He talks, he laughs, he looks you in the eye. How can he be autistic? is the question posed by The A Word, a new six-part BBC drama, which follows the way in which five-year old Joe’s dysfunctional family react when he is diagnosed with autism.
Set in the natural beauty of the Lake District, the Hughes family seem to enjoy what is an outwardly idyllic family life. However, at Joe’s fifth birthday party the extended family’s hidden concerns about his ability communicate and interact with others come to the fore. Grandfather, Maurice (Christopher Eccleston), then sparks a series of events which soon leads to the shattering revelation for parents Alison and Paul; that their son has Autism Spectrum Disorder.
It is easy to understand the parents’ reluctance in recognising the full extent of Joe’s problems. His placid demeanour and love of singing make him a particularly endearing five year-old. However Joe is already the outsider at school, the only child in his class not to be invited to a birthday party. ‘If we label him now it’s over’, Alison insists, wanting to protect her son from being ‘different’ for as long as possible.
Not only is the palpable tension between Joe’s parents strikingly apparent, but we can also see the wider effects of his diagnosis, in particular on his older sister Rebecca whose needs take a significant backseat. Rebecca soon finds that only her uncle Eddie will lend a sympathetic ear, although he has his own problems to deal with, in the form of his tumultuous relationship with wife Nicola.
The first episode aired in Autism Awareness Week, and The A Word does a lot to highlight key questions. Lee Ingleby and Morven Christie provide solid performances as Joe’s parents; flawed but well-meaning, they reflect the complications that arise for parents of autistic children. Interspersed with touchingly humorous moments, the multifaceted issues that surround caring for a child with autism are emphasised. The A Word tells an important story impressively well.
Image: Prerana Jangam