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NBC's Parenthood: How NOT to Parent a Kid with Asperger's
NBC's show Parenthood started it's fourth season this fall. I've watched this show since the beginning and in general I think it's a lovely show. The acting is good (in particular, Mae Whitman as Amber, an intelligent, likeable young woman in the midst of the complicated process of becoming an adult), the characters are complex and realized with good qualities and bad, just like real people. Sometimes I love them and sometimes I want to punch them in the mouth. Again, just like real people! I really like this show, with one exception: the treatment of the the character of Max Braverman.
If you don't watch the show, let me give you a little background. Max is a eleven year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome. He was diagnosed in the early episodes of the first season. If you are unfamiliar with Asperger's, it is a semi-mild form of autism. People with AS are high functioning (think more Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory and less Raymond Babbit from Rain Man), usually highly intelligent, incredibly focused on one or two specific topics, studious and determined. These positive traits unfortunately come with some drawbacks. As with most autistic people, those with AS have trouble relating to others. They do not instinctively read facial expressions and body language and so often unintentionally offend others. They are generally highly sensitive to loud noises, don't like to be touched, and react badly to unexpected occurrences. These sensitivities can lead to reactions called meltdowns: loud screaming, head-banging, foot stamping fits that resemble tantrums. And herein lies my problem with the show's treatment of Max.
On the show, Max has frequent meltdowns. They are very accurately portrayed by young actor Max Burkholder. He yells stamps his feet and generally acts in a away most neurotypical people would consider an overreaction. To all of us with AS people in our lives this is nothing new. We see it all the time. My problem is with the way the parents, Adam and Kristina, deal with these meltdowns. Let me give you an example:
Max and his family go to a diner to celebrate his older sister's immanent departure for college. The restaurant is crowded and noisy, not ideal for any AS person. Max is getting upset and impatient. The waitress is slow in getting to the table. Max is getting more and more restless. He's jumping around in the seat and banging on the table. His parents don't say anything about this behavior, even though he's knocking into his sister and clearly disturbing other diners. Finally the waitress arrives. Max loudly informs her that she is a terrible waitress. She's slow and she sucks and whatever else. Again his parents ignore this behavior. Max orders a torpedo burger and the waitress tells him that burger is no longer on the menu. Then all hell breaks loose. Max devolves into a full out meltdown, screaming, kicking, slamming the table. Do his parents stop this? Do they give him any strategies for calming himself? Do they remove him from the diner until he is calm again? No. They are irritated with the restaurant for not bending to Max.
I could go on with example after example of this show's portrayal of Adam and Kristina attempting to bend the world to fit Max. As a parent of a child with AS I find this appalling. My son has meltdowns just like any other AS person, but his dad and I try to teach him strategies to control and contain these episodes. We are trying to teach him that it is not okay to disturb others and we never, never allow him to speak rudely to others without consequence. This is not to say we punish him for these things that are not in his control but we point them out as unacceptable behavior and ask him to apologize to anyone he has offended. You see, we believe in preparing him for adulthood and we don't want him to be shocked and dismayed when he finds out that the world doesn't bend to his will. It's sad to think the creators of this show think letting AS kids run wild is a good way to parent. Hopefully most parents of AS kids don't think this way, because I shudder to think of the lonely, unhappy life the fictional Max is headed for in adulthood.
Well this hub has gotten awfully long, so I'll sign off now. If anyone out there has anything to add or disagrees with me, I'd love to hear from you. Leave me a comment and I'll reply as soon as I can.
For more information about autism and Aperger's Syndrome here are some websites to check out: