Contrary to bloggish writings, I don’t watch a lot of television. My living room has a TV set I found on the street and hooked up using a secondary a/v box because it was missing the cable jack. I never bought a DVD player and my last VCR was connected to a TV I left in Ohio. I’m a fan of online streaming and my Netflix watch-instantly membership. As such, there aren’t many television shows I watch on a regular basis or stay with enough to maintain the plot line. One of those shows however, is Parenthood. Not only is this a television adaptation of the hilarious 1989 film of the same name, it contains some favorite acting types all stuck in one goofy show. Also there’s an autistic kid and he isn’t written as a special snowflake. WHAT?
Max Braverman is a kid on a mission. He likes pirate costumes and lizards. He collects stickers for good behavior. He has autism. At first, I assumed the portrayal of Max would be mediocre with focus mostly on the parents. To a degree this is true, but in a fantastical way. Mom and Dad Braverman react much like parents I’ve worked with, parents I’ve spoken to who have a newly diagnosed child on the autism spectrum. They were scared, they were embarrassed, they were overwhelmed. In love, they found a behavioral specialist to work 1-1 with him. Several episodes focused heavily on the dynamics of this sect of the Braverman family and what have a child with a disability does to parental and sibling relationships. Older daughter Hattie felt neglected, Max struggled with being the person his family and society need him to be, parents fought to find support and love.
Without finding a special skill that made Max unique and Rainman-esque the show has shown that autism-spectrum disorders are real, rather common and manageable. That life continues and is worth living. Max has a healthy family support network and has been placed in a supportive school environment. He makes a friend but struggles with socialization. He reacts a bit too quick to the behavior specialist’s interventions but there is room for dramatic license, no? His parents work with the older sister to make sure she feels included. They work with each other to maintain their love, romance and connectedness. They struggle with other family issues. They’re real.
Max isn’t inspirational. He’s not solving genius mathematical equations. He’s not universally likeable. He’s a relatively accurate portrayal of a real kid on the real autism spectrum. And he’s on prime time television. He’s one of many characters on a bustling show. He’s a character on the show who happens to also be disabled. Incorporated, included, no different than any of the other characters. This is how television should be.
It’s about time people with disabilities are included not to fill a quota or provide inspiration but because PWD are as much a part of reality as any other person type. This character is not infallible but it is a more accurate portrayal of a PWD than say, Artie on Glee. He makes audience members think about autism, about what it’s like to be autistic, about how it’s not that unique and different from their’ experience, about how autistic folk should be treated like any other folk. About how families struggle to cope and manage newly diagnosed disabilities but do so and thrive. About the difficulties of those struggles and the fact that disability affects the whole family.
If it can be done here, it can be done on any television show or film.