October 14, 2011
Yes, it’s time for that semi-annual review of Parenthood again. NBC is shaking in their shoes.
I’d like to state for the record that it’s pretty much a miracle I’ve stayed with this show, and it has nothing to do with its quality, or its accuracy in representing the trials and successes of a family raising a child on the autism spectrum. Frankly, I think the writers, actors, and director are doing a phenomenal job, and it’s only a miracle I continue to watch it because I am such a wimp when it comes to television with autism as one of the primary subjects. Honestly, it’s just that at a certain point in my day I prefer to put a moratorium on “all things autism” if possible, specifically while enjoying my approximately eighty-seven minutes of downtime before slumber comes to claim me. Hell, it took me a week to watch Claire Danes portray Temple Grandin, and she was wonderful. I never saw Autism the Musical, which I know is my loss. I only watch A Night of Too Many Stars every year because we merit the comedic A-listers now.
At times I am a bad, bad, autism mommy.
In my defense, part of my lack of desire in viewing programs about autism right before bedtime is that they get my brain going in a thousand different directions, which for me is generally not conducive to sleep. Fortunately, Parenthood has never robbed me of slumber, and has only stimulated my mind in positive ways. It has in fact been the catalyst for several conversations about autism with acquaintances, all of which I believe have been informative in some fashion for everyone involved.
I think Parenthood has served as that catalyst once again with one of their recent episodes, where Max, (played by actor Max Burkholder) is placed in the same private school as his cousins, one with a predominantly neurotypical student body. His parents, Christina (Monica Potter) and Adam (yummy Peter Krause), wanted their son to be educated in an environment where he would be more academically challenged, and made the decision to transfer him from a school specifically designed to serve the autism population. It was a daunting decision for them, and remains a profoundly tough choice for many parents outside the world of television. You can see the weight of it clearly on Christina’s face the day she and Adam drop Max off for the first time.
In other words, his mother was scared to death.
I have to admit, the Parenthood crew did such a great job portraying Max’s subsequent immersion in “neurotypical world” that it was gut-wrenching to watch, which means they got it right. In particular, there was a scene in the classroom where Max repeatedly blurts out answers and chastises his neighbor, all while his classmates are simultaneously rolling their eyes and regarding him with utter contempt. Watching Max meet rejection at lunchtime when employing all the social tools he’s been instructed to use (offer to shake hands, look people in the eyes, and smile), was also upsetting. What was more upsetting however was seeing his utter frustration at the children’s reactions, when technically he knows he’s used all the right social cues. Only the most heartless of viewers would not be moved as he makes his way to another table, and sits down alone. I admit, I felt palpable relief when in a later scene his cousin, with friends in tow, seeks him out for companionship and advice.
But the scene that really got me was the one with Christina and the teacher.
It’s always interesting for me to view scenes such as this, because I taught for a dozen years and I’m a parent of two special-needs children, so I’ve made myself comfortable on both sides of the “table”. I could literally feel Christina’s frustration that she’d had absolutely no reports on Max’s first week of school, despite multiple, and increasingly desperate, emails sent to his teacher. Truly, I wanted to give her a hug.
At the same time, I remembered how even with the best-laid plans, the first week of school can often resemble a circus, and that’s on a good day. Sometimes it can take a week or longer to take stock of a child, see his strengths and weaknesses, get a sense of how he’ll interact with his peers. Max’s teacher seems competent, and I believe she was doing just that, trying to get to know him before contacting his parents. I also believe she should have responded to at least one of those emails. Everyone has enough time for “he’s doing okay, we’ll talk”.
I anticipate I’ll be mirroring Christina’s experiences with my youngest someday, hoping he’ll get a handle on his sometime-impulsivity, keeping fingers crossed and double-crossed he’ll continue to make friends easily as he seems able to do now. Zach has a long road ahead of him, and it’s lovely to see his potential future journey described so well on the small screen. Parenthood is doing a stellar job in raising autism awareness, which will hopefully continue to spill over to educators, neighbors, and that person at the watercooler who has no connection to autism (if he or she still exists). I’m hoping that this awareness, and ultimately its preferred bi-product, compassion, will extend itself to my little one some day.
And in the meantime, Parenthood, I remain hooked.