In The A Word episode 2, the Hughes family’s attempts at dealing with 5-year old Joe’s autism show that Joe is not alone in having problems with communication.
In episode 1, we saw the Hughes family going through the difficult process of realisation and diagnosis regarding Joe’s behaviour and his place on the autistic spectrum. This week, the family sets about dealing with the situation, and it does not go well.
With not a moment’s reflection, and having watched a few Youtube videos, mum Alison becomes a self-appointed expert on autism and decides to remove Joe from school. Roping in the rest of the family to fill in her “Joe Rota”, she’s determined to protect her son. But is this really the way to go about it? And is she being honest about her motives?
This episode is all about communication, or more specifically, what happens when communication breaks down. And this is certainly not isolated to Joe; it’s manifest in everyone around him. Joe’s mum and dad, Alison and Paul , and sister Rebecca have very different approaches to Joe, and the fracturing of the family’s relationships is hard to bear for them and us as viewers.
While Alison obsesses over her “Joe Rota” and trying to find an expert who can debunk Joe’s diagnosis, Paul goes off alone to see what a school specialising in educating kids on the Autistic spectrum can offer and is moved (as are we) by what he finds there. Joe’s sister Rebecca – completely ignored and forgotten because of her family’s preoccupation with Joe – just accepts that Joe is Joe. The relationship between brother and sister is a quietly lovely thing in the midst of the adult angst surrounding them.
Having their own problems with communication are Eddie and Nicola. Already struggling with their attempt at giving their marriage a fresh start, their relationship is put under more strain as Nicola agrees to Alison’s request for her to see ex-lover Michael about Joe’s diagnosis. Nicola’s meeting with Michael raises questions about truth and lies in relationships. Is it better to tell the truth and risk hurt, or to tell a lie to protect someone you love? Is Eddie being weak in telling Nicola to meet her ex-lover? Is she wrong to be honest and admit that she still has feelings for Michael? The truth is that, despite going armed with red lipstick, Nicola walked away from Michael and back to husband Eddie. The only question remaining is why she took so long to come back home.
Providing some much needed light relief is Christopher Eccleston as granddad Maurice. Having his own communication problems with music teacher Louise, whose sexual advances he rejected last week, he deals with it in his own unique way, by quite literally running away. Pursued by Louise, he’s soon stopped in his tracks and left questioning if rejecting her was the right thing to do. These two could definitely do with their own spin-off show about middle-aged dating.
Maurice also manages to bring his own particular approach to the “Joe Rota”. When Alison finds him supping a pint outside the local pub with Joe in tow (“social skills!”) he’s unceremoniously sacked. And that’s on day one.
Eccleston, Vinette Robinson (Nicola) and little Max Vento (Joe) continue to excel (Vento in director Peter Cattaneo’s hands is extraordinary), and this week the rest of the cast get a chance to shine, particularly Morven Christie and Lee Ingleby as a couple falling apart under the weight of their problems, which are not confined to Joe.
As the relationships around him unravel, there’s an increased focus on the little boy at the centre of, but separate from, the family. Joe has been perfectly fine in his world of music and now we see the effect on him of other people’s reactions to his diagnosis. It’s interesting that the people around Joe who deal with him best (notably Rebecca and family friend Mya) are those who are not filled with angst about his autism.
We see Joe’s complete inability to veer away from his habitual behaviour. Paul tries to turn his music off for ten minutes. “How hard can it be? It’s ten mintes” he asks before his uncomprehending son has a meltdown. The saddest moment in this episode is Joe’s simple desire to go to school. Despite his mother’s passionate (unreasonable?) need to protect him, Joe is just a little boy who wants to do what he usually does. This is so beautifully written and acted, it could break the hardest heart.
In a small but significant scene, Alison and Nicola challenge each other over Joe’s diagnosis and Michael’s assessment of it. “I’m not sure social isolation is the cure for social isolation, ” Nicola tells Alison.
The showdown between Paul and Alison at the end of this episode shines a spotlight on the theme of communication that’s woven throughout this episode. Paul questions why Alison is so adamant that she doesn’t want Joe to go to school. Is it really to protect him, or is it because she’s ashamed? This is a tense and brutally honest depiction of two parents struggling separately with the same dilemma and it’s particularly well done.
The beauty of The A Word is that it doesn’t only focus on Joe; it also examines the many other problems faced by a seemingly ordinary family. What it definitely does is continue to provide the highest quality modern family drama.
Written by Peter Bowker, Director Peter Cattaneo, Producer Marcus Wilson
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It’s a great show and so far has captured a lot of the key issues that will be familiar to parents of an autistic child. This episode highlighted how plans and ambitions have to be sacrificed – in our case mum had to give up the career she loved in order to care for and teach our son. Neither mainstream school nor special school is the right environment for many in the middle of the spectrum and a lack of alternative support places a strain on parents time and resources, which the show captured pretty well. I did however shout at the telly when Joe was sent back to mainstream school simply because he wanted to be there… Sadly his wants may not coincide with what is best for him and one to one support would clearly benefit Joe.
I also love how the show juxtaposes relationship and communication issues in the neurotypical characters. Being a parent of an autistic child makes you look at how the general population behave and often wonder what’s so great about that. The A-word might get its viewers asking the same question.