Louis Theroux: Extreme Love - Autism
Name a documentary something as attention-grabbing as “EXTREME LOVE” these days and your audience is likely to expect narrated footage of couples snogging whilst skydiving. But drop in the name of Louis Theroux – the benign, bemused and bespectacled king of unusual encounters – and you can expect something else entirely. Louis Theroux’s Extreme Love series hopes to uncover some extraordinary relationships, this week between autistic children and their parents.
Theroux meets a variety of kids across the autistic spectrum as he visits a top school for autistic kids in New Jersey. From Nicky on his way to mainstream school, to Brian, whose occasional violent “behaviours” means he lives in specialised accommodation: their parents must also cope with the condition. Autism isn’t sugar-coated – when Joey has one of his daily tantrums and lashes out at his mum, Theroux asks whether he should leave. “Unless I let you film, no one’s going to know this is true autism” she replies, after pinning her son to the floor. “Most parents don’t want you to see this.”
Theroux’s reputation for bringing the bizarre and unexpected to our screens over the years (survivalists/thai brides/the Hamiltons etc.) seems at odds with his claim that 1 in 100 children have autism. Is he the right man to present this delicate and clearly not-so-unusual subject? Be assured that Nicky almost asks the question for us as he scrutinises Theroux’s Wikipedia entry: “Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends?”. “Shall we click off that?” says Theroux, gloriously awkward as he loses control of the situation: his very own insight into autism right there.
It’s hard to resist smirking as you watch a multi-award-winning broadcaster’s questions completely ignored, or labelled “bland” by his young interviewees. While Theroux develops strategies for communicating with his subjects (copious high-fives), he knows that some of the most affecting moments arise when he stays silent. A short scene between Theroux and Brian having a little dance in the back of the car is a lovely snippet, and lightens the somewhat intense mood of the film.
By focussing the documentary on the carers of these young people, Theroux extracts a swirling, exhausting hurricane of emotion that an hour of scripted drama couldn’t hope to match. There is fear, as Joey’s mother contemplates what will happen to her son when medication doesn’t work; sadness, as Lucy’s mother doubts Lucy even knows what day it is; and utter fatigue, as the parents of autistic twins admit that there is no longer any “laughter or fun” in their marriage. But most of all, as the programme title hammers home, there is no shortage of love for these children. In an attempt to do some of my own research, I asked a parent of an autistic child for her thoughts on the documentary: as a glimpse into the window of life with autism, she felt Theroux and his team had pretty much nailed it, even if severe autism is less common than “1 in 100” statistic implies.
Theroux is neither pitying nor patronising in his questioning, leaving the viewer feeling humbled, and as he puts it, “in awe” of these parents. Yet while the documentary does seek out the most extreme cases of autism, the bond between parent and child remains strong – nothing weird there at all.
Louis Theroux returns next Thursday on BBC2 at 9pm, looking at the effects of dementia.