The A Word: Season 2, Episode 1
There’s a lot of change in this episode as the whole family struggle to cope with the transition to Joe’s new school, none more-so than Joe himself although dad, Paul, is a close second whilst Maurice learns something about Louise that leaves him with a lot of thinking to do.
Joe is off to his new school. Many people on Twitter have pointed out that getting your autistic child into a specialist provision so quickly is almost unheard of. Which is true, but ultimately I’d give the BBC a pass for that one because if they adhered to real-life timescales then Joe would be about twelve before he was placed in a provision that was right for him! They don’t have transport though and Allison and Paul plan to drive to and from Manchester each day with him. On the first day, Joe is completely dysregulated by being out of his normal routine and Allison – after a moment where you think she might slip back into her Season 1 persona – takes a breath and tells Paul they need to let him have at least some of his routine. Which helps a bit but Joe still struggles.
Just one thing, it’s not the way to school. It’s not the way to my school.
At the autism provision, a new side of Paul that the audience has been given glimpses at in the past emerges. He is visibly uncomfortable in the presence of other autistic children, possibly uncomfortable around autistic people in general given how he has struggled to interact with Mark in the first episode. Him and Allison seemed to have swapped roles in some ways and he’s struggling with not being the cool, accepting dad anymore. He struggles to cope with the different children in the provision (including a young man who runs out of the classroom) and with the autism friendly environment that includes visual supports.
There were kids more autistic than him in there.
He’s not gonna starting copying other kids Paul, he’s got his own rituals to be getting on with.
So when Joe talks about going back to his old school, Paul is quick to jump onto that idea and tells Allison that since it’s only the first day they can change their mind. Allison holds resolute though and she continues to make the daily trip to Manchester with Joe. We witness a near melt-down when Joe wants a song that played on the radio to be repeated which leads to us seeing a very child-centred approach from the teachers in the provision, getting Joe’s special interest in music involved in a repetitive activity designed to help him self-regulate.
Paul’s confusion and discomfort is demonstrated again later in the episode when he witnesses Mark having a meltdown that includes echolalia (“Mark is not okay, Mark is not okay”) and self-injurious behaviour (smashing his own body into the walls of his house). Paul’s intense negativity about the autism provision and his response to Mark’s meltdown all build on this idea that Paul is no longer as positive about autism as he made himself out to be in previous episodes.
Elsewhere Maurice and Louise have a confrontation when Maurice hires Ralph, going against Louise’s wishes. This leads to a very important conversation with Eddie where Maurice talks about how he can’t fire Ralph because Louise asked him not to, and Eddie asks if Maurice spoke to the parents of other candidates to find out what their mums wanted. It’s an important point that is reflected in our society – Ralph is a grown man who wants to work, if he is the best candidate for the job then he deserves that job as much as anyone else and it’s not even his parent’s right to unnecessarily take away his autonomy. It wouldn’t happen to an adult without Downs Syndrome, so it shouldn’t happen to him.
A later reconciliation between Maurice and Louise is short-lived when she panics and tells him that she didn’t mean to lead him on and asks him to leave. Then comes the big reveal – Louise has found a lump in her breast and it’s cancerous. This is something that no doubt feeds into a great fear of so many parents who have a disabled child (used in the relation sense, not age); what will happen to them once I’m gone? Maurice wants to help and doesn’t know how so he kind of blunders in in a way that shows that he cares and it’s quite messy but it works…for now.
Finally, Nicola and Eddie are pushing hard to get rid of Vincent – up to and including Eddie taking him out and getting him drunk. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be working to get rid of him as he insists he will be staying until he gets Eddie and Nicola back together.
I’ll kill my dad if he stays one more night with me, then I’ll go to prison and Emily will be raised without a mother.
Then his plans, and Nicola’s hopeful wondering about a reunion, are scuppered when Eddie reveals that he’s seeing someone else.
A lot happens in this episode – far more than I’ve even covered here – and there’s a lot to dig into. There’s still clumsy and inaccurate language (such as when Allison explains the spiky profile as “autistic in some ways but not in others”) and this continues to be a point of argument on some social media pages but I forgive it somewhat as I find it comes across as quite realistic of how people stumble through trying to learn as much as possible and sometimes don;t get things right or understand everything straight away.
I also really enjoy the fact that Joe represents the somewhat neglected “middle” of the spectrum that so often gets overlooked. Of course there isn’t really a middle because autism isn’t a linear spectrum but, as I just pointed out above, sometimes it’s difficult to know what the right words are to use. Often media depictions of autism fall into the classic, Kanner’s autism portrayals or they come down on the side of things like The Accountant with very little exploration of the in-between. Joe is verbal but it’s not always robust, he has strong rituals and a need for routine, and he uses echolalia as a key component of his communication. These are things that aren’t always seen on television and, much like a scene in Atypical did, the inclusion of Mark’s meltdown is an important reminder that just because you grow up and become an adult, doesn’t mean that things like meltdowns necessarily go away.
I hope this keeps getting better.