Episode 522: The Pontiac

Max is growing up and he's making adult decisions. He's determined to claim the reward for all his hard work in middle school by walking at graduation, even though he hates Cedar Knoll and hasn't been attending for the final month of classes. Many kids would just kiss off the ceremony and ask the school to mail the diploma and yearbook, but Max believes that he deserves the hard-earned reward, and by heck he's going to get it, even though the teachers weren't there for him at the end. Good for Max! He's standing up for his rights and not caving into society's pressures. Of course, he doesn't recognize the societal pressures in the first place because of his Asperger's. But that's beside the point.

Graduation is a rite of passage, and this graduation means Max will be moving on to high school. I'm curious whether Adam and Kristina will have their charter school up and running by fall term, or will Max start off at the neighborhood high school? I always want students with Autism Spectrum Disorders to make their big school changes with a group of peer supporters - students who will help them navigate the new social rules, be there in the hallways to stop bullying, distract from the noise of the lockers and befriend them when needed. But Max won't have any such support group, which tells me a lot about the lack of peer training in his middle school. Many students with ASD - like Max - don't survive middle school because of this. If Adam and Kristina want a charter school to be ready for Max's freshman year in the fall, they will have to scramble fast to get everything in place. As mentioned previously, it can take one to two years to get a charter school started, and Max is quickly running out of time. Kids grow up far too fast for us to get things in place for them.

In this episode of Parenthood, Max is also confronted with a confusing incident that involves Haddie, who has just returned from college, kissing Lauren. At his age, Max should already be familiar with the topic of gender identification and the range of human sexuality in our society. It's continually discussed in politics, movies and television series, as well as in school. Parents typically want to be the ones to give "the talk" to their children, but research has shown that most kids get their information about sex and sexuality from their peers, information that's shaped by culture, religion, region, family and personal values. But, like other social issues, many children with ASD don't understand this topic at all. Many adults with ASD don't either, as evidenced by Hank struggling to define his relationship problems with Sarah in a previous episode.

After witnessing Haddie and Lauren kissing, Max tries to figure it all out. He throws out a question to Kristina about it, catching her off guard. Max has filtered the social situation through his concrete thinking process and has come up with a label, but it's clear he doesn't fully understand this aspect of human sexuality. Knowing correct terms and labels does not imply an understanding of how this affects Haddie or her family, or how Lauren will fit in with Max's family, or the depth of feeling that Haddie and Lauren have for each other. Understanding relationships is hard, and Max barely acknowledged his own feelings of missing Haddie while she was at college. How can he understand a relationship that he will likely consider "non-traditional?" Kristina and Adam may fully accept Lauren's relationship with their daughter, but how will Max respond?

Will this incident make Max think about his own sexual preferences? Will he someday want a girlfriend - or a boyfriend? Will he eventually want to marry and have children? Neurotypicals sometimes make the mistake of assuming that the heart matters less for those with ASD when it comes to falling in love or even sexual relationships. They struggle to connect with someone else on a deeper level, and relationships end up being a minefield when the individual with autism has no information about his or her own natural progression into adulthood.

Because Max has Asperger's, he's behind his peers and socially immature at an age when sex and sexuality are of major interest to his fellow high school students. He's about to face that social-sexual "dance" that goes on between boys and girls on a daily basis as they grapple with raging hormones on the way to adulthood. Developmentally, this is a highly charged, highly interesting, highly amusing time of life, especially for people like me who study this area. For Max, it will simply be highly confusing. What a way to end the season!

- Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.
Emory Autism Center
Emory University

Max and his peers are quickly learning about their sexuality as they grow into adulthood. More information on understanding sexual health is available here.

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