I always seem to find myself behind the curve when it comes to pop culture trends. I didn’t start watching The Office until well into its third season. My favorite band, Journey, last toured when I was eight years old; it wasn’t until almost thirty years later that I fell in love with their music. Twenty years after the Gilmore Girls originally aired, I saw my first episode and got hooked.
Similarly, I recently started watching the series Parenthood, which first aired back in 2010. Free time is a luxury I rarely get to enjoy, so spending my time on something had better be well worth my while. I took a chance on the series because it starred Lauren Graham, who also played the beloved Lorelai on Gilmore Girls. In Parenthood, Graham plays the role of Sarah Braverman, one of four adult siblings portrayed on the show. Her nine-year-old nephew, Max, is diagnosed with Asperger’s during the first season.
The character of Max displays many classic symptoms of Asperger’s. He has difficulty making friends. He’s fascinated by insects and happily rattles off obscure facts about the Madagascar hissing cockroach, oblivious to whether anyone’s listening or not. He has trouble making eye contact or answering direct questions. He insists on wearing a pirate costume everywhere he goes. He gets so agitated in class by the sound of the bubbles in the fish tank that he breaks the tank’s glass. When his dad takes him to an amusement park, Max has an epic meltdown and takes off running after learning that his favorite ride is closed for maintenance.
There are times when I feel overcome with surreality, as though I’m watching my life on the screen. Each one of the characteristics I just mentioned is something I’ve dealt with as a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, including the pirate costume, the broken fish tank, and the amusement park meltdown.
Later in the series, Sarah starts working for a middle-aged photographer named Hank played by Ray Romano. Eventually the two develop a romantic relationship and Hank gets to know Sarah’s extended family, including Max. Hank realizes many of Max’s idiosyncrasies in himself and wonders if he has Asperger’s, too. As he learns more, issues Hank has struggled with his entire life begin to make more sense to him – the difficulty with social cues and relationships, trouble communicating, avoiding eye contact, preferring to be alone, etc. He sees a specialist in search of a diagnosis who also helps him understand how to better navigate confusing social interactions.
Had I watched Parenthood when it first aired in 2010, I might have recognized some of Max in my son. Instead, we spent several more years struggling to effectively parent a child whose behavior was difficult to understand and manage as he wasn’t diagnosed until late 2017. I might have realized sooner that my son wasn’t giving me a hard time – he was having a hard time. We might have been able to get professional help and special education resources for him at school at an earlier age. If you wonder why representation in popular culture matters, this is the reason.
Dr. Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician for whom the disorder is named, believed that the “cure” for the most disabling aspects of autism is to be found in understanding teachers, accommodating employers, supportive communities, and parents who have faith in their children’s potential. Fortunately for Max, he has two extraordinarily patient and understanding parents. Of course I know they’re fictional characters portrayed by actors, but their depiction does serve as a good reminder for those of us trying our best to navigate the world of autism.
This parenthood thing – it’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.