I'm a devoted fan of the TV show "Parenthood," about an extended family living in Berkley, CA. I started watching in the first season because the family includes a now-teenaged boy, Max, who is on the autism spectrum. It is a somewhat realistic portrayal of the family's struggles with ASD. (Though it almost lost me when, soon after Max's diagnosis, the family found a perfect therapist, who came to the house and performed seeming miracles with Max. Practically a live-in therapist. Riiiiiiight. It's that easy.)
But eventually the pretty young therapist slept with Max's ne'er-do-well Uncle Crosby, causing a big family stink that made her quit the job with the Braverman family. Now they seem to make do like the rest of us, without a nearly live-in therapist. There's a lot of other family drama to keep me interested, like the recent marital troubles of Max's Aunt Julia and Uncle Joel. But it's still Max's immediate family that interests me most.
Anyway, while Reilly was home for winter break, he started watching with me, and decided he likes the show. He watched the episode in which Max's deepening social isolation at school becomes apparent to his parents. And in which an adult character, Hank, who used to date Aunt Sarah, realizes he, too, has Asperger's. Hank has a photography studio, and Max is obsessed with photography and has begun to hang out at Hank's.
I was curious about how Reilly related to the show, and decided to interview him for this column. I knew he probably wouldn't share his feelings about the show if I just asked casually. I thought he would cooperate more fully if I put it in the context of writing about the show. It didn't work out as well as I'd hoped, partly because Reilly's Dad interrupted, feeling left out of the conversation over dinner, since he doesn't watch the show. Or maybe the whole discussion made him uncomfortable, or he sensed Reilly's discomfort. At any rate, I gave up fairly quickly.
I didn't get much. But it was still sort of instructive. I asked Reilly if he knew that Max has Asperger's. He said he did, and I asked if he knew what that meant. "It's like autism. People who have trouble with social cues."
What did he think of Max? "Max is kind of awkward. His only friend is a 35-year-old guy."
"You're aware that you have been diagnosed with autism, like Max?" I asked. "Yeah," he replied. "And how does autism affect your life?" I wondered. His somewhat surprising reply: "It doesn't. I feel just like a normal person. I have a lot of friends."
Indeed, he does. This conversation made me glad that we had made the decision to take Reilly out of public school and send him to a Special Ed high school beginning with his freshman year. I remembered middle school, where we were starting to see the isolation that I thought would be worse in a big public high school. Instead, Reilly went to school with a lot of kids like himself, where he was "popular."
He's in a postsecondary program with students like himself, and he is happy. But, this can't last forever. He might transfer to a bigger school where he will have to find his own community. And he will have to live in the real world eventually, where he will need to find a community. These are worries that keep me awake at night.
Meanwhile, on "Parenthood," Max's parents are thinking of starting their own school for kids like Max. Maybe I should start writing for the show. Or maybe "Parenthood" writers could start scripting our life.