Man and child in car
Today Calm with Horses is released in cinemas across the UK. Calm with Horses is a film which features Jack, a five-year-old autistic boy, and his parents, Niamh and Arm. As part of the production process, our autistic Campaigns Officer George Stanbury, was one of our staff to provide input to make Jack’s experiences as realistic and reflective of the challenges autistic people may face. Here, he writes about why it’s so important autistic characters are shown on our screens.

Working in the Campaigns team at the National Autistic Society, my job is to change attitudes to improve public understanding of autism and to campaign for policy change that means autistic people and their families can get the support they need.

As part of this, I get the opportunity to work with TV producers, scriptwriters and directors to make sure autistic characters become part of mainstream dramas and shows we love. If there are more autistic people and characters on the TV, then more people will have the opportunity to learn about autism. This in turn will mean people can feel better able to support their autistic family members, friends and colleagues.

We know from our recent research that portrayals of autism on both the big and small screen play a huge part in shaping how the public understand autism. It’s why as a charity we invest time and resource to trying to make sure these portrayals are good and reflect the experiences of autistic people and their families.

This is the case with Calm with Horses, a film which goes on UK release today. Almost from the start of the development of the film, we worked with producers to make sure that Jack, who is an autistic five year old, reflects the experiences that many autistic people and their families face. Even though the film’s story is a violent and perhaps extreme one, the experiences of autism we see are more universal. Both the strengths – his joy while riding horses, and the love he has for his family – and his challenges – the fight for the right school and people’s judgement are things that many autistic people and their families can relate to.

We first met with the producers back in 2017 and since then we’ve shared our ideas and thoughts, reviewed scripts, and watched; they were committed to making sure they were representing a truthful experience of autism in their film. Working with producers means that we can help hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people to learn about autism in a different way to our campaigning, and both are equally important. For me, as an autistic child growing up, there weren’t the same examples on television to see – and that was difficult. Without seeing other autistic people that I could relate to, it was sometimes hard for me to understand myself.

This can also be the case for older autistic people, who may have sought a diagnosis in adulthood. We know that many people are autistic without receiving a diagnosis as a child, and that can be really difficult as you struggle to understand your challenges and work around them. In Calm with Horses, Arm, Jack’s dad, reflects on his own childhood, and as the film unravels the audience wonders whether his abusive relationship with the Devers family might have been prevented with the right support earlier in life.

We know that some autistic people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are exploited by unscrupulous people, and this is something to think about as you watch Arm’s relationships throughout the film. We know that more police training and understanding of autism in the criminal justice system is necessary to protect autistic victims of crime.

Please do encourage friends and family to watch the shows and films that we support, and use your experiences to help them learn about autism. It can be a long process to change attitudes and bring different autistic experiences to the screen - we have worked on Calm with Horses since 2017, but we know it’s important work.

TV shows and films alone won’t create a world that works for autistic people – to do that, we need you too! You can find out more about our campaigning work, improving public understanding and creating social change, by signing up to our campaigner updates.