Review – The A Word (Episode 1)

The A Word: Episode 1


New BBC drama ‘The A Word’ focuses on Joe Hughes, his new diagnosis of autism, and how his family react to it.

It’s quite difficult for me to review a drama like this because the only part of it I am interested in really is the autism part – dramas really aren’t my preference when I do get around to watching television. I’m also not sure what really is involved in good drama so it’s difficult to give my opinion on that side of things, so I just won’t.

So then, looking at the autism side of things in this drama, is it any good? Well, I came away deciding that I would definitely be watching the second episode so it must have done something right. I have seen reviews complain that it focuses largely on the family drama and less on the autism, which is absolutely true. However, I am giving the show the benefit of the doubt in terms of that focus being necessary to set the scene of the first episode.

Max Vento does a brilliant job as Joe Hughes, there’s no doubt about that. He portrayed Joe’s love of music and how important it is to him so well, and he didn’t overplay the part and end up making Joe into a caricature. When you consider that he’s six years old, that makes his portrayal even better. Whilst there is the fact that they gave Joe a savant-esque skill in his lyrics/years/artist recall of songs, I take comfort in the fact that at least it wasn’t another portrayal of maths (though, to be fair, I did really enjoy the film x + y). They also showed Joe’s attempts to escape from overwhelming situations very well, whether escaping into his music and headphones, or attempting to run away until he was essentially cornered at which point he felt his only option was to lash out.

The episode does focus largely on the disbelief and subsequent shock of the family in finding out that Joe is autistic, and yes there are a lot of things said that do not fall in line with a view of autism acceptance, but again this is not necessarily a sign that the mini-series will be bad. I know the general tone on the internet can at times be “parents should embrace autism, it’s a difference not a disability, why are parents upset to find out their child is autistic”, but I think the reaction in this episode is quite realistic. People do not generally know a lot about things that do not affect their lives. I know more about autism than a lot of people, but that’s because I am autistic and I work and study in the field of special educational needs. I do not, however, know very much about eating disorders or Parkinsons or biochemistry or 18th century literature because it isn’t important to me. So people, in general, only know a bit about autism. If those people were then told that their child was autistic, they would probably only have limited information to call upon to form an opinion – and sadly additional support from professionals this early in the diagnostic process can be limited as well.

So I remain hopeful that this series will build on this start, and over the 5 remaining episodes we will witness the family coming to terms with and learning more about autism and accepting Joe for who he is. The BBC have produced some high quality programs over the years and since they did consult with The National Autistic Society (who have a generally much more accepting approach to autism than the US’s Autism Speaks), I hope they continue that trend with this series.

Is it worth watching?

I would say yes – it is more aimed at non-autistic people than autistic people but Max Vento is a superstar at just six years old in his portrayal of Joe Hughes.

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