Broadcast 13th August BBC 4. Available on BBC iPlayer until the 3rd September 2012.
Programmes about disability seem to be rather popular with UK television producers and schedulers of late with offerings of varying quality and of questionable intent across all the major channels. There was the interesting but not unproblematic Louis Theroux’s Extreme Love series for the BBC which gave the public just a peek into the lives of families living with autism as well as those affected by dementia. Then, there was ITV1’s truly dreadful, My Child’s Not Perfect, and Channel 4’s The Undateables. Now, BBC 4, the channel which, according to its controller, Richard Klein, aims to, ” deliver mainstream programming in [a] distinctive and intelligent a manner,” has got in on the act with its new three part series Growing Children. It aims to explore, “ How child development is affected by three major developmental disorders – dyslexia, autism and OCD.” The first episode focused on autism.
The series is presented by Laverne Antrobus, a child psychologist, who affords the show the gravitas one should expect from an expert in the field, mixed with real human warmth towards the parents and the children with whom she interacts as the episode progresses. The show opens with a glimpse into the lives of teenager Tony and his mother, Lainey. Tony is severely autistic and mostly non-verbal. We then meet Michael Barton, physics student, talented pianist and, at the age of just nineteen, a published author. His book, It’s Raining Cats and Dogs, was written for people who, like him, have Asperger’s syndrome and have trouble understanding idioms of the English language. Finally, we are introduced to the Clarke family. Six year old Jake, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and, now, mam and dad have concerns that their youngest son Zane, aged four, is displaying characteristics of autism too. Uniquely, Growing Children gives the viewer a peak at the final stages of the clinical assessments carried out to determine whether or not a child is on the autism spectrum.
This insight is not the only way in which BBC 4’s show differed from programming of what could loosely be defined as of the same ilk. There are no shocks nor sensationalism. The children and young adult with autism encountered in the show are not portrayed as freaks. They are not spoken of- or to- with pity nor are the parents lauded as brave or heroic. Indeed, the talented Michael’s views are not filtered through his parents nor anyone else. He is allowed to speak for himself and his words are compelling: the section where Antrobus takes him to look at portraits is, of course, an artificial construct but a gentle one that perfectly illustrates the difficulties that this extremely intelligent young man faces in his daily life. A trip to the supermarket for Tony to illustrate the hypersensitivity many autistic people experience and the school run for Zane and Jake that highlight the boys’ anxiety issues are not the ludicrous hoops autistic people are forced to jump through on other shows such as BBC Three’s (BBC 4’s immature sibling) Autistic Superstars, where more and more and totally unnecessary pressure was applied to the musically gifted youngsters as a means, it would seem, of provoking increasingly extreme and obviously autistic behaviour for the cameras.
In just under an hour Growing Children – Autism accomplishes a great deal. It is a pacey production that has humanity but certainly does not get bogged down in sentimentality, debate or fringe ideas of autism and its treatments. This is a factual presentation that makes an excellent introduction to understanding ASD and how very similar and yet very different children on the spectrum can be from one another. It was wonderful to see the work of the Wales Autism Research Centre (where the Pwd got a good tickle or two) featured in the production as well as on-going research from other establishments that are likely to yield meaningful results and progress the understanding of autism.
The major criticism I have of this autism episode is that much of the content seemed rather crammed in. Indeed, three episodes solely devoted to autism would probably be insufficient to cover all the areas touched upon in adequate detail. The show suffered for this, leaving a vague impression that there are just three types of autism as typified by the participating children, that diagnosis is a relatively straightforward process and that children with an initial diagnosis at a given point on the spectrum always remain static at that point with no diagnostic review – child development within the autistic spectrum was only discussed briefly and only in terms of the autistic people featured in the episode.
In spite of these criticisms, Growing Children – Autism, did what too few programmes about autism dare to do. There was a good deal of emphasis placed on the fact that autism is lifelong and yet the tendency to talk of autism as a tragedy was avoided. Autism itself was explored in generally neutral terms yet the autistic people featured were shown in a positive light. The inclusion of Jake’s parents’ reaction to receiving his initial diagnosis of autism was bold. It was, Mrs Clarke believes, “The best thing that ever happened to us,” she continues, “We could work with it and move on.” As we watch, we share in her relief at Zane’s diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome – here is a woman who feels herself vindicated for her concerns for her child and who is all too aware that a firm diagnosis opens the door to services and help to which her son may not otherwise have access, however much he may need it.
As the show draws to a close we leave these families to their future – one with autism. Michael is hoping to put his physics degree to use, Jake and Zane will be able to continue in mainstream education with the right support. Lainey says good bye to Tony as he takes up his place in residential care. In some years, I don’t know how many, that day will come for me and the little Pwdin, I hope I can bear it with the same stoicism and dignity Lainey showed.