So, full disclosure...my child doesn't have an autism diagnosis. She has a genetic deletion, which presents a range of distinct traits with strengths & weaknesses. Hence why I've added the ‘my perspective’ to the title of this post. I cannot and do not claim to understand the experience of raising a child with autism. Despite this, ‘The A Word’ resonated with my own life. Alison often felt like gazing at my own reflection. Seeing her attempting to silence the use of the 'label', being overly assertive (pushy!) with professionals, fearing the stigma, grasping onto breakthrough moments only to be crushed by reality once again, scrambling for support to 'unlock' your child to enable them to access life, like everyone else. When I say these words I am not speaking on behalf of anyone else - I'm not suggesting that everyone feels this way, but I'll admit that I did, or, maybe more accurately, that I do.
Many of the episodes rang true for me - I kept catching glimpses of myself on screen and this made me shudder. I recognised Alison's plight - yearning both intervention but the need for privacy. The final episode felt like a culmination of these emotions. Witnessing Alison being dragged to honesty was acutely painful to watch...particularly as I feel I'm edging ever closer to that epiphany or fate. Alison was pressed to describe her son - to expand on his personality (essentially to reveal his autism)...this brought me to tears. Observing Alison stumbling over synonyms & euphemisms spoke volumes to me. Right there I was watching myself...nearly two years post diagnosis and yet saying the words, the label...hurts. Each solitary letter causes me pain, physical pain. Diagnosis, labels, your child being different ("but not less") is an enormous thing to digest. It's a strange paradox that I find myself in - I envy people's openness. Those who fight, campaign and champion their child's condition. I want to be those people but I’m not, yet.
The truth is I have told my parents, my sister and a tiny number of very close trusted friends. When people have questioned why my daughter was in hospital, if she is 'better now', I'm ashamed to say that I've twisted the truth. I dress this up as my way of protecting her - I frequently hear myself saying "it's her diagnosis", that I want to maintain her privacy and dignity. Part of me believes this, the other part thinks I'm just not ready to face the enormity of my daughter's future and her sister's too. Acceptance is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a path laden with broken glass, each step can cut and scar. Eventually the road clears and you begin to find beauty in it, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have crossed the finish line. The irony is, I embrace my daughter’s diagnosis - I have no desire to take it away, she is who she is because of those words I struggle to utter. I do though have days where I wish I had a magic wand to ensure she has a happy and fulfilling life.
Alison wasn't always likeable - she could be defensive, defiant & often desperate…desperately in pain, desperate to awaken the child she thought she had and desperate for a professional to empower her and her son. She, at times, neglected to notice her eldest child. The truth is that this can and does happen - it makes you feel terribly guilty but when you have enormous complications, you don't always get it right.
'The A Word' was, just like my own situation, perfectly imperfect and that for me was its beauty. It touched upon painful and poignant issues, revealing the pathos felt by parents coming to terms with a diagnosis - from denial to the first steps in acceptance. The word ‘grief’ was used…”It feels like grief to me” said Dad, Paul. It can, for some, feel like a bereavement. They shone a light on the stigma sometimes felt by individuals with additional needs - the scenes where Ralph, a young man with DS, was suspected of doing something untoward. These moments made me sob - the injustice, victimisation and down right ignorant attitude of some of the characters made me want to scream, but I am so glad that Bowker showed this, because it can and does happen.
For me, personally, I thought it was a triumph - it opened the door for people to see that parenthood isn't always simple, it can be a lifelong challenge that doesn't always repay you in love and kisses; remember too, for many of us, it won't always end with children flying the nest and our freedom being regained. It conveyed the intense pain, joy and fight felt by Mums and Dads. Bowker revealed a world that still needs fine tuning to fully welcome and accept our differences. If it engaged people in conversation, if it makes someone think twice before they sneer at a parent in the supermarket who is dealing with a meltdown, if it encourages someone to offer a kind word or take the time to be a little more understanding, then it has done a truly beautiful thing. I hope it has achieved this.
Finally…I want to end with an Edgar Allan Poe quote from ‘To My Mother’. Alison's actions were not always easy to rationalise but were those of a Mum learning to navigate this new ship, gripping on for dear life. I share her heartache, anxiety, determination and imperfections because I am Alison and I wonder how many other Mums felt the same:
“Because I feel that, in the Heavens above,
The angels, whispering to one another,
Can find, among their burning terms of love,
None so devotional as that of a ‘Mother’”
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NOTE: I have written this from my perspective of a mother, hence the quote. However, I know that there are a wealth of Dads who are fighting for their children day in day out. I know that because my husband is one of them. I truly believe a father is equally as devoted to championing and advocating for his child xx