The A word – Writing in defence of Alison


I have been following the A word with interest. For anyone who has not been watching  it is a 6 part drama on BBC1 following the lives of a family living in the beautiful Lake District. At the beginning of the series 5 year old Joe is assessed and given a diagnosis for autism. The series takes a look at how the wider family, and in particular his parents, Alison and Paul, respond to this process.

It’s also a TV drama and it therefore needs to appeal to a mass audience so it veers off from reality by ramping up the drama using off shoot story lines which mainly centre on the sex lives of the various teen and adult characters. Joe’s special interest is music and the show has been highly praised for the use of nostalgic tunes played throughout. I guess it would have been difficult to provide mass appeal if Joe’s special interest had been vacuum cleaners or train engines. The speed of the assessment and diagnosis was wildly inaccurate but some things need to get tweaked to make a TV drama work, obviously they do. But in order to bring in a quick reality check here – the average time for a child to be assessed and given a diagnosis of autism is 3.5 years.

Alison has been portrayed as a person used to getting her own way. She has experienced being a woman in control of her life. She has a nice house, a loving husband, a gorgeous daughter and it seems that everything is going as she hoped it would until her world comes crashing down; her mother dies, and a year later her son is diagnosed with autism. She becomes assertive to a point well beyond rudeness. She’s always been able to make things happen exactly as she wants them to; but when it comes to Joe, she is stumped!

He doesn’t sleep well – she can’t really fix it, although driving around with him in a car late at night listening to music sometimes helps.

He doesn’t have friends – she arranges play dates that go wrong.

He doesn’t speak much – she puts pressure on him to look at her and answer her, but he doesn’t.  She tries to bully the speech therapist into seeing her son for more therapy, without success.

Joe’s wonderful child minder, Maya, turns out to be an illegal immigrant  –  she tries to pressurise Maya into a sham marriage and she even bribes the local policeman to turn a blind eye so that she is not deported. (I have to admit that for me things got a bit too far fetched in this episode).

But you get the picture. She is a desperate woman prepared to do anything to try and make things better for her son, but she doesn’t have the support and information she needs to know how to channel her incredibly forceful energy.

Alison has been vilified by many viewers. People apparently hate her. I don’t.

I think if you put yourself in her shoes and looked at Joe as if he were your own son you may find that you feel as though you have entered very deep waters. Your mind might start racing with thoughts about his future “How is is going to make friends? How is he going to be happy? How will we manage when he is a teenager? How can I get him to talk? Will he get excluded from school? Should I be home schooling him? Will I have to give up my job? Will any other children want to play with him? Will he get bullied? Will other people think that his behaviour is my fault? Will he get married? Will he have a job? Where will he live when he is an adult? What will happen to him if something happens to me? It could get scary.

When my son Edward was diagnosed with autism I did not know anyone else who was parenting an autistic child. I am a speech and language therapist so I did have some knowledge about teaching communication skills and that training was so incredibly useful. But in terms of all the questions, like the ones above, I was alone.

In the city where I live there is a monthly information session for parents of autistic kids to go and get information and support. Eventually, I managed to get there. I met a really lovely woman and her 16 year old autistic son, Joe (funnily enough). She was calm and she seemed happy. Joe was chatty and he seemed happy. I can’t really describe how powerful that was for me. For the first time I was presented with autism being OK. I went to a support group a few times for parents of children with autism and that was also helpful but I found that with looking after four kids and working, I struggled to attend. But it had done the job. I was not alone and I had seen some glimpses of lives lived with autism that worked, despite the challenges. I attended a conference and met adults with autism and heard young adults speaking about their own  journeys and it gave me a huge amount of hope.

I am blessed with a close circle of friends who never judged Edward’s behaviour or mine. They have been a rock solid foundational part of my parenting road. If I was bothered by the fact that Edward was sitting alone reading a book whilst all their kids were playing football they would give me some perspective.. “does he look unhappy or distressed to you?” . “No” I would usually reply. “well then, let him read”. If I was going through a hard phase with Edward, I had family and friends who I could talk to about it. Alison hasn’t got this support. She hasn’t yet got to the place where she accepts who Joe is. I hope that in the final episode we see her getting to that place and finding the support that she could really do with. One place she could turn to is the blogosphere.

I have looked at quite a few parent blogs and they are all so different but also so helpful. If you are parenting a child with special needs you will probably find a parent who blogs about raising a child with similar needs to your own. I certainly hope that my blog is of help to people parenting younger versions of Edward. This is a link for a list of other SEND parent bloggers. If you feel like you are in Alison’s situation maybe you will find someone to connect with, someone who helps you to realise that you are not alone.

As a technical non native (as my children like to describe me) I never imagined in a million years that I would be getting up early on a Saturday morning to write a post on my own blog in defence of a fictional character.

Life can be strange.

Sons, Sand & Sauvignon



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32 thoughts on “The A word – Writing in defence of Alison

  1. idontwanttosaymyname

    no. there is absolutely no validating alison. shes a bitch

    • I couldn’t watch the series as it’s too close to home for me. Unfortunately, when you are coping with a child with special needs – my son has more classic autism, you have to fight all the way for a referral for a diagnosis, to get a statement, to make sure funding goes to your child etc. So if the character is dramatised as a bit ‘pithy’ then I can see why – I’ve become a lot more like that myself; you have to.

    • I know brilliant programme I will miss it hope plans for second series makes me think my daughter got Eplisely and adhd so on the atisum spectrum disorders and drives me mad as some people don’t care

  2. I’m really worried about the consequences for families of kids with autism being represented in this really very negative way.

  3. As another SLT, I wish the Speech and Language Therapist and the therapy had been shown differently….

    • I just have to say my slt was fantastic. Support us as a family as well as my twins. She came to us when they were 3 nil speech and help with a very very bump time at nursery went in when needed. Listen to me and supported it us. The one thing stays with me was I was to apply for dla and I couldn’t justify it and was worried they wouldn’t get diagnosis as I didn’t know any difference and she quietly said don’t worry they will so don’t feel bad. 2 years we had her till they went to p1 last summer and they never stop talking even thou it’s in their own way and change our life’s and my understanding how to understand my boys. Keep your the great work.

      • Hi Fiona, really pleased to hear that you had a great experience of getting help and support from your Speech and Language Therapist. thanks for sharing your feedback.

  4. The show is good and I do think Alison is only doing what she thinks is best for her son even though I think she goes about things the wrong way sometimes.

    I hope there are more programs like this to raise awareness and acceptance.

    • quite agree – I thought The Autistic Gardener and Employable Me did a good job of raising awareness for adults with autism.

  5. I totally agree with what you have written and I can relate to Alison entirely. At first, I found it almost painful to watch and kept wishing her to be less forceful with her son and just enjoy him, but I have days, many of them, like Alison, when you feel utterly scared, helpless and driven to help my son fit in to society and be like “other children” as its the fear of what will happen to them when you are no longer here to protect and fight their corner. So i suppose its all about acceptance, having a balance and spending time doing positive pro-active things that can hopefully help your child. Its an emotional roller coaster which can be so exhausting and rewarding at the same time. I Love my son the way he is and accept the way he is, but the fear is, will others? All i can do is be the best mother i can by helping him as much as i can and loving him as much as i can and hopefully give him the skills he will need in life to become independent.

    • Thanks for your comment Linda. I have only been able to start writing because I feel like we have got to the calm bit at the end of the ride (at least for now!). My son knows that he is a bit different and he’s comfortable with that now. Wishing you and your son as smooth a journey as possible!

  6. I can relate to Alison and understand how frustrating it is for her. You want fje best for you child, you don’t want them unhappy. If she has it little info to go on she may think she is.dokng it right. Personally, I would not do th ethics as I dont agree with them myself but I can emphasis. If it something new for a parent it is mind blowing and had a really emotional impact. On the other side as an autisitic person I wanted to be left alone to read at times and was not given the choice. I felt pressured and started resenting. I try to be a parent who allows the cholf a choice you may deem it as soft but I feel it is important to feel empowered and sometimes it can help the person grow. But of course we l have to remember it is a BBC drama that is magnified and exaggerated. But with traces of reality woven in. X #spectrumSunday

  7. David J McDonagh

    Of course there are not only blogs by parents of autistic children, but also blogs by autistics themselves. Who better to ask for advice than those who know what it’s like to be autistic?

  8. I really can’t stand the alison character but I don’t think they’ve made any of the characters particularly likeable. I know she’s desperate and I get that but I just can’t like her. The kids are great though!

  9. Pauline Robinson

    As a grandmother of a four year old child currently being assessed diagnosis with panel on 11th of July
    I can only say that the programme has been very good for me and my daughter and son in law .whilst it is fiction .At times it has been a little bit too close to home for comfort but in the main the thoughts about schools etc have been very well portrayed

  10. I have said all along, that I am reacting in the same way as Allison, I feel I am trying to cater for my son’s needs whist pushing him and exposing him to ‘normal’ or more socially acceptable behaviour and accept him for who he is. We talk about his behaviours constantly and why he does it, we say that is your Autism in both a positive and negative view. In Allison’s defence I find it so hard because there are days when he is like any other child then something will happen and you are reminded he is on the Autism Spectrum. That is the issue, those who are not classic Autism and those that are so verbal, it is hard to accept especially when their conversation level is so much higher than a child of their age yet their understanding is probably less than their age. The fight to get help is a real tough one, people and professionals don’t listen, you know your child, keep pushing. I don’t care I look neurotic, when I’m right it’s a relief and frustrating, you want to say “I told you so” but you are too exhausted by then and just grateful somebody is finally listening and seeing what you see, that you just move on to the solution followed by the next battle. Above all Autism changes as your child changes so their need changes as does you needs. The battle is constant and I don’t think I’ll ever stop being like Allison as I will strive to get him what he needs when he needs it. Which most parents will do for any child, Autistic or not.

  11. I identified with much of what the parents went through, but I also I felt the show reinforced some of the prejudice that we face. And if only it were so easy to get a diagnosis!

  12. I think so much of the show – And Alison’s reactions and emotions – rings very true. It is very hard to watch as a result. She reflects the emotions we don’t like in ourselves too.

    But the thing I can’t get on board with, can’t understand or relate to, is the way she treats Joe with so little understanding and patience. Yes, sometimes we have selfish thoughts, but I think she goes beyond that. I can’t understand that from a parenting perspective, let alone an autism parent perspective.

    Having said that, I was sobbing along with her last night during the last episode!

    But exactly as you say, it’s a drama and can’t be entirely accurate or it wouldn’t be as watchable. She’s definitely got us all talking! #SpectrumSunday

    • It certainly was not a comfortable watch, but I am glad the show got more people talking about autism. Hopefully we will see Alison, parenting better with more support, awareness and knowledge about autism in series 2, if there is one. (+ If we have the energy to watch another series!)

  13. my child is still being assessed but does have many charateristics of autism. i spend most of my time feeling so drained exhausted alone i could really relate to how the family fell apart with everything going on with joe the resentment alison felt towards other member of family who wernt as panic stricken as she felt .i have finally made it down stairs tonight it is now 11:30 pm tonight was hard as we have hasd a lovely couple of dayd and the boom lil one woke up tonight lashing out at me unable to communicate what was bothering her it took an hour of being screamed at for leaving the room screamed at for returning screamed at for wrong teddy screamed at for uttering a single comforting word to her, kicked me because i coughed…suddenly calm assended and was like nothing happened and the words returned… ” mummy not qit” pushing her quilt of the bed …. she had woken up and descided she no longer wanted the particular quilt she had on the bed but one of the others. now sleeping soundly with her chosen quilt on the bed i have just faced another typical night .i realise The A word is a drama, a programme and mixture of reality and fiction but other the joe knocking over a lamp shade…which many nuro typical toddler young child will readily do in temper i think the A word could have shown more of the more difficult behaviours parents and carers of autistic people and children face every single day… am i wrong?

    • Hi Eve, thanks for your comment. I hope the assessment for your daughter goes well and that you get some more support locally.Each parent is an expert at understanding their own child so I think different approaches will work for different families. What worked for us when my kids were young and very upset and not being in the least bit comforted or calmed by my presence, was leaving them in their room by themselves, telling them I would come back when they were quiet and then waiting, sometimes for a long time, for them to calm down before re-entering. I knew that they were in a safe place and wouldn’t hurt themselves. I think if your child has a level of meltdown where they may injure themselves you would need to protect them. That’s tough. has some more information about meltdowns on their website.
      In the A word, I guess it would have been hard for the young actor playing Joe to act out a full blown meltdown convincingly, we saw plates smashed at the restaurant, heard that chairs had been over turned at school and the lampshade was knocked over at home, so they tried to get it across that way. Meltdowns are common to a lot of autistic children but not all autistic children have full blown meltdowns.

      Best wishes with the assessment and thanks for leaving a comment.

  14. hi lyanne thank you for your kind words . yes i do understand why they couldnt easyily show this. yes we are already using these methods to calm our daughter . you are right in tyhat most meltdowns can be prevented by just leaving the child to think and taking away what bothers them etc . thinking about my own though i have found when she wakes from a nap she is fairly often at tipping point and can easily spiral if handle incorrectly do you have any advice on the waking child…. mostly i avoid looking at her speaking or moving around as any one of these can send her spiraling out of control when waking up. i let her know what is avaliable or due… i.e lunch is on the table and she eats once she has gathered herself usually bout 30 mins .any thing more and she is lashing out throwing things trying to hit me for example just walking past her or looking at her…or even just attempting to speak to her… when this has happened the meltdown has been horrendous …i have been punched in the mouth kicked toys chucked at me and she does not see any danger i e table corner and so if she gets to this point and a danger to herself i hold her like a baby and let her scream while keeping the room dark my movement slow and whispering a song i was sang to as a child …mummy loves you, daddy loves you amd all of your family…. this seem to take any where from 10 mins to 30 mins but she usually falls asleep or just comes out of the meltdown as if nothing happened . i then give her time. if she is not asleep i then gently ask her what made her upset, angry…mostly she doesnt know, cant verbalise what upset her

    • Hi Eve. That sounds really difficult. I think being consistent is important. I hope that as your daughter gets older she’ll become more able to tell what sets off a meltdown and learn to take herself somewhere to cool down, before things get too bad. I am sure you will have already asked, but if not, it might be worth asking for some advice and support from the team who are assessing your daughter. Edward has never really had full scale meltdowns where he has become completely oblivious to his surroundings so I don’t really have any tips from my own experience to pass on. I really hope you get the help and support you need to get through this stage. Best wishes to you.

  15. Like her dad, Maurice, Alison is a control freak but her son’s autism is beyond her control and she struggles between that and her love for him. She can’t ‘fix’ him and that frustrates her. I’m not an Alison. I didn’t react like her because I understand my son too well. To call her a bitch, as one person has done, is easy. To understand where she’s coming from takes effort. I think there are a lot of ‘Alison’s’ and I think that Peter Bowker did an excellent job with this ‘drama’ because for once it addresses high functioning autism, including busting the no eye contact myth. Not to mention the excellent soundtrack and being obsessed with music all my life, I most definitely approve of Joe’s playlist. #SpectrumSunday

  16. I really like reading posts in support of Alison, I really related to her in a lot of different ways, her struggle to accept being the most poignant. I like your comment about turning to blogs, it is through blogging and reading other blogs I have finally accepted autism is part of who Hayden is and the important thing now is support and being strong for and with him. Thank you for linking up to #spectrumsunday it is so lovely to have you join in. Hope to see you again this week xx

    • Thanks for your comment Clare. Thanks too for hosting #spectrumsunday.. it’s so good to read about other peoples experiences of parenting their children. x

  17. Loved reading your thoughts. I thought they did a good effort at portraying a lot of our lives with autism. I hated Alison for one reason; I could see so much of myself, the controlling desperate side and it was like looking in a mirror! I wanted to (and did) watch it but it irritated me too!! 🙂