‘The A Word’, a BBC drama created by Keren Margalit, centres around Joe a young autistic boy and his loving family as they tackle life as an imperfect unit. While the first season focused on parents, Paul (Lee Ingleby) and Alison (Morven Christie), coming to the realisation that their son is different to other children, season two delves deeper into the inner workings of their family as they strive to do right by Joe. More than a series that deals with autistic life, ‘The A word’ is an intricate expression of the complexities that surround interpersonal relationships in the 21st century.
Autism, being a disorder that lies on a spectrum, is necessarily met with controversy each time it is depicted in the media, coverage which is crucial in raising awareness but often disappointing in its treatment. Every experience of autism is different, with manifestations varying massively between individuals, so there is a definite danger of generalisation and stereotyping with any drama that constructs fictional representations. ‘The A Word’ has its faults but succeeds in its exploration of how other family members are affected; of how a condition which involves a difficulty in communicating can lead to a breakdown of communication between those immediately affected.
‘The A Word’ paints a sensitive portrait of a family dealing with the practical realities of life with an autistic child. Joe takes to heights at school, climbing up a ladder at break time to the alarm of parents and students alike, only coming down when his mum and dad skilfully reach out to him. Here we see strains extending beyond the family, to the circle of parents who feel Joe is a disruptive addition to the school. In response to fears and complaints, Alison and Joe rightly speak out and defend their son to dissuade the local community from intolerance and misunderstanding. Alison goes as far as to say it is a privilege to have a boy like Joe in their midst, to teach the others that not everyone sees the world in the same way. As a reflection of a society in which one in five children with autism have been excluded, ‘The A Word’ provides a poignant snapshot of the great and very real pressures created by public attitudes towards autism.
The present-day parenting of Joe is captured alongside anxieties that come with the hypothetical paths that Alison, and particularly Paul, can’t help but project for him in a world that he may not always understand, and more painfully, may not always understand him. Mark, a 16-year-old also with autism, comes into the family’s life through a support group, and in him, Paul sees Joe’s future, one of burden without possibility. Paul’s disillusionment surrounding his son and his marriage mounts throughout the series, with optimism fading in the latest episode as the strains on Paul and Alison intensify to the point of rupture.
Choked and crumbling at the school play, Alison can hardly keep it together and everything seems precarious until Joe’s performance. Throughout the series, Joe physically positions his family members side by side in a touching attempt to communicate his desire for them to stay together – turning his back on the audience, he performs purely for them, the people who matter most. In a frightful moment, Joe’s grandfather collapses on stage. We next encounter him in hospital, jovial and understated. Deftly written by Peter Bowker, ‘The A Word’ comfortably navigates the uncomfortable, puncturing potentially tragic scenes with comedy, expertly delivered by Christopher Eccleston in his role as a somewhat socially inept grandfather.
Ending on a bittersweet note, with Alison and her children sat side by side on the camper van as Paul detachedly looks on, ‘The A Word’ leaves us uncertain as to what state the family will be in by next series. All we are left with is the knowledge that Joe is their ‘North star’, an undeniable part of the family who will hopefully act as a uniting and not a divisive point, around which they all revolve and move forward.