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What The A Word gets right about autism and what it gets wrong

When I heard about a new television series centered on one family’s struggle to face their son’s autism diagnosis, I was intrigued. The A Word, a British drama about 6-year-old Joe and his dysfunctional family, is coming to SundanceTV this week, premiering July 13.

My own son was diagnosed with autism when he was almost 10 years old, but besides Parenthood — which NBC canceled last year — I haven’t found any television shows that accurately portray families going through the experience of diagnosing and accepting a child ‘s autism diagnosis, so I was anxious to see how it was handled on the show.

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The six-episode drama follows Joe’s extended family as they begin to realize he is different from the other children at his school. Each episode takes us through the family’s journey to recognize, get a diagnosis for and eventually accept Joe’s autism while struggling with their own personal relationship and career drama.

The show portrays some aspects of raising a child on the spectrum that were painfully familiar to me. My 12-year-old son was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, or Asperger’s, and I found myself nodding along with the portrayal of a child with autism. Just as Joe has some quirky habits, such as being the last person through a door, closing it first, then reopening it to walk through, our son had a habit of running circles in a room to acclimate himself. Our son didn’t really have any friends his own age; neither does Joe. Some adults, however, find Joe delightful, just as they do my son. Joe knows everything about music (the indie pop soundtrack to this show alone is worth a watch). My son can give history lessons that rival those of college professors.

Every episode opens with Joe walking by himself and each time carrying something new. When my son was little, he would carry a set of plastic spoons with him everywhere. Now that he is older, he loves to walk our neighborhood by himself, often finding and carrying something with him. My heart was breaking for both Joe and his mother, Alison, when she noticed all the other children getting invited to a football (soccer) party, but not Joe. When they show up at the same park that the party is taking place and Joe has a meltdown, the judgmental stares from the other parents felt a little too familiar. We didn’t get asked on any playdates when my son was young. Since he has been in school, my son has been invited to only one birthday party and has had one playdate.

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Familiar as well were the emotions the parents went through: convincing yourself your child is normal (gifted, even!) but knowing in your heart that something is wrong; the realization that no matter what anyone says to you, you have to be the one to accept that it’s autism. Paul (Joe’s father) and Alison go through a range of emotions, from denial, anger, blame, guilt, frustration and, finally, forced acceptance.

Some in the autism community in England have deemed The A Word a “standardized, generic portrayal” of autism spectrum disorder. After all, not all ASD children are prodigies with photographic memories or are obsessed with details. I would tend to agree. We’ve seen this portrayal in movies and television shows already. I think there’s a need to see families struggling with children who have more severe cases of autism. There’s a saying that, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism,” meaning that every person with autism has unique characteristics and may not fall into this one standardized category.

Another negative I found in the family portrayal was Paul and Alison’s refusal to even admit that Joe has autism. They didn’t want him labeled by the village people as a “freak.” While I can understand that to some degree, I think most parents of autistic children want their schools, families and friends to know. With the diagnosis comes a better understanding and treatment of autism. Paul and Alison never say the “A-word” in association with Joe until the last episode, when someone else assumes he has it and says as much.

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And yet, in all, I think The A Word is definitely worth watching if you are the parent of an autistic child or if you are someone seeking a better understanding of what these families experience.

It does contain some mature scenes about sexuality, so I personally wouldn’t let children under 13 watch it (unfortunately keeping my ASD child out of the viewing loop).

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