April is Autism Awareness Month, and The NBC television series “Parenthood” is boldly going where no show has gone before by examining the social isolation and stigma experienced by people with Aspergers Disorder across the lifespan. The show’s exploration of Aspergers gives all of us a needed opportunity to see and sympathize with this condition and the families affected by it. “Parenthood’s” take on Aspergers is compelling, at times heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful.
Aspergers is an Autism Spectrum Disorder. People who suffer from Aspergers often display difficulty with social interactions, particularly perceiving and understanding subtle social communication. This social difficulty can be associated with and in some ways caused by engagement in obsessive thinking and repetitive behaviors. Behavior-sampling studies demonstrate that children with Aspergers are less likely to engage in spontaneous play with other children in the schoolyard and are often relatively isolated. This isolation continues into adulthood; research suggests that few people with Aspergers lead a fully independent life or have long-term relationships.
Those of us who follow “Parenthood” have watched for years as Max Braverman (played by Max Burkholder) grows from a child to a teenager while struggling with Aspergers. More recently, the show has added Hank Rizzoli (played by Ray Romano), who discovers that he may have Aspergers as a middle-aged adult. The show lets us see Aspergers from the inside, giving us a poignant look at the social isolation and relationship challenges people with Aspergers face.
As is common for people with Aspergers, Max and Hank’s social behavior directly results in isolation. Max has only one friend, Micah (played by Hayden Byerly), who is confined to a wheelchair. But Micah grows tired of Max’s obsession with replacing vending machines that had been removed from their school. Ultimately, Max alienates Micah by telling him that his obsession with basketball is “stupid,” since Micah is in a wheelchair and can’t even play. Hank has similar struggles. When Adam (played by Peter Krause) invites him to a card game, Hank’s obsession and inability to tolerate a rule change result in the game ending and people walking away, presumably to get away from Hank.
Worse, people with Aspergers often experience stigma, as evidenced publicly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2013, when it was discovered that the shooter, Adam Lanza, had been diagnosed with Aspergers. In one of the most heartbreaking episodes of “Parenthood,” we find Max excitedly asking to go on a class trip without his mother, only to return devastated because the children teased him, and one of them urinated in his canteen. Max asks his parents, “If I’m smart and hilarious, why do they hate me?” He comes to the conclusion that it must be because he’s “weird.”
Similarly, Crosby (played by Dax Shephard) refers to Hank as a “freak” and encourages Adam to exclude him from the aforementioned card game. Even Sarah Braverman (played by Laura Graham), who is in a relationship with Hank, confesses her fear of getting involved with him because he might be “on the spectrum.” She even tells him she’s worried about the “Aspergers thing.” Through therapy, Hank begins to understand that it is possible his difficulty with eye contact and picking up social cues may “push people away.”
These social consequences affect not just people with Aspergers, but their whole family. For many adults, children provide one of the main sources of social contact. Max’s parents attempt to befriend a family they think has the potential to be in their “Top Five Friends,” only to have the family cut short the play date because Max makes their child uncomfortable. The Bravermans’ heartbreak is palatable. Further, Max’s school asks the Bravermans to keep Max out of school for the final month of the year, when it comes out that Max has been bullied.
As parents with Aspergers children know, the social consequences are only one part of the non-stop, 24/7 stress of caring for a child with special needs. Adam Goldberg M.Ed., a special education consultant and founder of myEdGPS, told me that “the show succeeds in unearthing true grit, as these overwhelmed parents strive to cut through stigma, stress and financial strain to provide the very best for their child. Parents are challenged to navigate healthcare and education to get the right help, at the right times, in the right ways.” In fact, researchers estimate that the added costs of Autism-related healthcare and education services average more than $17,000 per child per year in the U.S, and $3.2 million over the course of a lifetime.
Yet “Parenthood” also presents a sense of hope that Max and Hank can improve their social skills and achieve the connections they desire. In particular, we see the hope for Max as the Bravermans start a new school for special needs children. And in the season finale, Hank and Sarah reunite to give their relationship another chance. This mirrors the new services and treatments that have emerged for people with Aspergers, including social skills training, cognitive behavioral therapy and medications. As Goldberg states, “It’s becoming clearer to the viewing audience that we can make life a lot easier for impacted families by helping them cut through complexity and streamline processes along their life-long journeys.”
I look forward to the next season of “Parenthood,” to see how Max and Hank develop in their struggles with Aspergers. As Adam Braverman says about Hank, “I’ve got to root for him.” By shining a light on the struggles of people with Aspergers and their families, “Parenthood” continues to clear away the stigma of Aspergers so that more and more people understand the issue and root for people like Max and Hank to lead full and healthy lives.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Mike Friedman on Twitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.