The NBC show Parenthood has brought increasing attention to the diagnosis of Asperger’s, with one of the show’s characters, Max Braverman, newly diagnosed with Asperger’s. With a large, multigenerational cast about many family members, Asperger’s is not the focus of the show, but just one storyline. I like that aspect, because it’s so realistic; the family copes with Asperger’s, its treatment, symptoms and behaviors, but life doesn’t stop. Work continues, other family members have their own needs, the parents have a relationship that includes dealing Asperger’s, but other aspects as well.
One recent episode, Team Braverman, focused on the family’s participation in an autism fundraiser. An interesting aspect was that the episode raised the question of when to tell a child about his own diagnosis, something which clients ask me frequently. In the show, Max’s parents asked their vaguely defined diagnosing professional, Dr Pelikan, about what to tell their son. His advice was that there is no one answer, but it was important not to “burden him with information he’s not going to be able to process.” and “when it’s time to talk to him about it, you’re going to know: Max is going to tell you.” The parents later state that this advice is not very helpful, and not very comforting. At the end of the episode, Max asks what I view as the perfect opening question for a discussion of his diagnosis: “Why we did we give the money (we raised) to autism? There are lots of other charities.” Dad Adam looks thoughtful, but passes on the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about his son’s diagnosis, instead commenting on the trophy.
I agree that children need an age appropriate explanation, but in my experience, kids never seem to find this information a “burden”, instead it’s typically a relief, because they’re aware that their behavior and relationships aren’t like those of other kids. I also agree that kids ask questions when they want to have more information, but they may be subtle questions. Just like with other difficult discussions, parents, like Adam Braverman, can easily miss the cues if they’re not comfortable having the discussion. Shows like Parenthood can be so valuable because they allow parents a bit of practice time to think about these issues before confronting them in their own families. If you missed it, Team Braverman, season 1, episode 12, which aired May 18, 2010, is available online.
Patricia Robinson MFT
I'm a licensed therapist in Danville, California and a coach for Asperger's and ADHD nationwide. I work with individuals of all ages who have special needs, like Autism Spectrum Disorders, ADD, ADHD, and the family members and partners of special needs individuals.