‘Indestructible and I have to be’: How autism affects families in The A Word

Autism is a lifelong disability which affects how people communicate and interact with the world. If you’re autistic or have someone on the autism spectrum in your family, everyday life can be a real challenge. – The National Autistic Society

A door. Turn the key, rotate the mechanism, and clutch the handle. Press down gently and with a little push, its open. A vacuumed breeze wafts over your face as a light sigh and your hair gently rises and falls from the air flow. Two steps forward and you’ve entered a new environment.

Opening a door is a movement that is unthought of in everyday life. To Joe, it is a gesture that is thought out and calculated. It is a ritual that must happen twice before entering any room. Two grasps of the handle, two turns, two wafts of air. He repeats it, and that’s just the way it is for Joe.

Joe Hughes (played by Max Vento) is the main protagonist of Peter Bowker’s very successful BBC One drama, The A Word. Set in the picturesque Lake District, this series depicts the life of Joe who is diagnosed with autism. Every episode during the new season and every season before, has displayed the unpredictability of his life and how his autism affects not only himself, but every individual that surrounds him. Whilst including many comical moments and also tough low points, The A Word shines a light on the world of autism beyond the individual.   

In season 3, we see Joe struggle with changes in relationships after his parents’ divorce, struggle with the change of house and detaching himself from music; a sensory escape that was once treasured. Door opening being one Joe’s earlier rituals from season one, season three illustrates new traits developing that are associated with Joe’s obsessive nature. The A Word not only provides an insight to the struggles of adapting to change for someone with autism, but it also educates the viewer on how this societal minority lives.

Everyone should understand the struggles of autism. Not every individual has come across someone with autism in their life. This is why The A Word is so paramount. It is not just a tv programme about a family. It is showing the difficulties that Joe has coping with everyday life, how it affects him and also the people around him. Watch this series if you want to understand. Watch this series to educate yourself. Watch this series to laugh, cry and everything in-between.

How autism affects families

An Easterseals study calculated that 30% of families with autistic children get a divorce. They stated that “parents of the special needs children were highly concerned with their child’s independence and quality of life, and that they struggled financially and had concerns about their children’s education.”

The affects Joe’s autism has on his surrounding family is undeniable. The most impactful seems to be on his Mum, Alison (played by Morven Christie). Episode one of the new season displays her struggles with mental health from the get go. “You get used to feeling like you failed him,” is the saddening phrasing she uses when speaking to her Dad (played by Christopher Eccleston) about her recent divorce.

Alison’s crippling guilt is coincided with her moving to Manchester for her to gain a degree. Throughout season three she is driving back and forth to the Lake District where Joe stays at the weekends. Anxieties about these new living arrangements are rife, but not something she should be experiencing guilt or a feeling of failure about.  

When new partner, Ben Chambers (played by David Gyasi) comes on the scene, Alison’s love for her son prevails. Despite Ben’s positive relationship with Joe, finding a partner who understands autism is a difficult challenge. But Ben is understanding and engages with Joe well even during times where he is struggling to communicate his feelings.

For Joe’s sister Rebecca, (played by Molly Wright) helping Joe adjust is a constant. With her new baby being a big worry for Joe, Rebecca is seen to be trying to reassure him that there is space for the baby in their family; a concept that Joe finds difficult to comprehend.

Support does not only stem from Joe’s parents and siblings but also his Grandad Morris (played by Christopher Eccleston). It was Morris who uttered the words “indestructible and I have to be”.

Characters in The A Word are not only living for themselves, but their outer shell becomes an impenetrable shield that is helping Joe in every way possible. There is no choice for these people. They’re ‘indestructible’ and they have to be.

Learning disabilities on screen

13.9 million people in the UK have a disability, around 20% of the population. Not many television programmes depict people on the spectrum. The A Word breaks taboos and places people with disabilities centre screen. 

Although seeing people with learning disabilities on television is extremely infrequent, The A Word, whilst being heavily centred around Joe, also has a positive portrayal of people with Downs Syndrome and another person on the Autistic Spectrum.

Ralph, (played by Leon Harrop), challenges any frequent stereotypes of people with down syndrome being different from the rest of society. He has been working at a brewery throughout The A Word and season three displays a build up to his wedding. The emphasis is on the person, not the disability.

We also see Mark (played by Travis George Smith) who displays the variation of the spectrum. The most heart-warming moment in season three is when himself and Joe go on a trip to a local farm together. This trip is calculated, thought out and planned by Joe and Mark. Yet such planning is taken away as “The bus came but not at the right time. It said the right number but wasn’t the right time.”

Despite all the difficulties Joe comes across in life, he is as important as any other member of the family. His family are his network of support. The A Word shows us that autism affects everyone around the individual.

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