I really don’t know what I’d do with Joe Hughes if I were his parent. The boy at the centre of The A Word (BBC One, 9pm, Tuesdays) has autism. The writer could have pussyfooted around the issue, casting him as shy but retiring. Instead Peter Bowker has written scenes that make you want to tear your hair out.
In episode two Paul Hughes, Joe’s dad, tries to make him go five minutes without listening to music. Ten seconds in and the wee boy is kicking his heels. Twenty seconds and he’s looking for something to fill the silence. Thirty seconds and he’s got the radio on at full volume. Dad tears the plug out of the socket. Joe goes mad, throwing himself about screaming. So the radio goes back on and dad croons him back to Earth. It’s heartbreaking. What can you do when a child won’t respond to discipline or reason? The cliched answer is to show love, but it’s plain that Paul suspects he’s simply surrendering.
The middle-class setting of The A Word is rather twee, as per the BBC’s recent turn towards bourgeois drama. Nor does it justify being six episodes of an hour each (what do they think this is: Netflix?), while the subplots involving extended family (grandfather played by Christopher Eccleston) are superfluous. But this is the first drama in memory to tackle autism and it does so with considerable courage.
In our righteous desire to give a voice to the disabled we sometimes risk perpetrating a myth that “their lives are dandy, we just need to show a little patience”.
In reality it’s often damned hard to raise a disabled child. “You’re not going to have the relationship with your son that you expected,” a doctor and friend tells Joe’s mother. “And you have to grieve for that.”
But what does that mean? Half the anguish must come from being surrounded by experts who ask questions, take notes, posit theories – but never actually give answers for something that, ultimately, you can’t really do anything about.
The child is socially isolated, but so, too, is the parent. It is the simplest thing to have a son or a daughter, yet the bravest, as well. We don’t pause often enough to acknowledge that.