Presenter Louis Theroux (who explores misunderstood and sometimes controversial subjects by getting up close and personal) recently went to America to film a documentary, Extreme Love, about autism. Here, Disability Horizons contributor Becky Wood (who has an autistic son) tells us what she thought of the BBC show.
In the few days before Louis Theroux’s Extreme Love and autism was aired on BBC2 in April 2012, the social networks were buzzing with discussion and rumour about its contents, with some opinions reaching their own type of extreme. As a mother of an eight-year-old autistic boy who has significant communication and behavioural problems, I started to dread its appearance, telling myself that I had to watch the programme, even if – as many were suggesting – the condition of autism would be shown in its full ‘glory’.
During Extreme Love, we saw Joey – a child with violent outbursts – being restrained by his weary parents. Brian’s mother, who at times had been forced to hide from her aggressive son, had gone a step further and made the tough decision to put him into residential accommodation. And Paula, the exhausted mother of autistic twins, admitted that she doesn’t “get a lot of enjoyment from them” as one of them walked past her, completely ignoring both her and Theroux. So why, after the programme had ended, did I feel so uplifted and positive?
When my own son has – fortunately infrequent – outbursts of difficult behaviour, I try to make sure that no one can see or hear him. If we are outside, I bundle him into the car. At home, I draw the curtains. Through parents’ support networks, I hear many stories of parents who dare not go out with their children with autism, or let visitors enter their homes. There is always a lurking fear of a shocked reaction from others when they see what your child can be capable of.
As Joey’s mother said, when Theroux tactfully offered to stop filming when she was restraining her flailing son, “I want people to see what autism is really like.” And so for me, the very fact that the programme offered such a frank portrayal of autism and the impact on families, turned out to be a relief from what can be for many of us, a form of hidden shame.
Incredibly, there was much humour and positivity in the programme too. Nicky, a high functioning young man who was due to attend a mainstream high school, was at times hilarious in his frank exchanges with Theroux. It was fascinating also when the programme focused on the Developmental Learning Centre in New Jersey, a school where autistic children receive an intensive and practical education programme designed to equip them with as much independence as possible. Moreover, Theroux himself was brilliant with the children; respectful, sensitive and very astute in his interactions with them.
These days, I am much less inclined to draw the curtains or make a swift retreat to the car if my son is displaying ‘challenging’ behaviour. Thanks to programmes like this, there is a growing understanding about autism and its varied manifestations, as well as a desire in society to include and accept people with the condition.
If there remains a gap in awareness, it is the impact of autism on families who, because of the relentless hard work and at times limited reward a child with autism can bring, must truly love – extremely love – their children. So, bravo to Louis Theroux and his team, bravo to those brave, brave parents, and above all, to the treasured children of Extreme Love and autism.
By Becky Wood
You can follow Becky on her Twitter, @BeckyIBe.