An abundance of autism signposts pings off the screen in the opening 10 minutes of this broadly realistic drama. Our five-year-old Joe, earphones clamped on, sternly but perfectly sings the lyrics to songs. He closes a door and opens it before entering somewhere. Hovering on the periphery of his own birthday party, he twiddles and repetitively plays. Musical statues is used as a neat device for the viewer to decipher Joe’s difference: to his own beat (literally) he jogs on the spot, back to the room, never freezing with the game proceeding anyway. He doesn’t blow his candles out or responds to Happy Birthday.
It’s a clever start. We don’t know Joe or his personality, his backstory or future. But by efficiently creating some scenes to be super-designed for autism amplification, the audience has been given a kind of ‘diagnosis for dummies’.
So far, so relatable. My son at five (he’s now eight) had echoes of all these traits, and seeing them clustered together strikes a sad chord pitch perfectly. Though as the story progresses, it’s clear the boys are a million miles apart, which is a boon for autism awareness; people with autism differ wildly from each other, but the spectrum encompasses some spottable similarities.
Joe’s mum wills him to be centre stage, but he’s barely a bit part. The parents appear to take it in good grace, a gruff grandpa bemoans the idle boy a little. A picture of a boy with autism integrating as best he can with tolerant parents appears to be painted.
And then a jolt, as we realise what we’re seeing loud and clearly, the parents aren’t (there’s definitely a reality in that). It appears there’s been no diagnosis, not a conscious denial, just an acceptance of Joe being a wee bit odd. Others who have witnessed his behaviour ask questions, tread carefully, are met with defensiveness and incredulity – and so begins their autism journey so to speak.
Joe not having a diagnosis but the parents’ effortless adaption around him was quite a rug pull for someone like me, so immersed am I in autism, and so exhausting was my experience pre-diagnosis. At the equivalent time in my life, I doubted, difference shouted at me, Isaac yelled in distress day in day out.
But that’s not a complaint with the drama. Theirs is an authentic human response, sprinkled with the complications of human beings treading on egg shells, or stepping too far.
At the point Isaac displayed these social impairments, obsessive behaviours and delayed communication, we were ragged with worry, whereas Joe’s parents seem equable and contained. Sure Isaac had eye contact and interacted and emoted – and the drama at several points successfully quashes these generalised autistic stereotypes – but he flapped and wailed and roared.
So sinking in despair, we ferried a heartbreakingly unhappy child to doctors and therapists and specialists searching for something – anything – that would appease our son, make him content, calm, conventional even. Whilst around us, well-meaning family and friends questioned our concerns, pointed to a repetition of phrases as language development, normalised his tantrums, embraced his eccentricity, even the mechanical repetitive play was sugar-coated as ‘exploring the world in his own way’.
I must stress, now we have a practical autism support network around us so fluent are friends and family in the condition and so focused on learning about it, integrating him, driving awareness, celebrating difference.
There’s a surge in similarity when Joe is eventually diagnosed. Shock and sadness spread through my wife and me when the paediatrician uttered the word autism. The label was something of a lifeboat so at sea were we with how to manage our son, but autism is a dramatic and loaded word for the uninitiated.
Unlike Joe’s parents, we knew Isaac was struggling desperately and life was wonky at best; like them, we knew next to nothing about autism.
As the paediatrician delivered the news to Joe’s parents, I was back in the room, as vividly as I’ve ever been in the last five years. The baffling assessment that despite being affectionate, polite and having eye contact, the little boy had communication problems and atypical emotional responses. That all that twiddling was self-soothing was largely to do with sensory processing struggles. How being able to hear didn’t stop severe auditory processing challenges. The clarity of observation clashed with the realisation that I’d just leapt on the most daunting, never-ending learning curve. Joe’s parents elicited identical emotions.
Then the episode’s final event as the family commenced life with autism was a painful, heart-wrenching watch. Joe’s lack of interaction at a birthday party, solitarily not even parallel playing, just appearing in pain pondering, planted me back to a nadir. Joe’s dad, beckoning him, is meant by a violent response by the confused, sad, unable to articulate boy. Whilst judgmental parents stared appalled. Just like the time I left Isaac at nursery, post being hit and scratched, his routine battered, marooned from the other kids, a mum visibly scalding the egregious dad and naughty child. After which I broke down, unable to brook my own tears.
I just wish I could have stepped in and reassured Joe’s dad that things will get better. Obsessions will come and go, your life will change forever, and there will always be an autistic sting in the tail. But with the right intervention, support and understanding, things will get better.