of mental ill health. In this sense, labels are empowering – far from creating new problems, a diagnosis provides the language, tools and acceptance necessary to resolve existing ones.

Autism, ADHD, and “bad behaviour” are very different things. One of my big pet hates about how autism is portrayed in media is that it’s usually framed as “odd mysterious behaviour” from the perspective of a neurotypical outsider (often a parent, which contributes to the focus on autistic children to the exclusion of adults) with little thought for, y’know, what the autistic person actually experiences.

Autism is not bad behaviour. Autism, sometimes, can lead to sensory overload provoking a meltdown. Meltdowns are pretty awful for everyone involved, most of all for the person actually experiencing it. A diagnosis won’t magically make that go away, but it will help the person and those around them understand their triggers and find coping mechanisms. Waving it away as bad behaviour will often only make things worse.

Actively asking viewers to answer to “Do you think some parents use autism to cover up bad behaviour?” encourages people to shame others – the parents and the autistic people who will one day grow up to read those tweets and comments (if, of course, they aren’t doing so already). This isn’t just a fun interesting debate – it affects real people.

These attitudes can have a detrimental real-world impact. Autistic people aren’t just there to be talked about – we’re seeing it all too. Undiagnosed autistic people read these articles and are put off questioning it further. Parents of undiagnosed autistic children read these articles and go back to blaming themselves instead of being able to explore support for their child. Even some of those who ARE diagnosed might start the self-doubt all over again, or wonder whether other people think they’re making it up or annoying others, and might be less likely to ask for accommodations in future. Others who don’t know any better might take this at face value and disbelieve autistic people (and their families), which if they’re in any position of power means less access to support. The narrative that the autism “label” isn’t important in the absence of other diagnoses almost had a catastrophic impact in south-west London last year, when CCGs considered restricting diagnosis to those who also have additional conditions.

The usual defence for questioning disabilities is “I don’t mean the GENUINELY disabled people” – but it’s precisely those Genuinely DisabledTM people and their families who face the backlash in a focus on entirely hypothetical “fakers”. Which raises another question: why are we so desperate to disbelieve disabled people and their loved ones? Is it because if you accept someone is disabled you might have to actively do something to accommodate them? Is the stigma still so great that people find it difficult to see someone as “disabled” and “capable of doing things” at the same time? In any case, it’s about time we stopped trying to avoid the existence of neurodiversity and started focusing on acceptance.

Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time

(Contains spoilers for Twice Upon A Time, this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special)

This Christmas, Doctor Who fans were treated to not one, not two, but three Doctors. Before the much-anticipated regeneration into Jodie Whittaker at the end of Twice Upon A Time, the Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi) finds himself teaming up with the First Doctor (brought to life by David Bradley, who previously played original actor William Hartnell in 2013’s An Adventure in Space and Time) at the site of his first ever regeneration.  I really enjoyed the framing of the episode in original footage from the end of Hartnell’s era (The Tenth Planet, 1966) in a nod to the show’s history which also provides helpful context for younger viewers or those not familiar with the classic series.

The Doctors are faced with various puzzles – time itself freezing in place, the appearance of a World War One captain (Mark Gatiss) removed from his own timeline, and the mysterious activities of Testimony – but ultimately, their biggest threat is themselves. The Twelfth Doctor is tasked with convincing his predecessor to live on and regenerate to preserve his impact on the universe – and, in turn, convince himself to do the same. It was particularly interesting to see the younger Doctor grapple with the conflicting facets of his future legacy, “[serving] at the pleasure of the human race” on the one hand, “the Doctor of war” on the other. Along those lines, one of my highlights of the episode is a conversation between the First Doctor and returning companion Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) about why good triumphs over evil, with the former not yet realising his own contribution to “putting everything right when it goes wrong”, neatly summing up what the Doctor means to so many people.

Of course, two Doctors also means two TARDISes, with the First Doctor’s TARDIS demonstrating how the current TARDIS has changed inside and out over the decades, and his reaction to the modern TARDIS provides the opportunity for back-and-forth quips between the Doctors – especially juxtaposed with the Captain’s more standard “bigger on the inside” response, although I did also laugh at the 1914 character questioningly clutching a VHS tape! The same applies to the Twelfth Doctor’s use of not only sonic sunglasses but the now-familiar sonic screwdriver, not used until 1968 (Fury From The Deep) by the Second Doctor.

It has to be said, however, that the First Doctor’s recurring remarks about female companions and cleaning were significantly less funny and felt very forced and unnecessary. It’s worth noting that the First Doctor is only an “old man from the 1960s” from our perspective as viewers of a fictional TV show, while in the Doctor Who universe he’s a time-travelling alien who just happened to live in 1960s London for a while, and wouldn’t have so easily picked up attitudes of the time. It really isn’t representative of that Doctor’s era, and it’s a shame to think this might put younger women off watching the classic series or damage its reputation generally. I also would have preferred the older Doctor to challenge this directly rather than resorting to distraction and “you can’t say that” (which seems to imply “because it’s not allowed” rather than “because it’s wrong”) – Bill’s reactions are slightly better, but it shouldn’t have to be her job alone to defend herself.

That aside, there were other much better executed nods to the Doctor’s past, including heavy use of music from previous episodes and series (personally, I was particularly excited to hear the theme from Doomsday crop up). The brief return of Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) was predicted by many and thankfully used to advance the plot, resulting in a much less “shoehorned” feel than Amy Pond’s similar cameo in the previous regeneration story (2013’s The Time of the Doctor). Slightly more (pleasantly) surprising was the appearance of Nardole (Matt Lucas), making Twice Upon A Time his third Christmas special – not bad for a secondary companion in only one full series! The biggest shock of all, though, has to be the return of Rusty the Dalek-hating Dalek (voiced by Nicholas Briggs) from the Twelfth Doctor’s second episode Into The Dalek – it’s certainly a curveball, with even hardcore fans having virtually forgotten about the one-off character, but it’s done well and nicely bookends Peter Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who. It’s quite a risk for a Christmas special, watched by many casual viewers who do not usually follow the show, to be so reliant on continuity, but for the most part the various references are at least explained.

While watching on Christmas Day I was beginning to think this wasn’t a particularly Christmassy special, so perhaps I should have seen the twist in the Captain’s tale coming. The scenes of the Christmas Armistice are incredibly touching, as is the Captain’s horror at discovering his war becomes known as World War One and his concern for the family left behind. It’s true that in an episode already laden with continuity references, it doesn’t exactly take a genius fan to guess which family this military character belongs to, but it doesn’t really need to be a surprise – the focus remains on one doomed man’s love for his children, and that emotion works just as well for casual viewers and newer fans who don’t pick up on the classic reference.

Finally, there’s That Regeneration, and I’m very grateful to whoever decided the full scene should be posted on the official Doctor Who YouTube channel because I keep coming back to watch it. The Twelfth Doctor has a knack for long speeches and this is no exception, with Peter Capaldi doing a great job of summing up the Doctor’s past and looking to the future, even if I did spent most of the time looking at my watch and waiting impatiently for what was to come…

Regeneration episodes always show frustrating little of the new Doctor, but the arrival of the thirteenth incarnation is at least slower-paced than that of her predecessor and allows for powerful details – the ring falling off, the camera showing viewers the TARDIS through the Doctor’s new eyes, the face that says it all. Jodie Whittaker has arrived. And, inevitably, she’s thrown straight into peril. Personally, I’m not reading too much into the now traditional TARDIS crash – it will hopefully persuade Christmas viewers to stay tuned for the next series, but I doubt the Doctor will be without her TARDIS for longer than an episode. The whole set-up greatly reminds me of Matt Smith’s 2010 debut in The Eleventh Hour, also the introduction of Steven Moffat as showrunner, which hopefully means the Thirteenth Doctor – along with incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall and a host of new companions – will hit the ground running.

…Is it time for series 11 yet?

thirteen regeneration

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…