Parenthood: Amber and Aspergers


How do you help a kid with Asperger's syndrome get through an unfair situation?

It's a good question, and the fact that NBC's Parenthood asked it in the recent episode is evidence that the show's treatment of autism is getting better and deeper.  Last week, Max and his cousin Jabbar got into a fight at school.  This week, Max's parents Adam and Kristina had to explain to him that the school was making him write an apology to Jabbar and eat his lunch in a classroom for a week.

To Max, this seems unfair because Jabbar hit him first.  But he is in the fifth grade, and Jabbar is in the second.  He is bigger and older and held to a higher standard.  Is this fair, given his Aspergers?  Not entirely, but it is realistic.  Adam and Kristina had to try to explain to Max that his feelings are justified, but that he still has to serve his punishment.

A tough job, and they do okay. Not great-- Adam makes the situation worse by telling Max he has to "suck it up," and increasing the kid's frustration by reminding him how hard expressions like that are for him.  And Max ends up not really getting it. 

Again, this is the show's writers doing a better job with Aspergers than they have in the past.  Last year, these parental talks were either unmitigated disasters or textbook examples that got everything right.  This episode showed the kind of conversation people really have with their kids.

Kristina recognized that Max was going to need support to get through the punishment, and that she was not going to be able to provide it herself.  So she asked cousin Amber to sit with him and help him write the letter. 

Mae Whitman as Amber, like Bonnie Bedelia as Camille, is one of the show's under-utilized secret weapons, a genuinely compelling TV actress who too often gets pushed into the background for Lauren Graham's warmed-over Gilmore Girls shtick and men who seem to be angling to replace Bill Cosby in the Jello ads. (Bug those eyes wider!  Smile harder!)  Whitman's had plenty of screen time, but the writing for Amber has been full of cliches and rarely taken advantage of her special quality.

Putting her together with Max, in a situation where what was required was compassionate and intelligent observation, gave her a chance to do exactly what she does best.  Amber knows her cousin has Aspergers, but here she started to realize what that means.  It's one thing to be told someone has trouble reading other people's emotions and another to be see that he really can't tell the difference between an apology that seems sincere and one that seems robotic. And quite another thing to figure out how to help him understand.  Whitman's the kind of performer who can convey that sort of emotion and thought, with charm and delicacy.  Giving her these scenes to play was smart.

Because she seems so smart, and so it makes sense when Amber comes up with a smart idea like showing Max a video of someone else apologizing, and getting him to analyze what makes  the person speaking seem believable.  Whether or not it is smart for her to use candy to get him to do what she wants is debatable.  It would probably work, but the image of her flipping treats at him like a good dog was also a little disturbing. 

But she entered his world, with love, creativity, and intelligence.  She brought her authentic self to bring out his authentic self.  She accepted him on his terms and pushed him hard to do what he needed to do, without ever telling him that there was anything wrong with the way he was.  Realistic that a teenager would get all of this right?  No.  Crucial for people to see this as a model for how to work with kids on the autism spectrum? Yes.

Importantly, the apology that Amber helps Max to write focuses on what matters most: he still wants  Jabbar to be his friend.  That kind of thinking can be very hard for aspies-- seeing past the unfarness of the immediate situation to what we really want and need.  It was believable that Amber could have gotten Max to the point of at least being able to say that. 

Parenthood has gone from showing us a little of what it is like to be the parent of a child with Aspergers to also giving us glmpses of what it is like to live it. 


Autistic Thoughts on National Coming Out Day

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I am gay.

I know that is important for me to tell you that I am gay because of this graph:

thAutcast Facebook pages Likes and Dislikes, August-September 2011


Most days, two or three people unlike it the thAutcast page on Facebook.  I can look at this graph and tell you which days I mentioned something about being gay because every time I do the number of unlikes spikes up.

Lots of people are uncomfortable being part of a Facebook page run by a gay person. Or maybe just being reminded that gay people exist.

And we do exist.


I am autistic.

I know that it is important for me to tell you that because of something that happened yesterday.  A Facebook friend of mine linked to an essay she had written about how she thinks autism is probably made up.  I wrote back that this made me sad and angry, and people responded that, since I work with an autism website, I should help people learn about autism and be grateful for their interest.

Yes, I run this website and have professional experience as a teacher working with people who have autism.

But that's not why I was hurt and angry-- I was upset because one of my supposed friends thinks it's okay to question my existence. 

I have autism.

And I am gay.

And  both of those things make me invisible to some people.

And that is why coming out matters.


Quiet Hands

Julia at Just Stimming wants to talk to us about Quiet Hands:

Flapping your hands doesn’t do anything for you, so it does nothing for me.

I know.

I can control it.

I know.

If I could just suppress it, you wouldn’t have to do this.

I know.

They actually teach, in applied behavioral analysis, in special education teacher training, that the most important, the most basic, the most foundational thing is behavioral control. A kid’s education can’t begin until they’re “table ready.”

I know.

I need to silence my most reliable way of gathering, processing, and expressing information, I need to put more effort into controlling and deadening and reducing and removing myself second-by-second than you could ever even conceive, I need to have quiet hands, because until I move 97% of the way in your direction you can’t even see that’s there’s a 3% for you to move towards me.

I know.

I need to have quiet hands.

I know. I know.

Julia's hands, when she writes like this, are LOUD. 

And that is a wonderful thing.


Watch: MTV's True Life-- I Have Autism


This 2007 episode of MTV's series True Life shows the lives of three young men with autism:

Jeremy is nonverbal, and we see his social life explode when he begins using an AAC device.  Will his classmates come to his party?

Jon is a gifted artistic savant with troubling fits.  Will they prevent him from creating his work or attending his own shows?

Elijah an aspie who wants to be a stand-up comic.  Should he talk about his autism in his act?

Each young man is shown with depth, humor, and humanity.  You won't love everything about it (Jon's doctor is a jerk) but it's a chance to see real autistic guys, living their lives. 

Highly recommended.


Autism, Tourettes, and the People Quota

Warning: Tourettes, not safe for work.



Guy from Tourette's Karaoke talks about "the people quota" in this video about how he needs to spend a lot of time alone in a dark room in order to be able to tolerate the sensory pain that being around other people causes.

I love this video because I know exactly what he is talking about.  And because it's great to hear someone with Tourette's talking like this: like everyone else, except for the tics.

And here's Guy's latest music video.

Click here to watch.

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