BBC marks World Autism Awareness Week with new show

To mark World Autism Awareness Week, Catherine Trewavas speaks with the team behind new CBeebies show Pablo.

Five and a half year old Pablo is on the autism spectrum, as are his friends in the world of his drawings: Mouse, Noa, Tang, Wren, Llama and Draff. In each episode, Pablo uses creativity to transform everyday obstacles into adventures.  Series Creator Grainne McGuiness said: “the show was designed to give wide audience exposure to autism, to promote understanding and empathy.”

This all new 52 x11 min live action/2D animated series was ordered by CBeebies Controller Kay Benbow, produced by Belfast based Paper Owl Films, co-produced by Kavaleer Productions and distributed by Cake Entertainment.

The idea

I spoke with Grainne McGuiness from Paper Owl Films, asking how the idea for Pablo was born. She told me that she was inspired by Tree Fu Tom’s development in conjunction with the Dyspraxia Foundation and that she saw a need for this kind of programme from a personal point of view as her nephew was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome at the age of five.

Grainne was looking to bring about greater understanding and acceptance for children on the autism spectrum, saying “we wanted it to be about autism from a neurodiverse point of view.”

The design

The programme uses a blend of live action at the beginning and end of each episode and includes a 2D animated section in between. “This was always the intention and the structure of the storytelling.”

Pablo is presented with a challenge – anything from anxiety about attending a party to getting a haircut – and he finds “a coping strategy in drawing”. The audience then enter his creative world and watch as he overcomes his difficulties with the help of his friends.

Within the animated section, each element is hand drawn, coloured using crayons and then digitised to give a childlike visual style.

The pitch

Pablo was first pitched in a corridor of a hotel following a Northern Ireland Screen event at MIPCOM in 2013.  Head of BBC Children’s Acquisitions Jackie Edwards said she knew it was a strong idea then and she was inspired by Grainne’s “commitment to making it as inclusive as possible”. Since being commissioned, Jackie and Programme Executive Sarah Legg have been working alongside the production.

Sarah said: “We have a responsibility to reflect our audience and provide positive role models. It is a positive show that is not showing autism as a disability. It is about overcoming challenges. Pablo uses art as a tool.”

“The programme is very celebratory. It raises awareness for children who do not have autism and promotes tolerance.”

The development

Grainne and writer Andrew Brenner completed extensive research when developing the idea. They consulted with education psychologists, charities and experts but most importantly they spoke with many children on the spectrum about their personal experiences. “The children wrote stories that grew into scripts.”

Jackie Edwards emphasised “the importance of the different voices and experiences”, saying “the freshness of the storytelling is so sparkling and profound”.

The cast

All of the voice cast have personal experience of ASD, which “gives the programme an authentic voice for people on the spectrum”. The response to the casting call was astounding – with 400 responses and 40 children making it through to the audition stage. Grainne was “bowled over by the level of ability” and the children were highly focused and meticulous in their preparation. All of the children auditioned who did not get one of the main roles have been given a small part in Pablo.

The message

The Pablo theme song says: ‘Pablo sees the world in different ways’ and celebrates this by suggesting that if you do, amazing things can happen. Grainne said: “For too long, people with disability have been excluded. We need to bring some positivity.”

In December 2016, Jackie, Sarah and CBeebies Controller Kay Benbow joined Grainne and the cast and crew at a celebratory event for the programme. Sarah said that “at the event we could see how important it is to each of the children’s lives. Being neurodiverse can throw up obstacles but all of the children have absolutely thrived throughout the project. It is brilliant to work with young, creative people.”

Pablo is now in production and due to TX later this year.

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