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All right, I admit it: I've joined the legions of fans who love the TV show “Parenthood.” The show appeals to my sensibilities in part because I lack (and long for) the built-in community life that forms its foundation. “Parenthood” focuses on an extended family in which all of the individual families live in close proximity to one another. And ever since my husband and I relocated from Washington, DC to a small town in northern Alabama, I've been wishing that the people I'm closest to would be, well, closer. My family is far away, and my closest friends are scattered up and down the East coast. As such, the premise sounds idyllic to me.
But there's a deeper reason why I'm drawn to “Parenthood.” I was hooked from the first episodes because the producers chose to delve into an issue that most shows would shy away from: a pre-teen named Max's Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis, and the impact of that diagnosis on his parents, older sister, and extended family members. Right away, I was hooked. Since my younger brother Willie was diagnosed when he was 2 years old and I was 4, I don't remember much about that time in our family's life. What I do remember is waiting in a playroom at a diagnostic center, and holding my mom, who wept in my arms.
As such, I was both captivated and scared at the prospect of watching a family—even a fictional family—go through the process. I watched Max's parents meet with doctors, special-needs administrators, and behavioral therapists, and I “recognized” them all. For Max's parents, however, these people are strangers, and the world of autism-spectrum disorders is a dark place. They're disoriented in the process of “leaving normal.” Their son's diagnosis has shaken them to the core, and, initially, they are devastated. (The phrase, “Something is wrong with our son,” comes up a lot in the first few episodes.) However, the doctor who gives the diagnosis does a beautiful job introducing them to their “new normal.” Gently he tells them, “You will help to uncover Max's gifts. You figure out how he learns.”
As I watched, I couldn't help but realize that this was something like what my parents had experienced … except for the fact that, when Willie was diagnosed in the late 1980s, autism was much rarer, and there were significantly fewer supports available. And I can't help but wish that they'd been welcomed into the world of autism with such compassion. Since autism has always been a part of my life, I sometimes forget what a strange, difficult initiation it can be. Watching the first episodes of “Parenthood,” I could relate most to Max's older sister, Haddie (played by Sarah Ramos). She is perhaps the person most unfazed by Max's diagnosis, as she's well aware of his struggles and their impact on family life. “Why is everybody acting like this [diagnosis] is big news?” she asks her father. She cites the myriad of changes that the family has had to make for Max, saying, “It's never-ending. And ever since I can remember, it's been all about Max.” I was touched by her honesty on this point, especially as it was portrayed within the context of a supportive sibling relationship.
For the most part, I give “Parenthood” credit for presenting this storyline. Max's parents go through a realistic amount of stress, and Max has both often-frustrating habits and shining moments. True, some scenes have made me cringe (the portrayal of another special-needs family and their quirks borders on caricature), but on the whole, the show does an excellent job with one family's journey into ASD. Every one of Max's achievements is celebrated by his family. From getting a hit in baseball to talking to a girl on the playground to leading the clan in a fund-raising walk, it's all important to those who love him. None of it is taken for granted, and that's just as it should be.