Guest Review: A Kind of Spark

By Whitney Lee Geertsen | December 20, 2023
Add your image here by clicking and replacing with an image from your site.

Editor's note: This fall, A Kind of Spark was nominated for the Casting in a Live Production Emmy in the Children's and Family category, and it was greenlighted for a second season. You can stream it for free on BYUtv. 

A Kind of Spark is a BBC fictional series based on the books by Elle McNicoll, a neurodivergent author. It is about Addie Darrow, an elven eleven-year-old autistic girl living in the village of Juniper, England. Addie becomes passionate about building a memorial to women wrongfully executed for being witches. Meanwhile, she struggles to adapt to middle school and survive bullying. Addie focuses on finding out about the fate of noblewoman, Maggie Fraiser, who was rumored to be a witch and who disappeared. The TV series plays out with a split timeline between modern-day England and 16th-century England.  

My interest in the show sparked when I learned that it featured three autistic women.  Addie and her sisters Keedie and Nina are played by Lola Blue, Georgia De Gidlow, and Caitlin Hamilton; all of whom are autistic. In the series, Addie and Keedie are autistic while their sister Nina is neurotypical. Before playing Nina, Caitlin never told her agents she was autistic due to fear of being rejected. In an interview with the Guardian, she said, “I was having to mask and act. It was kind of exhausting.” Masking or camouflaging is when autistic people, mainly women, suppress their autistic traits to fit into neuronormative standards. In other words, we have to act as neurotypicals to survive. Masking can have harmful consequences on our mental health.

Accurate casting may seem like such a small thing to most, but it makes a huge difference in the kinds of ideas the public forms around autism. Autistic actors struggle to get roles, including roles playing autistic characters, because accommodations are viewed as too complicated. Having actual autistic people play autistic characters is important because they do a much better job of making the characters seem like unique individuals. Too often neurotypical actors resort to a general autistic stereotype when playing an autistic character, rather than acting as the individual that character is.

Accurate representation in writing is equally important. Canonically autistic women are also underrepresented in fiction. Many stories featuring autistic characters focus on suffering, tragedy, and overcoming autism. A Kind of Spark depicts autism as it should be: a facet of life that has its ups and downs. It is an important part of identity, but not the only part. Elle McNicoll depicts autism as the dynamic and multifaceted spectrum it is. She shows that autism does not always conform to the standard tropes depicted in shows like Atypical and The Good Doctor.

Keedie is a high school student and a protective older sister who doesn’t put up with ableism, even from teachers.  She is known for being loud and proud about her autistic identity.  Keedie has an eclectic taste in fashion and enjoys second-hand shops. Her spontaneity, assertiveness, clear communication, and sense of humor defy common perceptions about autism. After struggling in middle school, Keedie ends up hiding the fact that she is Autistic from her new friends in high school. I identify with Keedie the most. I am a protective older sister and activist for autism justice. I am autistic and proud, but there are times I keep quiet about my identity. The assumptions and discrimination I deal with aren’t worth it.

Elle McNicoll also dispels the myth that autism is a modern problem. Neurodivergent people have always existed. Sometimes they were celebrated but most often they were marginalized. The autistic character Elinor, the sister of Maggie Frasiure, lives in a period before autism was known. Elinor is overly concerned about conforming with social expectations out of fear of the witch hunts. She appears neurotypical due to the intense camouflaging of her autistic traits. Elinor knows she is different and believes that she could be a witch.

Not understanding why you are different can be a distressing experience. Before I was diagnosed at twelve I used to think I was an alien. I was fortunate to be diagnosed so young; many women don’t find out until they are in their thirties. Women in the twenty-first century are all too often underdiagnosed.

Addie reminds me of when I was her age. Her passion for learning about Maggie, the victims of the witch hunts, and bringing them justice resonates with me the most. Like Addie, I develop hyper-fixations on issues of injustice when I learn about them. Addie is bullied for her passion and autistic nature. Like Addie, I was often mocked and teased for my neurodivergent traits.  Being bullied is a shared experience amongst most autistic youth.

In Tudor England, people—especially women—who lived alone, owned cats, and otherwise diverged from normative standards were the subject of ridicule. I often wondered if the victims of the witch trials were predominantly neurodivergent.

A Kind of Spark reminded me of the systemic problems that autistic people face. Just as ‘neurodivergent’ people in the 16th century were criminalized, imprisoned, and executed, autistic people in the 21st century are all too often criminalized. Students with non-apparent disabilities are more likely to be trapped by the school-to-prison pipeline. Autistic people are more likely to be victims of police brutality than the general population. In 2020 Linden Cameron, a thirteen-year-old autistic resident of Salt Lake City was shot several times during a mental health crisis. Disabled people represent about half of those killed by police.

Autistic people like Addie and myself often have associative thinking and we can make connections between seemingly unrelated topics. While I drew the connection between the witch trials and the modern-day criminalization of autistic people, Addie connects to how she and her sister are bullied for their autism and persecuted by their teacher. When learning about the witch hunts, Addie saw girls like her being persecuted for being different. Addie believes that a memorial to the witches will remind people of what happens when we hate those who are othered. She relates the contentious relationship Maggie had with Elinor to Nina’s and Keedie’s relationship. They love each other but often fight over their differences.

While I drew on more grim associations, the show is wholesome overall. Addie Darrow provides representation I wished I had as a child. She is a role model to girls on standing up for what is right and living authentically. A Kind of Spark also illustrates the struggles parents face of raising autistic children in an ableist world. Addie’s parents are supportive and affirming of their daughters’ neurodivergence. Her parents navigate the balancing act of fighting ableism while raising their children into thriving adults. Addie's parents also face judgment and criticism for parenting autistic children.

Family bonds, self-acceptance, friendship, and standing up for what is right are the themes in many of the episodes. The characters are authentic, unique, and have a depth of personality, which is so often ignored in shows featuring autistic characters. I hope to see more stories that further explore diversity in the autistic community in the years to come.



Share This Story