The A Word: Actor Travis Smith on autism and Asperger's

By John Arkless
BBC Wales News

image source, BBC/Fifty Fathoms
image captionTravis Smith played Mark in Series Two of The A Word on BBC One

"I think I connect with acting because of how I always had to put a face on in public. I was never really myself. I was always playing a character."

Travis Smith, a 17-year-old from Pontypool, Torfaen, has just starred in series two of The A Word, a critically-acclaimed BBC drama about a young boy who has autism.

It is a subject Travis knows plenty about - he is on the autistic spectrum himself.

Diagnosed with autism and Asperger's syndrome while in primary school, Travis faced a unique journey to fulfil his dream of becoming an actor.

"I was always seen as the naughty kid in school," he said, "the bad kid who didn't listen".

"They'd be angry about my panic attacks. Most of the time I'd find it hard to even get to school. I had extremely bad anxiety and I was out of school more than I was in.

"But my love of acting was always there. I'd done youth groups and drama was my favourite thing in school."

Travis's breakthrough role playing Mark in The A Word still came as shock.

It started when his mum found an advert for autistic actors to audition for the show. He took some convincing because of his anxiety but eventually relented and drove to London to audition in front of the show's director Susan Tully, producer Jenny Frayn and casting director Andy Prior.

"It was about a 10 minute audition. At the end I looked up and said 'was that alright?' I'll never forget Sue Tully's words.

"She said: 'Travis. You are a great actor'."

A few weeks later Travis was on set in the Lake District with the likes of Lee Ingleby, Morven Christie and Christopher Eccleston.

media captionTravis Smith acting with Lee Ingleby on The A Word. Contains swearing

The programme, devised by Peter Bowker, centres around Joe, a young boy with autism, and the effect his condition has on his family.

In the second series, which was broadcast on BBC One in November, the creators decided to bring in the role of Mark.

He is one of two characters in the show who are on the autistic spectrum, the other being Joe, played by eight-year-old actor Max Vento, who is not on the autistic spectrum.

Mark and Joe each had their own character traits and personalities, something Travis said was often misunderstood about autism.

"The first thing that normally comes to mind when media, TV and film represent autism is Rain Man. There's always been this stereotyping and lack of understanding.

"Autism is everywhere and it's important for a television show to show the public we're not all just Rain Man. I'm terrible with maths! Acting is my thing."

In the second episode Travis's character Mark suffered a meltdown.

A meltdown can happen when a person on the autistic spectrum becomes anxious or over stimulated and can result in crying, shouting or in more severe cases, self-harm.

image source, BBC/Fifty Fathoms

For Travis, filming this scene brought back a lot of memories as he drew on some of his own behaviours.

"I cried in my hotel room after and not just because I whacked my knuckles but because it was such a crazy thing to act out what I used to be like.

"Right after that scene I kind of hated myself because it brought me back to a time when occasionally I was just out of control.

"But I have to praise The A Word because they weren't afraid to show how effective meltdowns can be."

Travis is determined to carry on acting. He is working as an apprentice at an organisation called Able Radio, based in Cwmbran, Torfaen, which specialises in arts and the media for people with learning difficulties.

"If I can get to a point where I can act and sing for the rest of my life and turn it into a paid profession I would be the happiest and luckiest boy in the world."

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