Soup du Jour! Parenthood Brings Autism into the Open

As a Chicken Soup co-author I’m always looking for your stories to share with everyone else.  Not too long ago I did a “call out” to my members asking for heartwarming stories and was overwhelmed with over 2500 submissions.  I know you will enjoy hearing from others so I am going to be sharing them with you on a weekly basis.  Here is one from Jennifer Pedde!

Parenthood Brings Autism into the Open
(by Jennifer Pedde)

One of the main story lines in Parenthood, NBC’s popular television series about a large extended family, focuses on the issues facing parents Adam and Kristina Braverman. In addition to the usual problems experienced by parents of a teenage daughter, Adam and Kristina have had to adjust to their 8-year-old son Max being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. 

Jason Katims, executive producer of the show, is the father of a teenage son with Asperger’s. Thanks to the involvement of Katim, as well as series consultants Sheila Wagner and Roy Q. Sanders, who are experts in autism spectrum disorder and Asperger’s syndrome, Parenthood is helping to educate viewers about what life is like for families who are affected by Asperger’s. Child actor Max Burkholder, who does not have Asperger’s, should also be credited for his sensitive portrayal of Max Braverman. 

In early episodes of Parenthood, Max is depicted as being gifted in many areas but with limited social skills, few friends and a tendency to become obsessed with subjects that interest him. A teacher recommends that he be tested for autism following a classroom disruption, and he is subsequently diagnosed with Asperger’s. Adam and Kristina then begin a quest to find the best solutions for both Max and their family.

Kristina in particular, becomes frustrated when there are no easy answers for the problems Max encounters in school and at home. Emotionally, she feels the need to protect her son; intellectually, she knows that she must help him learn to be independent and survive on his own. Adam, on the other hand, must cope with feelings of loss that Max will never be the exact son he imagined.

Following Max’s diagnosis, the approaches tried by the Bravermans reflect approaches tried by many real families in the same situation: They move Max to a private school, receive funding to help with his care, set up an in-home therapy program, find and lose a caring in-home therapist, and then send Max back to a mainstream school so that he will be academically challenged. This is television, so Kristina and Adam are probably able to try new approaches much more fluidly than they would in the real world, but their journey effectively serves to illustrate the various strategies that can be employed to manage Asperger’s.

Now in its second season, Parenthood has expanded on the situations related to Max’s behavior and involved more members of the extended Braverman family. In one episode, 11-year-old Max gets into a fight at school with his younger cousin Jabbar and is told he must write a letter of apology. Max feels his actions were justified since Jabbar hit him first and refuses to comply. Kristina, who is learning to let go, asks Max’s older cousin Amber to help out. We see how Amber gets Max to write the letter and then coaches him on how to behave when he delivers it to Jabbar. Knowing that he needs to look someone in the eye when apologizing is not instinctive to Max, but he is beginning to learn how to behave in ways that are socially acceptable to everyone else.

For more insight into the issues faced by the Braverman family related to Max’s condition, you can read an analysis of each Parenthood episode by Sheila Wagner and Roy Sander in “The Experts Speak” section of the official Parenthood website.

Jenn Pedde is the community manager for the Online Masters Degree in Social Work program at the University of Southern California in the Virtual Academic Center, which offers a variety of classes in their mental health social work concentration. She’s also an avid traveler, and enjoys photography.

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