'The A Word': A vivid family drama about coping with autism

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — Parenting is tough. It's a constant tug-of-war between acceptance and tough love.

Marriage is a process of unending negotiation.

Extended family drives you crazy.

These timeless truths are renewed in "The A Word" , a six-episode drama about family, parenting and a child growing up in rural England who is diagnosed with autism. In its fearless specificity, "The A Word" is universal, even as it shines light on the special challenges autism imposes on that child and everyone around him. It premieres on Sundance TV at 10 p.m. EDT on Wednesday.

Alison and Paul are the doting parents of Joe, who, as he marks his fifth birthday, craves music nonstop. His default mode is headphones clamped to his ears, his iPod packed with the New Wave and punk rock of his father's youth. He knows every song's artists, release date and, of course, complete lyrics, which he choruses with each song's hearing. His iPod is the soundtrack of his life — and becomes the viewer's, too.

But Joe's precociousness is offset by his lack of connection with the outside world.

At first, Alison and Paul tell themselves and everyone else there's nothing wrong. But evidence mounts. And then the unavoidable conclusion: Joe is on the autism spectrum.

How will Alison and Paul cope with their child's inability to be "normal"? How can they meet the unexpected demands of this new normal?

That is at the heart of "The A Word." But this beautifully wrought series isn't an "autism drama." Set in the exotic, remote Lake District of Northwest England, it charts fresh frontier as family drama.

Also helping bring this saga to life is an engaging group of characters. Besides the fiercely protective Alison and husband Paul, who dreams of establishing a local gastropub for backpacking tourists, there's Paul's brother-in-law Eddie, who after a failed business in the big city has returned home to help run the family brewery and repair his marriage to Nicola, a budding physician who cheated on him with another doctor.

Rounding out the family circle is Maurice, a recent widower and the brewery's owner, a man of native smarts but sometimes comic tactlessness. And Rebecca, Joe's teenage half-sister who loves him but whose steadfastness means too often she gets overlooked by the parents she needs, too.

These characters have their amusing quirks. But described more accurately, they are each full-bodied, by turns attractive and annoying, and relatable. From their human interactions — not from the abstract element of autism — comes the drama.

And despite their noisy clashes — all of them, including Joe, have their eruptions — "The A Word" is a meditative series, driven by its tightening and lessening of tension.

The mood can turn on a dime (or is it 10-pence?). At one point in the bedroom, Nicola and Eddie call an impromptu halt to their marital strife. But in the midst of their lovemaking, Eddie asks quizzically, "What are you doing with my hand?"

"I've done it before," says Nicola.

"Not with ME, you haven't," the cuckolded Eddie fires back with what might jolt a laugh from viewers.

Then suddenly it's World War III.

The cast (Morven Christie, Lee Ingleby, Greg McHugh, Vinette Robinson, Christopher Eccleston and Molly Wright) is more than equal to the beautiful script by Peter Bowker, whose credits include the musical crime serial "Viva Blackpool" and who was a special needs teacher for 12 years.

But special accolades go to the star of the show, Max Vento. Despite the restrictions Joe's condition might impose on an actor (after all, autism is a set of behaviors that cause difficulty in social communications), this performance never hints at contrivance, never feels like anything other than a natural depiction of a certain tiny lad. Young Max is unforgettable in making vivid a character that must remain largely unknowable.

Even to his parents.

"What worries you?" his dad asks his mum in a heated exchange. "That he can't express his feelings, or that he hasn't got the feelings in the first place?"

"I think he feels so much and so deeply that he has to save himself from drowning in them," she says defiantly.

It's clear that Joe demands infinite patience, and his parents' acceptance not as who they want him to be, but as who he is.

What "The A Word" reminds viewers: that applies to any parent.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at and at Past stories are available at