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Why ‘A Kind of Spark’ is a game-changing autistic story

I’ve been a bit of a mess since A Kind of Spark, a new CBBC show based on the bestselling book by Elle McNicoll, dropped on Friday morning.

When I first discovered the book a few years ago, it quickly became one of my favourites. A tale about persecution and sisterhood, it tells the story of Addie Darrow, an autistic eleven year old who learns that a number of women in her village, Juniper, were executed for being witches. Finding a connection with these women who were singled out and murdered for their difference, Addie, supported by her new best friend, Audrey, and her older twin sisters Keedie (also autistic) and Nina (neurotypical), begins a campaign to get a memorial installed for them, fighting for historical recognition and justice whilst also combatting the prejudices that she faces in the modern day as a young autistic person.

The show takes this story and beautifully expands upon it, adding new characters such as Frank, Nina’s boyfriend (who has quickly become one of my favourite ever fictional characters), and weaving in a concurrent historical storyline set in 1500s Juniper, in which sisters Margaret and Elinor Fraser come face to face with a witch hunter who is causing havoc in their community.

The addition of the historical story was one of my favourite aspects of the series (and I had a lot of favourite things). Far too often, we hear narratives about how autism is modern, a new thing, and it’s this attitude that fuels conspiracy theories like the belief that autism is caused by vaccines. A Kind of Spark counters this by showing us the story of Elinor, an autistic woman trying to mask and survive in the 16th century, describing the feelings she has as being like ‘magic’ and worrying whether or not she’s actually a witch. The lesson to be learned from this is clear: we have always been here, regardless of whether we had the words to identify and understand ourselves.

“Autism isn’t a thing that’s just been created in the modern world,” Ella Maisy Purvis, the neurodivergent actor who plays Elinor, told DigitalSpy. “It’s not created by vaccines or it’s not a buzzword or like this cool new trend.”

Elinor Fraser (Ella Maisy Purvis)

As an autistic person who did not grow up seeing myself represented, I can’t quite explain the power and importance of a show like A Kind of Spark. This is a show not only in which autistic people are front and centre, but a show in which neurodiversity is celebrated without glossing over the challenges of being neurodivergent in a world that isn’t built for you. It’s game-changing to see concepts like ‘autistic burnout’ not only named but depicted; to have it explained onscreen that ‘autism isn’t something you have, it’s something you are’; and to have Addie proudly proclaiming ‘my autism can make things difficult, but on the days where I’m finding electricity in things, seeing details that others might not, I like it a lot’.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this, and it was the knowledge that young neurodivergent people finally have a piece of media like this, and how impactful it would have been for me to see this as a young autistic person, that led to me absolutely bawling my eyes out an almost-embarrassing amount of times during the series.

Unlike other shows in which autism takes centre stage, such as Atypical and The Good Doctor (neither of which are shows I have ever been particularly enamoured with), A Kind of Spark feels authentic in its autistic voice, and this is in no small part down to its authentic casting. Elinor is played by an autistic actor, as previously mentioned, and all three Darrow sisters are played by neurodivergent actors: Addie is played by Lola Blue, Keedie is played by Georgia de Gidlow, and Nina is played by Caitlin Hamilton (and there’s a not-small amount of joy in seeing a prominent neurotypical character like Nina being played by a neurodivergent actor – in a world in which so many neurotypical actors have taken autistic roles, it feels like a certain kind of delicious cosmic justice).

“All of the autistic characters from the book are being played by autistic actors, and many of the wider cast and crew are neurodivergent, ” Elle McNicoll says. “A great actor can obviously play any role but people need to appreciate that being autistic is not having a slightly different personality to a non-autistic person. There are mountains of things for people to understand about being autistic, and it would take years to fully comprehend and portray without unconscious bias.”

“I’m so proud of this show for having authentic casting. It was the one condition I was always adamant about.”

A Kind of Spark is, ultimately, created by autistic people, for autistic people, and, in doing so, it not only provides powerful representation, but also works as an incredible way for neurotypical audiences to actually, finally, ‘see’ us for who we are and what our lives are so often like.

On top of all this, the show is, at heart, simply a fantastic and heart-warming story, with an incredible and nuanced supporting cast of characters to lift up the main players: from Audrey, as the accepting, always-willing-to-learn best friend we all wish we had, and the immense warmth of the Darrow parents, who don’t always get it right but love and will fight for their daughters, all the way down to Emily, a ‘cool’ girl who is secretly battling shame over her own neurodivergence, and Mr Macintosh, the details-obsessed leader of Juniper council and a character that you will not convince me is not also autistic.

The only characters lacking a degree of nuance are teacher Miss Murphy and witch hunter Adam Quinn, but they are played with such snarling realistic malice by Amy Marston and Ben Willbond that it doesn’t matter. They are villains, hell-bent on upholding a strict definition of normality and persecuting anyone who dares express a hint of difference, and, as such, they are not afforded the luxury of nuance – and that is absolutely fine. Any marginalised person who has been to school – whether you were disabled, a BIPoC, LGBTQ+, or otherwise singled out as ‘different’ – will recognise the quiet, patronising intolerance of a teacher like Miss Miller, and it’s validating to have this behaviour recognised as the powerful yet ultimately pathetic evil that it truly is.

An unexpected but important aspect of the show is that it delves into how the pressures that force autistic people to mask also work against neurotypical people, particularly young neurotypical women. We see both Nina and Jenna, Addie’s ex-best friend, struggling with the pressures to conform, to be ‘cool’ or grown up or perfect, and how the ensuing suppression of certain elements of their personalities leaves them sad, confused, and often missing the meaningful connections in their lives.

As Juniper reckons with its past and becomes more accepting of Addie and Keedie’s difference (ie. their neurodivergence), so these neurotypical teenage girls also feel more able to be their true selves, deftly illustrating a concept that is often discussed in disabled circles: that the steps that are taken to accept and accommodate disabled people often make the world kinder and more accessible for abled people as well.

Addie Darrow (Lola Blue), Keedie Darrow (Georgia de Gidlow), Nina Darrow (Caitlin Hamilton), Bess Darrow (Zahra Browne) and James Darrow (Geoffrey Newland)

Ultimately, that’s what this show is – it’s a celebration of difference, a thundering thesis on the transformative power of being yourself, and a vitally important addition to the ever-expanding canon of autistic-led media. I genuinely believe that this is a show that will change lives, providing comfort and validation whilst teaching a generation of children to love and understand their autistic peers.

But this is only a first step.

“It’s important to remind people that autism is neurodiverse”, Elle told DigitalSpy. “And the more marginalised a person is the less likely they are to get a diagnosis and tell these stories.”

To have a story centred on autistic women and girls is important, but we are also desperately in need of stories about autistic people of colour, autistic queer and trans people, nonspeaking autistic people, and autistic people with varying or clashing support needs.

Let us hope that A Kind of Spark, with all its sparkling brilliance and its fierce sense of justice and autistic joy, will be the foot that kicks in the door for greater diversity in autistic stories.

A Kind of Spark is now available to stream on BBC iPlayer.

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