In the latest episode of Parenthood Max Braverman, played by the adorably talented Max Burkholder, continues to be a fairly accurate portrayal of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome– excepting for the miraculous effect of the behaviorist, and a few omissions of real life challenges.
Parents living with autism are tuning in and relating to the Braverman couple who have this oppositional child who refuses to mesh–put his Legos away and go to his baseball game; cave under the pressure of peers and leave his pirate costume at home; refrain from biting a classmate. Max marches to his own drummer.
But it’s more than quirky. The Bravermans are forced to overcome denial, and, finally, come to terms that their little boy is in fact too different to play baseball or even remain in the mainstream classroom.
When a family member is diagnosed, it is not uncommon for other members begin to worry their child, too, could have autism. In the latest episode, Julia and Joel notice Amber’s fixation on a rubber band ball. Their mouths drop when she describes the colors and how many of each are on the ball. They bring her to a psychologist (Max’s) and she is found to be gifted.
Gifted kids share similar eccentricities. Yet, a child on the autism spectrum is not just gifted. Gifted children with autism have intense and narrow interests combined with behavioral and sensory issues to complicate matters.
Max has narrow interests. When Julia visits to discuss her concerns about Amber, Max engages in a monologue about bugs. His mother has to remind him to say hello. Aspies don’t do well with greetings or idle chatter. They prefer to cut to the chase, jump into their interests. Due to theory of mind issues, they are convinced everyone thinks like they do. Whether it’s bugs, or computers, or medieval history these kids will continue on without batting an eye. It is one of the hallmarks of Asperger’s. Many accrue vast amounts of knowledge in one or two areas.
Max stopped talking when his mother told him Aunt Julia might not be interested in the details. A child with Asperger’s (in the real world) would have persisted, even moving closer to distribute more information and ask questions. Kids with Asperger’s ask loads of questions, but aren’t always interested in the answer. Although they speak like professors, pragmatics are a weak point. Reciprocal conversations are not their forte.
Max has particular preferences for foods. Max’s insistence on eating a certain type of chips, the ones in the blue bag, is an example of rigid behavior. The mother’s nervous behavior said it all–that Max must have the kind in the blue bag. It goes beyond a preference. Yet, Max doesn’t appear too concerned that they are out of the blue bag chips.
The Bravermans meet up with Max’s baseball coach in the grocery store. He asks Max to return. Max says “Sure.” Max tells his parents he doesn’t want to disappoint the team. Children with Asperger’s want to do the right thing. Yet, they are not able to reflect on previous behavior. Chances are good that if Max’s parents decided to keep him in baseball, he would refuse again to go the next game and choose his interest.
Kids with Asperger’s repeat what they hear and are rule oriented. Max could be echoing what the coach has said to the team. It doesn’t mean he internalizes it. He is merely repeating it. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem to know if he likes baseball or not. A typical child will say “I don’t want to play baseball.” And then explain why. Yet, a child with Asperger’s lives more in the moment. Max’s Legos took precedence, at that moment, over a baseball game. Despite sports being exulted in our society, Max is blind to it.
This poses a problem when parents are trying to select the appropriate activity while protecting the child from repeated failures.
A child with Asperger’s has difficulty inferring. Max takes his cousin Amber’s rubber band ball, even after she said no. Max’s rationale: his parents explained to him “You have to ask if you want it.” They neglected to tell Max that the answer had to be yes. For a neurotypical child, he would know that the response determined whether or not he could have the ball .
As much as Max reflects a child with Asperger’s (to a mild degree) there are other ways he seems too manageable. Asperger’s is on the autism spectrum. Therefore, autistic features are usually present. Max attends a birthday party for his Uncle Crosby’s son. It is a cramped environment and filled with new faces. One might have expected an inappropriate remark, a melt down, pacing, stimming, something to indicate Max has difficulties navigating his social environment.
Transitions are tough. Yet, Max complies too easily. His mother tells him he needs to leave the room, and he doesn’t budge. Then, she tells him once more and off he goes without a hitch, reminding her that she owes him stickers.
The stickers work: Max depends on the stickers as if the reward of a sticker keeps him compliant. He completes all his school work as long as he gets a sticker. If it were only that simple. Often, tokens and rewards don’t work for kids with Asperger’s Syndrome. It may work temporarily, but the activity itself has to be worthy to them. They are not so easily bought with a sticker or a prize.
Max presents as somewhat quirky, rigid, and fixated on his bugs, but, overall, easy to manage. A child with Asperger’s is anything but easy to manage. School is rough. Sleep issues are a problem. Bathing is nonexistent. Repeated faux pas make social outings tricky.
Children with Asperger’s Syndrome often have sensory issues and struggle to cope with day to day noises such as a toilet flushing, a door shutting, a dish clanging, a light flickering. They will hum or stim to block out the assault on their senses. They may repeat lyrics, word or phrases, chatter to themselves, pace back and forth, cover their ears, rock–engage in behaviors that make them stand out or appear odd to others. Max, on the other hand, appears too calm, too neurotypical.
It will be a feat for writer and producer Jason Katims to merely touch upon Asperger’s as a subplot and reveal its complexity at the same time. Autism has a way of standing alone, remaining dichotomous, trumping family squabbles and soap opera drama.
Autism is anything but mild. The viewers (most of whom are not Asperger’s) can fill in the blanks. But for a person with no knowledge of Asperger’s or the autism spectrum, it could seem too simplistic. As the season progresses, hopefully the pieces will be included that show Asperger’s whole face, so that the viewers won’t be deceived into thinking that a mild form of autism ain’t so bad.