It was Benjamin’s fifth birthday party. We had dozens of friends and family coming to our home to celebrate with him. The details of the party had been planned for weeks, and Benjamin had been looking forward to the day. Everything was going according to plan. Until it wasn’t. A relative had walked into the party and approached Benjamin for a hug. He recoiled from her touch and, screaming, ran to seek solace in his bedroom. Where he remained for the remainder of his party.
The premiere episode of "The A Word," a British import on the Sundance Channel — and based on an Israeli drama — opens with the birthday party of five-year-old Joe. And like my son, Joe’s party is interrupted by behaviors that appear to be caused by the overstimulation that often occurs for those on the autism spectrum.
Watching the opening sequence forced me back to that moment at Benjamin’s party; the shame and embarrassment expressed by Joe’s parents, Alison and Paul, closely resembled my own. The glances and comments that Alison and Paul received from family members reminded me of ones I received from our loved ones. Just as Joe’s conduct at the party, and the reactions of his extended family and guests, set the family on their journey towards an eventual diagnosis and all that entails, Ben’s withdrawal from his party was the proverbial camel-breaking straw for us as well.
Throughout the entire 60-minute episode, I struck with how honest the writing felt and how it seemed to mirror much of my family’s experience. Though Joe’s parents seek medical advice, they seem genuinely shocked with her pronouncement that Joe is most definitely on the autism spectrum. As the doctor was reviewing the results of her examination with them, one gets the sense that Paul and Alison feel as though they have been dropped into a foreign country — one with unfamiliar terms and jargon. They struggle to understand precisely how these (deficits) result in Joe’s seeming quite different from his chronological peers, and are reluctant to accept the doctor’s conclusion. “I’m afraid it isn’t going to go away if we call it something different,” she responds to their pleading statements that it couldn’t possibly be autism.
They leave the appointment with a glazed look, as if they are hunted by the awareness that their son is not just a little different from his mates but is, in fact, autistic. While driving away from the doctor’s office and trying to convince themselves that a second opinion might produce a different diagnosis, Alison remarks that Joe is never invited to the birthday parties of his classmates even though they are always invited to Joe’s parties; the pain that such ostracization causes is palpable.
That realization was familiar to me. The last birthday party invitation Ben received was while he was in Pre-Kindergarten — which had an all-or-nothing rule. All of the students could be invited or none of them could. Truthfully, Ben rarely enjoyed attending his classmates’ parties and didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t invited. But I knew. And that exclusion pained me.
This show, while dealing with serious subject matter, is not a downer. It’s quirky and raw and sometimes even humorous. In the first episode it has already established itself as a realistic look at one family’s journey towards diagnosis and their attempt to make sense of it and its ramifications for their son and for their entire extended family. It felt as though the writing and directing choices were made from a place of knowledge and with a desire to show the myriad issues, emotions, fears, and joys of a spectrum diagnosis.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow whose work appears regularly on the Rabbis Without Borders blog and Kveller.com as well as a variety of other online sites. Writing at This Messy Life (www.rebeccaeinsteinschorr.com), Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccaschorr.