A missing child. Fear, panic, seemingly hundreds of phone calls, 911 and a police car outside. Now add Asperger's to the mix.
In this episode of Parenthood, Max gets tired of waiting for his museum visit, accuses his family of breaking their promises, and decides to take matters into his own hands. So he sets out to go to the museum by himself, sending his entire family into full-blown panic mode. It's scary enough for any child to be missing, but when you know the child has Asperger's, you also know the child doesn't have the usual respect for strangers or fear of danger that protects most kids.
Every year, children with autism spectrum disorders go missing from their families. Most are returned safely. Unfortunately, some are not, and the worst imaginable happens. We read of these cases in the newspaper, and we know that another family is destroyed.
Of course, it's natural for families to keep their family members safe. But families that have children with an autism spectrum disorder (whether they're young, adolescent or adult) must be especially diligent in this regard, since those with ASD are great escape artists. And to complicate matters, when you have a major impairment in the social understanding of the world, you also miss all the signals that mean danger or harm. It also means you cannot understand the anxiety and sheer panic that mom, dad, grandparents or siblings go through when they realize you're gone. Max's getting on a bus by himself with no supervision, lays him wide open for any number of mishaps - from minor confusion when he doesn't recognize landmarks, to abduction and worse.
No wonder Adam, Haddie and Kristina are freaking out.
One of the toughest things for a family to do is to stay one step ahead of their child with ASD. ASD thinking is purely linear, without the complications of abstract components. Max knows he wants to visit the museum and that his family can't take him; therefore, he will go himself. It's as simple as that. Of course, why in the world would Adam and Kristina suspect that if Max got upset enough about his postponed trip he would take off and go by himself? But for those who have children with an ASD, you MUST think like they do, and map out situations from their point of view in order to protect them. Adam and Kristina must think like a person with autism in order to see situations through their child's eyes.
Another aspect that can be very difficult for families is the way in which the child or individual reacts upon recovery. Some can be traumatized for life - even for mild experiences - and spend years shying away from events which remind them of the initial scare. Others, on the other hand, have no reaction at all, and don't understand why everyone is so upset.
Max is clearly of the "non-reactive" type. In many ways, this can be the better reaction. But Max is not off the hook just because he isn't upset by his impromptu road trip. He's in big trouble with Adam and Kristina, who now understand and appreciate another skill that's ripe for instruction: Max is old enough to be taught about the dangers of the world and why he can't just go off by himself on unsupervised trips. He needs to understand that he's still a child, that he answers to his family, and that he's not yet an adult who can make his own decisions regarding trips.
Those who have ASD often believe they should control all their circumstances and that they are perfectly capable of making any decision. This viewpoint often gets them into trouble with families and at school. Respecting rules set by others is as important as understanding the concept that there are others who have authority over us, and that we must follow society's rules - including those of parents, teachers, principals, and supervisors.
Safety is a major concern for all families with an autism spectrum disorder in their midst. And in this episode, Max's family learns this the hard way. It's hoped that Max, too, will learn a new lesson.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.