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Autism is to take centre stage in a new animated TV series being broadcast into children’s living rooms from October.
With its main character and rest of the cast all on the autism spectrum, the TV series ‘Pablo’ tells the story of a little boy with worries who is helped by his friends to overcome his fears.
Five-year-old Pablo armed with magic crayons and an active imagination turns life’s little challenges into big adventures by drawing animal friends which come to life. They then help him handle situations that make him feel anxious, such as going for a haircut.
Each episode, Pablo enters into an animated art world, where he is free to have fun. The episodes are based on the real-life experiences of autistic children and their feelings when faced with daily events such as a trip to the supermarket or a visit to a party.
But the person perhaps able to explain the TV show best is the child actor giving his voice to Pablo. Ten-year-old Jake Williamson has autism. He says: “Usually Pablo is having a frustration or is kind of confused about something. And all his friends, the book animals, Noa, Tang, Draff, Wren, llama and Mouse, they all help him figure out what’s happening.
'A few bad things' about having autism
“I have autism. I have Aspergers’ Syndrome. There are loads of good things but there are just a few bad things.”
Jake says if children: “have friends who are like that and they don’t know why they are like that, maybe it will teach them what it’s like to actually have autism.” According to the National Autistic Society, autism is estimated to affect around one per cent of the UK population - that’s around 700,000 people in the UK on the autism spectrum. With their families included, this means autism is a part of daily life for 2.8 million people.
Autism is a lifelong condition with no cure but the difficulties people with autism face can be managed through intervention at an early age. Skill and coping strategies learned as children can make an enormous difference to their ability to make the most of their lives, when they become adults.
Jake says: “It would be better for your friends to support you, if you have autism and it will teach you to help your friends if they’ve got that, because they may feel a bit like upset or lonely because they’re different and we don’t want to play with somebody who’s different to us."
He added: “Pablo’s non-verbal and he only speaks a little bit but as you can see I speak a lot.”
Pablo and friends have all kinds of adventures and in one episode they hide in a car to avoid a party. Pablo’s animal friend Mouse is asked:“Are you scared of parties too Mouse? Everybody is scared of parties aren’t they?”
The characters in Pablo’s world reflect aspects of his own personality and his autism. Mouse is organized and is a perfectionist. She hates it when things are out of sequence and will always try to restore order. Mouse is sensitive to sounds and smells. Rachael Dickson, the voice of Mouse and writer, was diagnosed with autism when she was three and believes her autism has given her many gifts.
Noasaurus (Noa) is a small dinosaur, who struggles with speech but has good spatial awareness and is great at recognising patterns. Noa can’t read social cues or facial expressions well but his maths and sequencing abilities are advanced. Noa can be clumsy. Tony Finnegan, voice of Noa and writer was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of eight.
Wren: Flaps her wings
Tang is not great at reading social cues or gauging how another person is feeling. Tang is resistant to real change, which can make him feel anxious. Michael White is a writer and the voice of Tang. It was Michael’s Asperger’s mentor at university who read about Pablo and suggested Mr White audition for a role.
Wren is very excitable and has lots of energy which she channels by flapping her wings. Flapping calms her down if she is frustrated and shows her good feelings when she is excited. Sumita Majumdar, writer and voice of Wren, was diagnosed with autism late. Co-writing and voice acting on Pablo has helped Sumita to accept her autistic qualities in a positive manner.
Llama doesn't do public displays of affection
The character Llama is careful to protect her personal space and doesn’t do physical displays of affection. Rosie King, writer and voice of Llama, has autism and has younger siblings who are both severely autistic. The character Draff, played by Scott Mulligan, loves facts and knows a lot of them. Draff makes statements confidently but his bravado covers an insecurity.
To complement the new TV series, CBeebies has also created 12 short films featuring people with autism who explain how they see the world.
There are also six games on the CBeebies website. Autistic children, as well as their carers, families and medical experts, were consulted during the creation of the games. Each game is based on a core personality trait of each autistic character in the tv series ‘Pablo’. Interacting with the games will bring a wide audience ever closer to the traits of autism in a hands-on way.
Inspired by Pablo, BBC Learning will also broadcast an interactive Live Lesson for five-to seven-year-old schoolchildren, helping them to use art to express their thoughts about day-to-day life and create their own imaginary worlds.