Four Reasons to Watch The A Word

Joe - The A Word

Autism: a simple word sure to cause anxiety in the heart and mind of a parent whose child has just received that diagnosis. Statistics tell us that many parents experience this anxiety every day. But, like everything involving humans, a diagnosis of autism is complicated, and no two children present in the same way. Because of this, many prefer to use the phrase Autism spectrum disorder, which is the name for a group of developmental disorders. This includes a wide range of symptoms, skills, and levels of disability found in children with this diagnosis. In April of every year we mark Autism Awareness Month in order to spread knowledge and understanding of this disorder.

Enter the entertainment media, and you can find multiple examples of portrayals of someone on the autism spectrum: Raymond in the movie Rain Man, Sheldon on TV’s The Big Bang Theory (although it has been stated that his character was not developed with that diagnosis in mind); and then of course real life celebrities that are on the spectrum, including Temple Grandin, the accomplished animal sciences professor who was the subject of an HBO biopic starring Claire Danes.

The A Word, a BBC drama based on “Yellow Peppers” by Keren Margalit, tells the story of a five year old boy named Joe who is diagnosed with autism. It airs on Sundance TV Wednesdays at 10 pm EDT. To date, only two of the six episodes in the first season have aired in the US. As of May 2016, a second season has been approved.

While on the surface this program focuses on Joe and his diagnosis, it actually operates on many other levels as it examines the impact on his extended family and explores the complexity of relationships within the family and the community.


Paul, Alison, Eddie and Maurice - The A Word

One of the hallmarks of autism is a diminished capacity to communicate with others. Bearing in mind what I said above about autism comprising a spectrum, for some children communication is all but impossible, whereas for others their communication skills are the same as their peers. In the case of Joe, they portray his communication as lacking, but he is able to speak and express himself when needed.

The interesting thing, though, is that the peripheral stories about the rest of the family – and there is an extended family present of Joe’s parents, grandfather, teenaged sister, uncle, and aunt – also deal with communication issues. His aunt and uncle have a strained marriage due to previous infidelity. His grandfather is very old school and thus has little patience for modern ways that fall outside his experience of the way things should be done. Joe’s parents definitely do not agree about his diagnosis and what to do for him. And of course his teenaged sister is a typical teen and has all the trappings of that.


Paul, Alison, Eddie, Rebecca, Nicola, Joe and Maurice - The A Word

Through the lens of the shock of Joe’s diagnosis, the family is forced to cope with matters they never imagined. If you have never read it, I encourage you to take the time to read Welcome to Holland by Emily Perl Kingsley. It talks about what it is like to find out your child has autism, and actually also applies to any diagnosis given to your child.

The family dynamic, which was already complex, is made even more so by the diagnosis and decisions made to help him. Watching Joe’s mother at first deny there is anything wrong with her son, and then slowly coming to realize that there is truth in the diagnosis is both compelling and difficult to watch. Likewise Joe’s father has a difficult time accepting the diagnosis, but he becomes proactive in a different direction from his wife, putting them at odds. Joe’s older sister clearly loves her little brother but also shows some resentment. And, his grandfather just wants to know how to “fix his grandson.”


Joe - The A Word

The central character whose diagnosis drives the story, Joe is played by an amazing six year old actor. The other actors talk about him a little in one of the behind the scenes videos found on the Sundance TV website, and this young man has an awesome sense of what he needs to do. If you did not know better, you would think that the actor was actually autistic or had spent a lot of time with autistic children. His character’s on screen experiences are heartbreaking and sobering at the same time, fueled by his riveting portrayal.

Beautiful Scenery

Joe - The A Word

Filmed in the Lake District of England, the scenery is awe inspiring and fearsome at the same time. The majestic mountains are omnipresent, and sometimes their presence reminds us how very small and insignificant we all are. In addition, the background scenery is used to help signal the tone like a soundtrack. Gray mornings, stormy clouds, and sunny vistas all play into the action of the characters.

Beautiful as the setting is, I must admit that as a mother, it scares me to watch Joe walking down the middle of a mountain road with headphones on, oblivious to whatever traffic there might be. Clearly though, this is not the downtown of a large city, so vehicles pass infrequently, but that does not lessen the concern.


Have you been watching The A Word? If you have, I would love to hear what you think about it. If you haven’t, please do watch it and then come back and express your thoughts! I love hearing what you have to say!