“Let me see now..”
We were introduced to the Hughes family last year when “The A Word” hit our screens and presented autism to UK living rooms. The most compelling aspect of the series, to me, is how real the characters are. Autism documentaries tend to focus on the person on the spectrum and how the family is dealing with the diagnosis. The A Word delves deep into the family unit, together and individually. Each person is portrayed as a person.
When we talk about autism families, we often forget that they are ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Even though the dynamics shift after a diagnosis, and the focus of the family becomes the person on the spectrum, they remain human, vulnerable, and broken.
The A Word maintains the individuality of each character and tells Joe's story through the people who adore him. The best way to understand autism is to get to know the people who live and breathe it every day.
To understand Joe Hughes, you must recognise how difficult it was for his dad, Paul, to discover, accept and embrace the complex feelings that came with the autism diagnosis. Paul is organised chaos. He finds his strength in a shrug and a joke. The beauty of Paul is his unequivocal love for his family, and the fact that he was too busy focusing on his shared interests with his son to consider that he might not be a neurotypical boy.
To love Joe Hughes, you must look at Alison pre- and post-diagnosis; an overachiever, a favourite child, a survivor. Alison is a strong woman. A determined and indefatigable woman who is in control of her life and her family. Joe’s diagnosis, derails this woman, and causes her to do what she thinks she should be doing instead of what she knows she must do. Alison is an empowered example of what it’s like to live with “..a boy [she] thought was one thing and turned out to be another”.
To see Joe through Becky’s eyes is to just see a younger brother, who she wouldn’t change for the world. She is drowned out by autism yet somehow she finds breath through her love for Joe. She speaks to him like a brother, she lies next to him like a sister and she answers his music questions like an autism sibling. She is overshadowed but she oozes silent power. She is taken for granted, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
To accept that Joe cannot be ‘fixed’ you must look at his grandfather. A successful, self-made man who finds the diagnosis hard but doesn’t let that deviate him from his purpose in life, which is making his family safe; even though sometimes his intentions are not evident.
Season two started with an emotional episode which addressed the A word. The truthful and genuine Hughes family may have difficulties communicating with each other but they have no reservations when it comes to Joe. The genius of The A Word lies in the words left unspoken; in the bonds we are introduced to that are stronger than any diagnosis.
The grandfather who knows he is in control when he jokingly asks if anybody has “a big net and a bag of crisps” to coax Joe out of a sticky situation. The mother who cannot sleep because her son used the word ‘autistic’ for the first time. The sister who is impulsive, sensitive and loving all at the same time, and is willing to give up everything for Joe’s happiness. The dad, and his dad jokes, who seeks solutions instead of fixating on problems.
These are the realities of an autism family. The wrong, the right, the fragmented and the different moments that make up our lives and that shape our people on the spectrum.
I hope you will watch both seasons of The A Word and that you will embrace the Hughes as much as I did. It is only with depictions like this that autism will become a subject everyone is comfortable talking about. I hope you will let this boy, who is “half in and half out of this world”, into your world every Tuesday at 9pm and that one day, one world will be enough for all of us.