Episode 1 of Season 2 introduced us to Mark. He is cast as the son of one of the mums in the autism support group that Joe’s parents attend. He holds his plate and tea and stands in the background while mum has a conversation. You can’t miss him, even in the background, his TV mum jokingly mentions that he’s 6ft3. He doesn’t sit until his mum asks him to sit down and tells him exactly what they will do; he will sit and have his tea while mum has a conversation and then they will get on the bus and go home. He repeats this back to her.
For a lot of people this interaction will mean nothing. For me, this interaction is why I will be watching The A word again tonight. That moment is our entire life with Christos. Telling him what the plan is, every hour is accounted for. It started with pictures (Picture Exchange Communication System) on a board, then printed out schedules on the fridge, and finally it became a conversation. I remember my mum putting together this schedule for him every night; at 6.30am we wake up, at 6.40 you brush your teeth, at 6.45 we get dressed, at 7.00 we drink tea and at 7.15 we get in the car to go to school.
We used to have the whole week planned out and changing the plan was a nightmare. As his speech therapy progressed we put pictures and words together and formed sentences which he had to say before he got what he wanted. I found some examples which you can see in this picture. Once he familiarised himself with all the pictures and the sounds, he didn’t need them anymore. He could form sentences all by himself and name anything in the house. Now he has a weekly plan. He knows months off by heart and has a sense of how far away or close they are. So, for example, when I will visit again, or when he’s going to start going to the beach, which days he stays with my mum or dad and which days he goes to my grandparents etc.
Travis Smith, who portrays Mark, is an actor with autism and this episode was his acting debut. Travis is working at ABLE Radio through an initiative which aims to boost the employment prospects of 1000 young people with a learning disability and/or autism. Engage to Change. He secured the ABLE Radio placement which has been helping him develop his skills, and is working towards realising his dream of acting and singing for a living. “There is nothing else that matters when I am acting,” Travis says. “Just before I do it, I am petrified but, once I am singing or acting, I lose myself.”
Joe is not the kind of autism I grew up with, but Mark is. A gentle giant that is shy and loves a plan. I feel that we will be seeing more of Mark as the show goes on, and I hope that we will see many more representations of autism. When you watch tonight’s episode of The A Word (BBC One at 9pm GMT) look at the details, don’t just listen to the words. Notice the hidden looks, the things parents do that look like routine to them but aren’t routine for you. Look out for Mark and you might see a bit of Christos in him too. It is breathtaking to get to witness a young adult with autism do what he loves. It is inspiring to watch Travis break free from the stereotypes of what people on the spectrum can and cannot do.