The A Word is a BBC1 family drama with a difference. Set in the idyllic Lake District, the six-part series follows the extended Hughes clan, as they discover their youngest, smart and musical 5-year-old Joe, is autistic. It’s a subject matter that is sure to strike a chord with thousands of British families. But is it authentic?
We caught up with Anna Kennedy OBE – autism ambassador, The People’s Strictly finalist and mum to Angelo and Patrick, two boys on the autism spectrum – to find out what watching The A Word felt like for her…
“It was like an explosion going off in my head”
The reactions of family, friends and classmates in The A Word felt authentic to Kennedy: “Angelo never had an invite to a party until he started at the school I set up”.
But it was the hospital trip when the emotion of the drama really “kicked in,” she says, speaking about the confusion, the denial and the desire to help your child complete assessments: “I could relate to that.”
The subsequent reaction too felt true to life. “There was one scene when they were driving home and the mum, Alison, turned around to Joe (Max Vento) as if to see, does he still look the same now he’s got a diagnosis?”
“There are all these thoughts going around in your head,” adds Kennedy. “For me, it was like an explosion going off in my head. I didn’t really know what autism was. No one had sat down with me and said, ‘This is what it is.’
“I was thinking, ‘Is it a disease?’, ‘How long has he got to live?’ It’s almost like you go through a bereavement. My husband Sean went through a period of denial. I remember when we were both told he went up to bed and pulled the blanket over his head, like it wasn’t happening.”
Another moment that stuck out for Anna was “Joe’s gaze, when he’s sort of looking into nothingness. It reminded me of Angelo. Angelo passed all the milestones – he could speak, use eye contact – but then he lost everything. It was cruel, almost like someone came and took it all away.”
Autism campaigner and People’s Strictly star Anna Kennedy
“The impact a diagnosis has on a sibling can be significant”
She’s keen now to see how the family’s journey pans out over the remaining episodes. Especially for Joe’s sister Rebecca: “A lot of parents talk about how the impact a diagnosis has on a sibling can be quite significant.”
As for mum Alison, played by Morven Christie: “You have to learn to be tough. You’ve got to get some body armour on. I used to be quite quiet but I found a voice through my sons.”
But she’s also interested in the support the fictional family are offered. She wouldn’t want to The A Word to be all “doom and gloom” because “there is a lot of light at the end of the tunnel.”
“Autism is not one size fits all”
The process of autism diagnosis is “a real minefield,” Kennedy says.
“The consultant comes out with all this jargon when you’ve just been told that your child has been diagnosed with autism. It’s almost like you’ve got to learn a different language, the terminology and hidden meanings in certain documents. You’ve really got to look closely at the wording or the rug can really be pulled from under you.”
“If Joe’s parents don’t know the system they won’t get the right type of support that they need. Each child is different and each child with autism is different – that’s why it’s called a spectrum. It’s not one size fits all,” adds Anna.
Not all autistic children have a “special talent”
Her one gripe with the drama so far is also the biggest misconception people have about autism, Kennedy says: “That they’ve all got a special talent. That really gets on my nerves.
“People ask, ‘Oh what special talent has he got? Is he good at maths?’ But they don’t all have this special talent. They’re not all savants. Only 5% of the autistic population have got these specific talents.”
“No one ever seems to focus on children who are profoundly autistic, who have no speech, ticks and significant behaviours. But I don’t know if you could actually get a child to play that sort of character,” she says.
Dramas like this are never going to please everyone. The best the BBC can do is ensure everything is thoroughly researched and realistic as possible, says Kennedy. But, that considered, having autism on primetime TV can only be a good thing.
“Obviously raising awareness about autism is great because there are more and more children being diagnosed – I believe it’s 1 in 64 now – and early intervention for children with autism is really key. If you get a child diagnosed as early as possible, and the right support systems are in place as early as possible, the outcomes can be absolutely fantastic.”
Anna Kennedy OBE runs a charity and founded a number of schools for students with autism after her own children were turned away from mainstream eduction. She’s currently working on annual event Autism’s Got Talent. Find out more at annakennedyonline.com