A Look at BBC One’s The A Word and autism spectrum disorder on Film and TV.
If you have no personal experience of autism spectrum disorder, you’d be forgiven for believing that everyone with the condition has a phenomenal IQ and exceptional memory. Some autistic people do, but for many the depictions of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, on the silver screen have led to a misunderstanding of the complexity of the condition.
More than 700,000 people in the UK are on the autism spectrum and their experience is depicted through a narrow cinematic lens. Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) in Rain Man has an incredible ability to solve complex mathematical problems and can memorise a deck of cards. Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) in The Accountant can quickly calculate discrepancies in financial accounts. Nathan Ellis (Asa Butterfield) in British film X+Y is a teenager competing in an international mathematics competition.
These portrayals aren’t necessarily inaccurate, but they show a small part of a vast spectrum. The theme is undeniable. While every individual is affected differently, Tom Purser, Head of Campaigns for the National Autistic Society, or NAS, highlights the common difficulties experienced by individuals with ASD: “Autistic people can experience sensory information differently. Often that can be sensory overload; sounds, light, smells, touch, so it can be a big challenge in public places. Autistic people also need more time to process verbal information, so that can be why they find communication difficult. (They) tend to prefer and rely on routine as a way of dealing with the world, so when there is unexpected change that can cause some anxiety. The other anxiety is around social interaction”.
Films have frequently failed to capture this condition in a way that feels authentic for many people on the autistic spectrum and their families, but for Tom the reason is clear. “To get a diagnosis (of ASD) you have to display almost all of the behaviours all the time… there’s never a time when those behaviours exist in isolation to one another”. He uses the example of a director telling their actor, ‘at this point they will do this bit of autism’. He continues, “It can be difficult, I think, to say something universal about autism in a fictional setting”.
Screen has the power to offer what is often the sole insight into disability for those unaffected, and so providing a relatable picture of autism is crucial. Recent television has taken on the challenge, presenting a variety of new faces and different individuals with ASD. The image of the mathematical savant is beginning to make way for a more broadly recognised experience.
Jules Robertson, actor and son of novelist Kathy Lette, was cast in Holby City last year. Jules has Asperger syndrome, part of the autism spectrum where those diagnosed have typically developed language normally and often have average or above average IQ, and he made his screen debut as Jason Haynes, a character with autism. With an overwhelmingly positive public response, his character has become a more regular fixture in the show. For Jules, this is a big opportunity not only for him but for the autistic community. “It’s been wonderful playing someone who is so unique… he entertains the audience with his lovely sense of dry humour. I hope by playing Jason with humour and warmth it will help take the stigma out of autism”.
Jules agrees that Hollywood has created an unrealistic stereotype. “There’s such a pressure on autistic people to be geniuses. If I were a genius I’d be able to act normal. They always show autistic people to have no emotion. I have autism and I love emotion… although sometimes I’m not good at reading them in other people, but I am keen to learn”.
In addition to Holby City’s recent casting, the first series of screenwriter Peter Bowker’s The A Word, which aired on BBC One in Spring 2016, was well received for its depiction of a five-year-old autistic boy who, crucially, was struggling academically and having difficulty socialising. Starring Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby as parents Alison and Paul, the show has young Joe (Max Vento) at its heart, a boy who locks himself into a world of music with big headphones and finds it difficult to connect with his family and the world around him.
When asked what inspired him to write the character of Joe, Bowker explained that he wanted to portray autism as it is most commonly experienced. “There’s a huge band within the middle of the spectrum that doesn’t get written about but it’s probably the most typical of neuro atypical children. It’s a hidden disability to a large extent”.
For Bowker, it was important that Joe wouldn’t be another Rain Man figure. “Understandably that end of autism has been overrepresented in fiction because it gives you something rather fascinating to work with”, he explains, “I wanted to avoid that. So many parents say to me ‘what’s (Joe’s) gift?’ Apart from a capacity to remember the obscure writers of 1970s pop songs… I deliberately avoided that”.
Instead of a ‘gift’, Joe has a special interest; he knows all the words to a vast number of pop tunes, including the artist and year of release. Tom Purser from the NAS explains that many autistic people immerse themselves in an interest. “This comes from not really wanting to engage with the social world… they’d rather be focused on what their interests are. It’s also a making sense of the world”.
Television is increasingly showing how autistic people use their interests to connect with a world that they often feel excluded from. For a person on the autism spectrum, things like music, books and films are comforting as they are the same every time; they’re a reassuringly predictable way of making sense of the world that, crucially, do not discriminate. While Joe has his music, Sam (Keir Gilchrist) in the recent Netflix series Atypical has a fascination with the Antarctic, specifically its penguins. A high functioning autistic teenager, Sam often draws parallels between human interaction and the behaviours he keenly observes in the animal kingdom.
Unlike film, television shows also have the time to explore the impact of disability on the family and how daily life is affected. While Atypical looks at the relationship of Sam’s parents and the aspirations of his track star sister Casey (Brigette Lundy-Paine), The A Word shows a family who uses humour to distance their problems. “Fundamentally it’s a drama about a family that can’t communicate and at the heart is a child that can’t communicate”, says Bowker.
New challenges arise as a child with autism grows ups, and the television format is able to facilitate a continuation of a story and the depiction of altering family dynamics as an autistic child faces new experiences. In The A Word’s second series Joe is now seven. “Alison is handling the whole thing a lot better”, Bowker shares. “She’s got strategies… the balance shifts in the relationship so that Paul is finding he can’t quite get as comfortable as he was around his son”.
So, what more can be done to build on the positive steps that recent television has made? “I actually think that what’s missing is a proliferation of representation”, says Tom Purser from the NAS. “With something like autism which is complex… the only way to build up an accurate picture of autism is by having many different representations and including females, people of colour and by looking at all the different experiences of autistic people”. Women, he explains, are better at socially masking their autism and are often diagnosed later in life, which goes some way to explain the lack of female autistic characters on screen.
For Jules Robertson, it’s more about casting individuals with autism to play autistic characters. “In times to come, people will look back at neurotypical people playing autistic characters as being just as embarrassing and naff as white people blacking up to play Othello when there are so many good black actors”, he explains, adding “we should stop showing autistic people as victims all the time and celebrate our humour”.
Peter Bowker believes that the answer lies not only in the on-screen depiction of autism but the opportunities shows like The A Word can offer people with autism and other disabilities. Throughout the show’s first series Gerard Groves, a young filmmaker on the autism spectrum, created a series of short online films connected to the show. For the second series, Bowker promises “a double act that is to die for” between the character Ralph, played by Leon Harrop, an actor with Down’s syndrome, and Christopher Eccleston’s Maurice. He also reveals that a teenage actor on the autism spectrum named Travis will play the new character Mark.
“In this second series there was one moment where the entire episode is driven by a teenager with autism, a young man with Downs and a seven-year-old with autism. The entire story of the entire episode is driven by those characters. This is a 9 o’ clock mainstream show. I think we should all be proud of that”.
You can visit the NAS website for information and support here: http://www.autism.org.uk/