Todd VanDerWerff, AV Club - March 21, 2014
I have finally finished watching the recently concluded 5th season of the TV show “Parenthood”. It’s pretty good television ... not the show's best run, but better in the end than I thought when the season started last Fall. The show is high-grade, mainstream comedy-drama, with a large ensemble of good actors, and a few great ones.
What draws me back to “Parenthood” though … other than wanting to beat up any dude who makes Amber cry … is its long-form exploration of Asberger’s Syndrome. Off and on throughout the series, we have been given deep, fairly nuanced insight into how teenager Max Braverman's family responds to his Asberger’s, and also into Max’s own point of view as a real, breathing, three-dimensional person with Asberger’s. This season, show runner Jason Katims took it a step further and introduced Hank, an adult professional photographer who takes to Max, and Max to him, and partly through knowing Max comes to realize that he probably has Asberger’s, too.
One of the best things about Season 5 was mapping the complex connections between Max and Hank's shared experiences of Asberger's. Hank has a natural instinct for how to negotiate Max's one-track mind and stubbornness. In some ways, he's better at dealing with Max than Max's parents are. Max, in turn, helps Hank cut through some of the BS in his own life, because Max always says exactly what he thinks, and he thinks quite logically ... which produces great moments of clarity for Hank, especially when the subject is his clumsy love life. Of course, Hank also learns more passively from Max about what Asberger's is, and watching the similarities and differences between Max's habits and his own helps him come to grips with Asberger's ... in my opinion far more effectively than the rather bland advice handed out by the show's supposed Asberger's expert character, Dr. Pelican.
Max's own story came to a dramatic head later in the season, when in the wake of a school trip in which he was ridiculed and called a "freak" by classmates, he had a "meltdown" and for the second time in the whole series, he and his parents spoke openly and plainly about the fact that Max has Asberger's. Todd VanDerWerff of The AV Club writes about the scene in his review of the episode:
“… Plus, Parenthood is capable of scenes like the one on the car ride back from Sacramento in tonight’s episode, in which via bits and pieces, Max’s story of why he threw a tantrum in the middle of the class trip to Sutter’s Mill came out. One of the other kids started to make fun of him and told him he was a freak, and everybody else laughed at him. Instead of brushing it off, as Mr. Knight says he usually does, he had the very understandable reaction of, y’know, not wanting everybody to laugh at him and freaked out. But what rang true here wasn’t just Max’s reaction to the kids making fun of him; it was Adam and Kristina’s powerlessness to do anything about it. At one point, Adam calls the kid who made fun of Max an “asshole,” and he’s right about that, but he’s also talking about a 14-year-old boy. If Adam actually tried to do anything about it, he’d get thrown in jail."
As VanDerWerff notes a bit later, this scene effectively demonstrates that Max's Asberger's behaviors aren't so much symptoms or disorders as they are a different language. Far from nonsensical, even Max's "meltdowns" have a logic to them. His odd affect, obsessions, and sudden spurts of emotion all have reasons, even if Adam and Kristina … and certainly his teachers and classmates … still have a hard time reading them, or even acknowledging them.
"This is where the show is on much firmer ground handling Max’s Asperger’s: When he gets into a situation he doesn’t know how to handle, he can sometimes shut down. That’s happened less and less as the show has gone on (as Adam says to Mr. Knight), but where other kids might throw a punch or come up with some sort of forced, witty retort or even just retreat entirely and try to avoid the bully, Max is just as likely to unleash his emotions seemingly at random, in a way that’s scary to those who aren’t used to it, like Mr. Knight. Jason Katims has based at least some of Max on his own son, and while fiction and reality will necessarily diverge, it’s in scenes like this one or the scenes featuring Max from “Let’s Be Mad Together” where the show does some of its finest work. So long as these stories are about Adam, Kristina, and Max all working together to navigate daily life, as opposed to, like, Adam and Kristina starting a charter school, this is still one of the more effective portrayals of parenting a child on the spectrum on TV (and maybe the only one).”
I agree. In fact, I even found myself accepting the whole Charter School idea, which is testament to the show’s persuasiveness because I usually object to the idea of “let’s leave and start our own school” response to public school’s ineptness with disabled students.
However, this otherwise perceptive Onion AV Club review left out one important detail about the emotionally charged driving home scene. I am astounded that VanDerWerff doesn't so much as mention how the scene ends ... with an incident I found extremely moving but also profoundly upsetting. Bear with me, because I need to describe this step by step.
As Max, at length, tells Adam and Kristina about the kids making fun of him on the school trip, he becomes more and more upset, first asking, “Why do all the other kids hate me? … Is it because I’m weird?”
Kristina’s initial explanation is pretty good … great actually:
“Honey, you’re not weird, okay? I just think sometimes, I don’t know, kids don’t understand your Asberger’s and they misinterpret it as being weird or whatever”.
That’s a correct and perceptive explanation. Of course, we also get the other side of the coin in Adam’s response, which is that the kids who bullied Max are “assholes”, which is satisfying in another way. When Max tells them that one of the kids peed in his canteen, Adam says, without a moment’s pause, “I’ll kill him,” again an appropriate response, at least in the context of a heartbreaking talk with his suffering, humiliated son.
Max's emotions are obviously spinning and spiraling now. His oddly logical mind has finally put the pieces together, and come to realize that despite all the feel-good rhetoric and theory, Asberger’s has a definite downside that he can’t will away. Adam and Kristina sit in the front seats of their minivan, poleaxed, suffering with Max’s suffering, but unable at first to respond.
Then all at once, Krisina undoes her seatbelt and climbs into the back seat of the minivan. This act beautifully and uniquely demonstrates her desperation, because visually, we are used to seeing this kind of move by irresponsible teen characters, not by uber-Mom adults like Kristina Braverman. Now seated next to Max, she wraps him in a hug … the only response she has, and is determined to give. For a second, it is very moving.
The problem is Max is that Autistic, and he has trouble with being touched and handled by other people. When he’s upset to begin with, touching and hugging doesn’t comfort him, it agitates him more. Max immediately struggles against his mother’s hug, and clearly, urgently says, “I don’t like being hugged!” To which Kristina replies, just as clearly, “I don’t care right now.”
Let's let that sink in for a moment.
When an Autistic person says, “I don’t like being touched, don’t touch me!”, are they actually saying, “Please hug me to show that you love me?” or, “I really want to be hugged but I don’t know how to say it so don’t listen to my words?” That’s a nice thought, and would be convenient for parents who long to hug their children, but somehow I doubt it.
Since Autism often involves significant differences from the typical way people neurologically process touch, connection, and personal space, is Max unfeelingly rejecting his mother’s love, or is he actually trying to defend his personal boundaries? Is Kristina invading his personal space … his bodily integrity … and saying that, at long last, she “doesn’t care” because dammit, she’s so very sad right now?
I wonder if this is meant to be some kind of response to Max’s telling Kristina earlier in the episode that he doesn’t want her to chaperone the school trip. The weird thing is, when he said that, Kristina looked genuinely mystified and asked why. Seriously? Kristina doesn’t have a wild guess as to why a teenaged boy doesn’t want his Mom chaperoning a school trip? If he was a “normal” teen, she wouldn’t have to ask. Kristina loves Max totally, but even she has him in some “other” category apart from “son”, “male”, and “teenager”.
But this is consistent with how Adam and Kristina have been portrayed all along on “Parenthood”. In many ways, they are ideal parents of a kid on the spectrum. They are smart, or at least well read, and they have the patience and resources to give Max the best possible chance to bloom and maybe become a relative success like Hank, Yet, Adam and Kristina's rather pronounced need for approval from their kids puts them in a rather difficult spot, since 99% of the time, Max can't give them the kind of feedback they desperately crave.
All of this just makes the hugging scene even more disturbing to me. I find I can’t just avoid asking the question … Did we just see Max being violated by his Mother? There was nothing at all sexual about her hug, but Max clearly and emphatically said he didn’t want to be hugged right then, and right then Kristina said, “I don’t care”, and kept on hugging him, as if her need and her physical strength could overcome her understanding of Max’s unhappiness. Look, I’m all for the idea that sometimes, teenagers should put their preferences aside and show some love to their parents, even when they don’t feel like it, but part of Max’s condition is a sensitivity to touch, and, as the saying goes, no means no.
"I don't like being hugged!"
"I don't care."
Let me be clear. I didn't go digging for this. It hit me on the head like a 2 x 4.
And yet, watching the scene again, Max does calm down. He’s crying, but in the end I don’t think it’s because he’s being held. He’s crying because although he’s known for several years now that he has Asberger’s, he has just realized that in a way, he is weird, and “even the nice people” think it’s okay and natural to make fun of weird people. Asberger’s also means Max is specifically ill-equipped to fathom the social stigma or effectively defuse it. Maybe Kristina’s timing and gestures here were perfect for the moment.
Nevertheless, I worry about the message this might send. Don’t listen to your autistic kid … or other kind of disabled kid … because they don’t understand their own feelings. Just ignore what they say, and your love will make everything okay! Yeah, on TV maybe, but in real life, disabled kids are people, not obstacles, and not puzzles.
Maybe it’s just me, but this must be a good show if a 3 minute scene could generate so many strong, utterly conflicting feelings.
If you are a parent of a child with disabilities, or with special needs if you prefer, and you haven’t seen “Parenthood”, get a Netflix or Hulu account binge watch it. And take notes.