Autistic advocate and writer, Leo Capella, reviews the first episode of The A Word, and shares his perspective on autism in television.

The A Word Season Two

When it comes to depicting disabilities on television and film a lot of veteran disability/neurodiversity activists and self-advocates tend to be naturally rather wary. 

Granted there are quite a few good films and programmes out there: The IT Crowd, Life Animated, The Autistic Gardener to name but a few. But there’s also a lot that trigger the inner Black Mamba (or Great White Shark) in activists, for example The Undateables, which is loved and loathed by disabled people, as well as Atypical which also reportedly gets cheers and hisses in equal measure.

So, in early October I went to a workshop with Peter Bowker and watched a screening of the first episode of series two of The A Word at Home in Manchester, having only seen the first episode of its first series (which to be fair wasn’t bad) with two main questions:

  • Do the cast and crew know what kind of (contested) territory they’ve stepped into?
  • And is the show good in its own right?

In the workshop and the interesting panel discussion that followed it, the main headline was that there’s a wave forming of actors and writers with disabilities, which is something confirmed by other events. I went into the workshop with Peter Bowker expecting to find it attended with only autistic writers, of which there are a few around. Maybe I didn’t read my briefing notes carefully enough as the room was packed full of people with different disabilities!

After all, this isn’t Peter Bowker’s first stint when it comes to depicting disability in TV. He’s written shows that I’ve infuriatingly missed including Flesh and Blood as well as Marvellous which we saw excerpts of during the workshop. All of which were very interesting, and it was a good to get an insight into a non-disabled writer’s depiction of disability as well as the impact on him and the cast and crew, for instance the friendships made.

And then it came parts of The A Word itself.  I winced at its premise of a child on the spectrum being used as a sort of lens or focus point to view a family with. It seemed close to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time which gives its non autistic characters somewhat more depth than its protagonist, which you’d like to think we’ve moved on from, given that book came out over ten years ago. However, the way that it was presented of a family who can’t communicate around a person that has communication difficulties made some sense.

There was also a cheer when the room found out that an autistic actor was actually playing a new autistic character in a television programme, in this case The A Word. Given this and the BBC are committed to The A Word over the long term, I wonder if autistic writers will come to work on it?

As for the first episode of The A Word itself. I preferred the family drama over the scenes with Joe (No offence to Max Vento, who does a decent job playing him). In fact it was interesting seeing those little discussions that the parents had, as I wondered how many of those discussions my own parents had about me sotto voce. As for Joe’s scenes I identified with his own initial reaction but thought there were more parallels with my own experiences as a teenager just as much as there were as a kid. Otherwise, I thought the show was really funny bordering on being slapstick with Maurice played by Christopher Ecclestone being a case in point.

The one word that struck me throughout the episode though was: possibilities. There is a rich strain of possibilities in the first episode which I hope is explored through the series. For instance, the introduction of Travis played by someone on the autistic spectrum was handled well enough and had a nice use of echolalia or rather people on the spectrum repeating what a person has said to make sure they’ve understood them. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops as a character, after all an awkward start with seemingly socially “awkward” people doesn’t equal an unintelligent person, especially when it comes to eye contact.

Also it’s important to note at that no time did I feel the urge to rush out of the cinema or shut my eyes, something which given that I don’t really own my experiences of childhood is something rather good. In fact, the only thing that really made me wince while watching the episode was when Joe’s parents played by discussed how to describe autism to him, using outdated puzzle piece imagery, particularly given that the autism communities are moving away from using it. I hope this imagery is dissected (in fact feasted on!) later down the line, whether in this series or a later one.

In the Q and A session afterwards with cast and crew members it was good to know that not only had Peter Bowker worked with autistic children, Greg McHugh who plays Eddie Scott had worked with autistic kids before acting in The A Word. So the background amongst the actors was there and they were willing to learn about the area they had come into, whether through going to events by other organisations etc. Other actors like Lee Ingleby approached it as an actor but increased their own knowledge and felt honoured to be part of a show that opened up a conversation.

Overall, I left Home and Manchester thoroughly reassured and impressed by Peter Bowker and everyone else working on The A Word as well as the programme itself. And I’m looking forward to seeing how the season progresses, possibly hiding behind the sofa at the tough parts for Joe, although you never know…

And one more thing, Freddie Highmore, cast and crew of The Good Doctor... I do hope that you’re taking note. Because you’re up on UK screens in November, just before The A Word is…

We've been asking for your reviews of The A Word. You can read Matt Davis' review of episode one here.

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