What does the drama get right and wrong about autism? As the dad of an ‘autie’, Simon Hattenstone wonders where the laughs are – while his daughter Maya Hattenstone finds a birthday party meltdown all too familiar.
You can’t move for autists on TV these days. If it’s not The Autistic Gardenerletting rip with his floral fireworks, it’s aspiring thesps in Young, Autistic and Stagestruck or detective Saga Norén deadpanning her way through another murder mystery in The Bridge. As Guardian television critic Sam Wollaston wrote recently: autism is the new baking. Auties invariably make good telly because they are brilliant at sums or art or music. And when they’re not being Rainman clever, they are chucking tantrums or ticking away like crazy, or being spectacularly uninhibited.
The A Word is the latest TV programme to tackle autism. It’s a highly watchable drama written by the skilled Peter Bowker about a family coming to terms with five-year-old Joe’s autism. What makes it so watchable is that it is about much more than autism – love, lust, family breakups, rivalries, ageing, death, it’s all there. The A Word is set against the stunning mountainous backdrop of the Lake District, and plays out to a fantastic indie pop soundtrack.
The music is central because it is Joe’s thing. On telly all auties have to have a thing – a gift as it were. Joe’s is that he knows the words, date of release and writer of every song his father has ever listened to. The show opens with Dad throwing him up in the air and asking him: “Who’s a genius?” “I am,” Joe replies. His dad even calls him Mozart. And this is the classic autism trope.
It’s true, lots of autistic people do have obsessions and great recall. But it’s equally true that not all have a photographic memory or Rembrandtian eye for detail. Nor are they all walking calculators.
Take our Maya. She has a condition called pathological demand avoidance syndrome. It’s a fairly obscure form of autism, but is rapidly becoming less so. Children with PDA tend to find all forms of learning difficult so they find ways of avoiding tasks, and become hugely manipulative in the process. Which, to be fair, is a skill in itself.
It would be nice to see an autistic kid in a drama who is not a prodigy. The problem is, though, that makes them less dramatic. What Maya was, and is, brilliant at is heroic struggling. So she struggled through Sats, then through GCSEs, then through A-levels, and finally, magnificently, struggled through a degree against all possible expectations. We couldn’t be more proud of her. At secondary school her headteacher wrote her off. The school discouraged her at every stage from taking exams that would damage its league table averages. Her gift was in her resilience; learning most of her multiplication tables by the time she left, mastering the word spaghetti rather than masketti.