How I lived my own version of the Israeli TV drama ‘Yellow Peppers’

Autism is really complicated and everyone with autism is different, and my fear is that one big mistake in this television show could do more harm than good.

By MATHIEU VAILLANCOURT
November 21, 2017 20:56
3 minute read.
Yellow peppers

Yellow peppers. (photo credit: PINI SILUK)

 
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The second season of the BBC-commissioned TV drama The A Word, set in the beautiful region of Cumbria in Northeast England and filmed in Manchester, premiered on November 7. For Israeli audiences the show’s plot is familiar, as the BBC show is an adaptation of the Israeli TV drama Yellow Peppers, which aired in Israel from 2010 to 2014. I’ve always felt a connection to the show, because I lived a real-life version of it back in the early 2000s.

As a kid in the 1990s I was always a bit different, mainly because I was born very prematurely, weighing only a pound at birth. I was always quite inept socially, and a child psychiatrist even told my parents I would be unable to attain any significant formal education or even pass first grade, for that matter. He was completely wrong, of course – I have a four-year university degree, with honors, and was always a top student, especially in certain courses. I am trilingual; English is not my mother tongue.

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My parents were always excellent (and still are), and took me to psychiatrists and speech therapists since I was an infant.

None of them were able to understand my condition for the first 13 years of my life.

To make a long story short, in the 1990s most specialists were clueless about what autism is.

My first personal contact with the “A word” happened when I was 11 or 12, when a girl first taunted me at school, calling me “autistic,” because that’s what her parents had told her. At the time, being a very good student I didn’t believe it and felt quite offended – but a year later, in the spring of 2002, my life changed completely.

After I finished primary school I attended to a very expensive private high school. In April of my first year, I experienced massive burnout, including suicidal thoughts.


I relapsed a year later, at which time I committed myself to the mental health wing of the local children’s hospital. I have taken medication since 2002 and will likely continue to do so for the rest of my life, because it’s a safety blanket.

I remember the day back in mid-April 2002 when I went to see a psychiatrist at the children’s hospital. After a consultation, he handed my mother, who had accompanied me, a list of syndromes associated with the condition. Essentially, about 90% of the characteristics on the list were me; I had the “A word.” Specifically, a form of autism formerly known as Asperger Syndrome (even if specialists today are never able to exactly pinpoint whether Asperger’s is on the greater autism spectrum or not).

Yellow Peppers has a great plot, but it’s very difficult to watch something like that because I was part of the last generation which did not have early detection of this neurological condition.

For many, many years I was insecure about my condition, and even if The A Word is great for the general public, both as entertainment and education, my fear is that it becomes a sort of autism exploitation film – just like Dustin Hoffman’s character in the 1980s film Rain Man. Rain Man was a great movie with great acting but it associated every autistic person in popular culture with counting cards.

I know very well that the Yellow Peppers producers did a lot of work to make their show’s portrayal of autism realistic, but this “Rain Man continuum” continues even today, and I don’t want to have everything in Yellow Peppers being associated with everyone living with autism. Good mainstream TV entertainment sometimes creates stereotypes which even if well meant can be incorrect and do more harm than good. Autism is really complicated and everyone with autism is different, and my fear is that one big mistake in this television show could do more harm than good.

The author is a policy analyst with a degree in international development from the University in Ottawa.

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