The A Word

I was going to write about the show the night after it aired, I decided against doing so because I thought the post would be nothing but an angry rant. I really didn’t like the first episode and the ending in particular infuriated me beyond words. The other reason for waiting was to give it more of a chance, the hope it may redeem itself somewhat with the second episode. That didn’t happen which was to be expected really but I hope at least the fact I’ve waited a few days to write it will make this post a little more coherent. I’m probably being a little hopeful on that count I have to admit.

I have to say I didn’t have any great hopes for this show for a few reasons, first of all autism is a complex issue, not something I was sure could be adequately dealt with in just six episodes. Secondly and more importantly the makers of the show were advised by the National Autistic Society. Upon finding that piece of information out I had a feeling it would turn out to be a propaganda piece essentially. The writers claim their purpose was to inform people about autism, to dispel myths and stereotypes and to show the reality of living with autism. If they wanted to do that they should have got their advice from somewhere else. You can’t help but see the digs at people who don’t see things as they do, the none too subtle remarks about needing to trust professionals, the negative comments about home education and the ridiculous depiction of ABA. I know the latter is a very divisive topic, it’s not something I have any vested interested in defending. I don’t have any views on it one way or the other. But if a show chooses to depict it (especially one mainly about autism) then they should do it right. I can’t help but wonder if they decided to show it in such a poor way because of the advice they got from the NAS.

As for the home education comments, now that did make me angry. Because professionals always know best don’t they, they know better what a child needs better than their parents. You mean the same professionals who usually deny there is a problem to begin with, who try to deny your child access to services they need and who are obsessed with a child learning to act “normal.” Not to mention their insistence that keeping them in mainstream school is the most important thing. In the doctor’s words “Social isolation is not a cure for social isolation.” Home education doesn’t mean social isolation, for some people leaving mainstream school or school all together can mean getting to have friends for the first time ever. Eleven years of mainstream school for my brother yielded precisely one friend and even then it was more a case of misfits sticking together rather than a true friendship. It was only going to a school with autism provision that enabled him to be part of a friendship group for the first time in his life. He doesn’t seem to get it, being at a mainstream school can and often is more socially isolating than not going to school at all.

Their digs at parents who choose to home school their autistic children is not acceptable at all, neither is implying they do so as a way of not engaging with professionals. But then what else would you expect? I think if the show had asked parents of an autistic child who had no ties to such an organization the show would be very different. It’s not as if they can show the reality of the situation, because doing so would make the government and certain charities look very bad indeed. If they showed how schools discriminate against autistic children, how they brush off parents concerns and not only refuse to engage with the diagnostic process but sometimes actively try to sabotage it and even worse is the behaviour of the education authorities. And that’s before you even get to how hard it can be to get such referrals, it’s certainly nothing like the speedy process it’s made out to be in the show.

As for showing the reality of autism I don’t think the show does a great job of that either. I understand that the portrayal of autism won’t be one familiar to everyone, I get that everyone has different experiences. In one way I see what they’re trying to do, showing that autistic children don’t always have violent meltdowns and they don’t all display extreme challenging behaviour. If that was done right I wouldn’t have an objections. On a similar note I’m happy they haven’t gone with a stereotypical special interest either like trains. The problem with Joe’s behaviour is they’re passing that off as a meltdown. The show’s creators claimed they wanted to raise awareness of autism yet all they’re doing is spreading more misinformation. People who know nothing about autism are going to be watching this thinking that doesn’t look so difficult, what are you all complaining about. Truth is it was more of a tantrum than a meltdown. What’s wrong with it is that Joe was fine when he got his music back. For one thing I’m surprised he didn’t resist when they took if off him. Also it’s too neat and perfect, and resolved far too easily. A meltdown won’t stop because you gave them what they want. It just doesn’t work that way. So congratulations to the writers, you just made a kid with autism look like a spoiled and over-indulged brat. What was that about challenging misconceptions again? If they had somehow explained it better maybe, that some kids have shutdowns as opposed to meltdowns then it might have worked a little better.

I think the writers are a little confused to be honest, they want to show the realities of living with autism yet at the same time they seem to be attempting to make it palatable for a mainstream audience. You can’t show the reality of it whilst at the same time softening it somewhat in case the “normals” get too uncomfortable.

One of biggest problems with the show is his parents reactions, in particular his mother. In the second episode she was accused of being ashamed of Joe and of course she denied it. I think she is though and whilst I’ve been trying not to judge too harshly any sympathy I had evaporated in the second episode when she lied about the reasons for taking Joe out of school. She came up with some story about him being gifted and talented and being part of a pilot program. Now I didn’t expect her to talk about his diagnosis or anything relating to that. But the particular lie she told really bothered me. Partly because some people don’t seem to understand that a person can be autistic (or have other disabilities) and still be gifted. The presence of one doesn’t preclude the other.

Another scene which made me really not like her was when her husband tried to make a point about how Joe feels when you take his music away. He tried to stop her from drinking wine to make his point. She responded angrily and said that she’s not the one who’s locked in her own world and she’s not the one who has to change her behaviour. All the time their teenage daughter is in the background yet again going ignored and unnoticed. That line was very ironic to me because she absolutely does need to change her behaviour.

For one thing the way she went about deciding to home school Joe was ridiculous. She hadn’t even considered any other options, refused to even think about special schools and for all the reading she’s doing online you think by now she would have realised he can get help in mainstream school if that’s the way they decide to go. The way it was written feels like a none too subtle attempt to criticize people who do home educate their kids. It’s absurd to suggest that someone would just pull their kid out of school like that, let alone one with special needs. That they wouldn’t have a plan and have thought all the options through. Whilst I’m on the subject her line about what’s Joe going to learn from the kids in a special school because they’re autistic, that was really out of line. Like she’s worried he’ll learn how to be more autistic by being around other autistic kids. If that were true then he’d learn how to be NT by being around them. I don’t know what kind of school is right for him, I don’t think you can answer that question with what little information we have about him, not to mention the fact he’s fictional. But being around other kids who have special needs may not be the worst thing in the world for him. He may find an acceptance he’s never found before. He won’t be the odd one out that’s for sure. Like the situation in the first episode where he wasn’t invited to a birthday party, that won’t happen anymore, he’d have a peer group.

There’s other aspects of her behaviour which are problematic too, she’s only thinking of herself, rarely does she seem to consider how her son feels. The end of the first episode angered me in this regard, her refusal to say that he’s autistic. But yet she says it when it suits her. Their confusion about how to refer to his diagnosis isn’t entirely their fault though. Part of it lies at the door of the doctor they saw. I really did not like them. All their woolly talk about being “on the spectrum” and how we don’t say autism anymore. Really, says who? Who the hell are you to decide that? Do you have autism or have an autistic child, if you don’t then you’re not part of making such a decision. You don’t have to live with it then you don’t get to decide what to call it. I have to say I don’t understand this fixation with not calling it autism. I didn’t see the need to say ASD instead of autism and I really don’t like the term ASC which I’ve seen used online, never in real life though, only online. I liked it even less when I came across a so called professional online saying that in their opinion young people prefer ASC. Two points, even if that was true, that’s just the opinion of those people in question. Secondly it’s never been the view of anyone I’ve ever encountered. And I’m talking about autistic people, parents and professionals. I don’t like the way ASC sounds and whilst I’m not keen on ASD either it’s the lesser of the two evils. I don’t mind the term disorder, after all an autistic person’s development is by nature “disordered.” That is they develop in a way different to the norm, so the term disorder actually makes a lot of sense to me and I don’t find it bothersome or offensive. My only problem with the term is a tendency for other people to see it as “not real autism” or for it to mean that a person is mildly autistic. Look at that, I said I wasn’t going to rant, I didn’t keep that promise for long. I was always being overly hopeful in that regard.

Back to the point, the other main criticism I have of the show is that it’s about autism but not about Joe as a character and as a person. It’s almost as if he doesn’t matter, he’s certainly not given the same attention as the other characters which is odd considering he’s at the center of the drama unfolding. You never see his parents interacting with him, only them reacting to his behaviour. They’re showing him as a problem to contend with, not a person in his own right. He’s just there in the background. No thought seems to have been given to how he feels about anything, it’s all very autism specific. That is they use him to display a particular trait of autism and then just forget about him. The writers either seem to have forgotten or just not realised that whilst he is autistic he’s also a five year old boy. Just like everyone else he has a personality and likes and dislikes. It’s all about how him being autistic affects his parents and everyone else, not much thought has been shown as to how it affects him. I don’t even feel like we know that much about him. There’s so much they’ve just left uncovered. A fact which may have something to do with their many needless sub plots. I read some comments online to the effect that the sub plots are required because a show all about autism would be boring to most people. If people want to watch a soap opera then they can watch one, this wasn’t meant to be like that. We know nothing about Joe at school, only that he doesn’t play with the other kids. We found that out when his mother went there to spy on him. What about the rest of the day? At home he’s always listening to music, yet he survives a whole day at school without it. How do they get him out of the house without his iPod or tablet, seeing as how he’s so obsessed with them? And how much can he talk, because at the assessment his mother said he was chatty and he has a great sense of humor. We certainly haven’t seen any evidence of that, maybe because of course it’s not there. It may be a lie she told to make herself feel better. Or maybe it’s because they don’t show any normal everyday things with Joe, they don’t show his parents interacting with him that much, just the difficult stuff.

Despite how angry it makes me I have to keep watching it, not least because I have to finish what I’ve started. When I mentioned to my mother about the show she pleaded with me not to watch it, without reading a single thing about it she knew it would infuriate me. At least writing about it on here means she’s spared yet another angry rant.

2 responses to “The A Word

  1. I agree. I think the premise of the show is a good idea. But use real life people who have experienced life on the spectrum and before/during the diagnosis period. I’m holding onto my review until all 6 episodes have aired and I can give a complete review. I love Joe’s sister though. “Hes Joe always has been Joe why wouldn’t we want him to be Joe” that line made me happy because she seems to get it

    • That is a good line, I think out of all of them his sister is probably handling it best. She’s certainly the least annoying out of them all.

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