The A Word creator Peter Bowker on dramatising autism

"Alison as a character is there to honour all the mothers I met over the years who fought for their children to receive the education, the help, the living conditions to which they were entitled"

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About a week ago, a fan of the show tweeted me to ask if I would settle the argument. Had I written the A Word to entertain or inform? I answered both but it was a long story and too long for Twitter.

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The truth is, that you cannot and should not be writing a drama to inform. If you are writing about a subject purely to inform then you should be writing a documentary. But if you are writing a drama about a subject as sensitive as autism then you should be getting most of the facts right too. I have tried to do that, based on my own experience as a teacher of children with severe learning disabilities, conversations with mates who are still teachers or parents of children on the autism spectrum, talking to the National Autistic Society and Consultants in the field. Although even then I would say there are areas that are so inconsistent throughout the country that it is pretty much an impossible task to get everything right.

“It is in the emotional response to autism that most of the debate around the show has occurred”

But I know this much, that as a dramatist part of my job is to interpret and portray emotional states. I think the best drama is usually plot simple and emotionally complex. I think Happy Valley is a great example of this, as is Line of Duty, as is War and Peace. And it is in the emotional response to autism that most of the debate around the show has occurred, particularly in the contrasting responses of Joe’s mum and dad, Alison and Paul, played with extraordinary passion and nuance by Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby. 

Let me get it out there. I love Alison. I think she is clumsy in her response but who wouldn’t be? I think her response comes from a fierce and important place. I think she is demonstrating that loving your children is not some empty cliche but is mediated through action. And Alison as a character is there to honour all the mothers I met over the years who fought for their children to receive the education, the help, the living conditions to which they were entitled.

“Alison as a character is there to honour all the mothers I met over the years who fought for their children”

And you know what? They weren’t always very nice. Because they couldn’t afford to be nice. Because to speak out in a room full of professionals requires a special kind of determination and bloody mindedness. And she’s complicated. And I love complicated. And drama thrives on complicated. And it is a tribute to Morven Christie’s performance that she manages to convey all that in a look, a smile, a sigh.

And the other thing, I suspect, is that if Joe’s dad was behaving like Alison then, as a man, he would be given an easier time of it. But Joe’s dad isn’t like that, he does what all dads have always done in the history of dads. He makes jokes and buries his head in the sand. He is complicated too. But his complication is funny. And funny makes him forgivable. Looking like Lee Ingleby helps too, of course . . .

But what I love about both of them is that they do not have a fixed response to their circumstances. They do not travel along an emotional straight line. They contradict themselves, they feel Joe should change and then that he shouldn’t. They feel he is perfect but know that he is not. They call him “genius” not because he is a savant but because they are overcompensating for a child they see is struggling. They feel they know best and then know nothing. It is their uncertainty that I feel is important, here. Because the world they find themselves in is one of uncertainty and no right answers.

Before I had written a word, I said that I wanted this show to start to provoke a conversation about autism. And so my wish came true, but what is interesting too is that it has provoked a conversation about character.

The A Word concludes on Tuesday 26th April at 9pm on BBC1


Tom Purser from The National Autistic Society on The A Word

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When your child gets their diagnosis of autism, as we did with our son Charlie, and you sit in the doctor’s office like Alison and Paul did in The A Word, you find yourself suddenly cut adrift from the people around you and their experiences of life, from a future that you, no matter how unreasonably, had mapped out for yourself and your family. What we’ve seen over the six weeks that the brilliant, funny and touching A Word has been on our screens has been what the best TV does – it has connected people to an experience that so many families have to go through alone. 

Diagnosis, and everything that leads up to it, is a confusing and difficult time for every family but conversely one filled with discoveries and steps forward in insight and understanding of the way your child sees the world.  It has been inspiring to see the impact that The A Word has had on a viewing public that might have already been aware of autism but lacked a meaningful understanding of what the word means, how a person with autism experiences the world and how the condition impacts the family that loves and cares for the person.

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Every person with autism and their family lives their own story and there are thousands of other stories out there, all of them different. We’ll miss watching Alison, Paul and, most importantly, Joe and seeing the rest of their story unfold but we are grateful to Morven Christie, Lee Ingleby, Max Vento and Peter Bowker for doing a wonderful and sensitive job of bringing a better understanding of autism to the world.