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September 2012 Posts

03/09/2012 12:19:00

After Thomas

Introduction

After Thomas was a film made for TV in the UK, directed by Simon Shore, and released in 2006. It stars Keeley Hawes, Ben Miles, Sheila Hancock and Duncan Preston, with a first performance by the young actor Andrew Byrne, as the young boy Kyle. It is based on a true story, also written in a book called A Friend Like Henry by Nuala Gardner, about her autistic son Dale who gained a therapeutic benefit from the presence of a Golden Retriever dog called Henry in the family. After winning a small dog competition, the family and Henry were invited to appear on Pet Power (a TV show that focused on stories about extraordinary pets) and this moved one viewer, Lindsey Hill, so much that she contacted the family asking to write a screenplay about their experiences. The family agreed in the hope that their story might help other families, and invited Hill to stay with them on two occasions to enable her to produce this, her first ever screenplay. Hill, worked closely with the family over nine years and involved them in developing the screenplay, which included some actual experiences that help to make the portrayal especially realistic.

After Thomas

In producing the film, there was a determination to make the film as authentic as possible, undertaking much research and preparation to gain sufficient insight in to children with autism. The cast and crew visited two schools for autistic children over several weeks before filming in order to prepare the children in both of those settings prior to shooting the scenes. In the scenes set in the schools, all of the children have autism, apart from the young actor Andrew Byrne playing Kyle. There is more information about After Thomas at the Hartswood Films website, including a link to the press pack, which contains an interesting interview with the Gardner family. When Dale, aged18, was interviewed about how it felt to watch himself being played by an actor, he said ‘It was very strange, though at times I pretended it wasn’t me so it made it easier to watch....It helped me remember how bad I was - I saw how severe my autism was’. 

The Film

The film opens with six-year-old Kyle and his mother Nicola out shopping for shoes. Kyle dislikes any change and cannot bear this process. A massive tantrum ensues in the shoe shop, including some physically challenging aggressive behaviour directed at the sale’s assistant. We are immediately absorbed in to the exhausting world of mother and a son who has autism. After leaving the shop a further serious and potentially dangerous tantrum follows as they are crossing a road. Members of the public are seen looking on aghast, but not offering any help, prompting a desperate outburst from Nicola as she manages to manhandle Kyle home. Once home, Kyle is calmed by a Thomas the Tank Engine video because trains are his main interest and the focus of his attention.

When Kyle’s dad, Rob, returns home the strains in his marriage with Nicola are all too clear and despite his huge love for Kyle and his respect for Nicola’s attempts at connecting with Kyle, he suggests that they consider sending Kyle to a residential school with a good reputation. After Nicola’s initial reluctance, she agrees to a visit. During this visit, Rob and Nicola are reassured by the charismatic headmaster, that Kyle’s current day school has a very good reputation. This supports Nicola in her attempt to remain the main influence in Kyle’s life and to continue trying to breakthrough the barriers to communication brought about by his autism. In this she is solidly supported by her own mother, Pat, and father, Jim, played brilliantly by Sheila Hancock and Duncan Preston, who offer her some brief respite from her role as a carer. In her extensive research of interventions that might help a child with autism, Nicola comes across a book about a dog that made a difference to one family. She suggests to Rob that they get a golden retriever dog, but he is initially against the idea. However, he agrees to visit some puppies with Kyle and the first positive signs of a connection between boy and puppy are seen. The puppy is bought and named Thomas, after Kyle’s favourite train, and then slowly Kyle begins to show affection for his pet building to an apparent understanding of Thomas’ feelings. Cleverly Rob finds that he can stop a tantrum that Kyle is having by speaking in the ‘voice’ of Thomas and soon both parents are able to use this technique to communicate with Kyle. As further progress is made, the family is shaken by the sudden death of Grandma Pat, and then by the illness of Thomas, who eventually recovers, but by then too much progress has been made by Kyle to shatter the intimate bonds he is starting to develop with both his parents.

Relevance to the field of Mental Health

After Thomas offers an excellent platform for anyone wanting to learn about the subject of autism and the spectrum of disorders associated with it. As a teaching tool it would make a great starting point for a discussion about diagnosis as well as treatment, in conjunction with the reading of an article, assessing the evidence base for certain psychological treatments used for children with autism-spectrum disorders. It was published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment in 2010 (16: 133-140), entitled Evaluating psychological treatments for children with autism-spectrum disorders by Professor Patricia Howlin (abstract).

Many personal reviews written about After Thomas, by parents of children diagnosed with autism, support the accuracy of the portrayal of the condition and of the effect it can have on parents and wider family. Many of those reviewers have stated that this film provides an excellent window on their difficult world as they struggle to raise a child with autism.

There is plenty of excellent information about autism at The National Autistic Society, the leading UK charity for people with autism and their families. There is also a helpful fact-sheet at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. I would recommend this film to anyone wanting to work in the field of child and adolescent mental health.

•  More information about After Thomas is available at IMDB as is a short trailer.

•  The DVD is available to purchase at amazon.co.uk

•  Minds on Film is written by consultant psychiatrist Dr Joyce Almeida

 

 

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About this blog

 

Minds on Film is a monthly blog that explores psychiatric conditions and mental health issues as portrayed in a selection of readily available films.

Please note that this blog may contain plot spoilers. Any views expressed are purely my own.

Dr Joyce Almeida

Dr Almeida is a consultant
psychiatrist working in the private sector in the UK.

 


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