A touching series lifts the curtain on autism - TV review

16th April 2010 at 01:00

Young, Autistic and Stagestruck

Monday April 12, Channel 4

"i basically have the most negative personality you'll ever see," Ben says. "Hate my life. Want to kill myself. Negative personality."

Ben is 12 years old. Small, angry and preternaturally self-aware, he is one of nine autistic pupils taking part in Young, Autistic and Stagestruck, a four-part series that began this week on Channel 4. The series follows the pupils as they attempt to put on a variety performance at the Lyric theatre in west London.

For most of the participants, this is the first time that they have been forced to work with other people.

"I'm not good in a group," Ben immediately says. He has the type of high-functioning autism familiar to anyone who has seen the film Rain Man: he is exceptionally intelligent, unable to cope with emotion, and prone to fits of violent rage.

The project begins with participants talking about something important to them. Andrew, 17, shows everyone his Bambi picture book. In particular, he says, he likes the scene in which Bambi receives a kiss from a young doe: "Sometimes I'm obsessed with love and friendship."

Pupils are then asked to jump up and down and make animal noises. Ben refuses to join in: "I may be autistic, but I'm sane." Eleven-year-old Mollie, meanwhile, retreats behind a curtain in the corner.

As the day ends, they are asked to summarise their experiences. "Disappointing and enlightening," Ben deadpans. If he had curled up on a seat with an Albert Camus novel, it would not have been entirely surprising.

Andrew, meanwhile, is busy hugging 19-year-old Claire. When it is time to leave, he kisses her on the lips. His mother is forced to explain slowly, carefully and with written notes, that a peck on the cheek might have been more appropriate.

By the end of the first programme, the Lyric's youth workers are beginning to question the feasibility of the project. "A show? My first instinct is no," says Montserrat Gili. "We may do something, but a show? No."

As the second programme begins, they are no closer to persuading Mollie to participate. In the past, Mollie's tantrums have lasted for days; on one occasion, she responded to physical restraint by biting a chunk from the inside of her own cheek.

"If I could take away Mollie's disability I would," her mother says, tears pooling. "Tomorrow. Right now. This second. I'd let her live my life for me, and I'd live her life for her."

These interviews with parents are the most affecting sections of the documentary: all struggle to accept that their children will never have the lives they want for them.

"He should be getting driving lessons for his 17th birthday," Andrew's mother says wistfully. "What does he get? A trampoline."

Andrew has asked Claire on a date. With his parents hovering in the background, he takes her to the cinema. "Leave him, Jan," his father says when his mother wants to check that he is coping.

Andrew has a severely constrained imagination, and can neither reflect on the past, nor plan for the future. This proves to be a problem when theatre staff attempt to engage him in improvisation exercises. "What am I doing?" a youth-worker asks, gazing downwards. "Looking at the floor," Andrew replies.

Mollie suffers from patho-logical demand avoidance: she will do everything in her power to avoid something she does not want.

This is the advantage of the format: the car-crash compellingness of Ben and Mollie's misery is countered by a genuine insight into their condition.

"I just feel like something has got inside me and taken hold of my soul," Ben says, and his voice is toneless and matter-of-fact. "It's like I've got no free will, and that makes me upset."

The next episode of 'Young, Autistic and Stagestruck' is on Channel 4 on April 19 at 8pm.

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