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…
[SPOILERS FOR LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE OF THE A WORD FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS]
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.