In this episode of Parenthood, the Bravermans face two major events that would upset any family. The first is that Kristina undergoes surgery for breast cancer. It should come as no surprise that this has frightened the entire family. The second event is that Max is running for student body president. Ordinarily, this would be an exciting time for any family that understands the social ramifications for a child wanting to take on this position. But when the child in question has Asperger's, is new to the school, and has few friends, it can be a time of high family stress.
While they worry over cancer, Kristina and Adam are at odds over Max's run for student body president. Adam is predicting disaster, whereas Kristina believes Max should be given the opportunity to run for this school office just like any other student. Although Max fully understands the rules regarding who can run for the office, he clearly doesn't understand what being president of the student body involves. Thus, the Bravermans are under tremendous pressure to hold everything together and get through the events pulling them in opposite directions. No wonder emotions are high, arguments flare and tears flow.
Let's take a look at Max at this time. What is he concentrating on? Has he shown the fear of his mom's condition that Adam and Haddie have? After all, breast cancer kills tens of thousands of women each year in the U.S. alone. It's a terrifying threat for women facing the disease, and for their families. Has Max offered to skip school and give up running for office so that he can be at the hospital to help support his mom, to hold her hand, to help her face this life-threatening disease? Having Asperger's and loving details, does he ask her tons of questions about the cancer, how it will affect her, what treatments are available? Does he want minute details about the surgeon's qualifications? Does his attention on the campaign for office lose focus because of worries for his mom?
No. Adam does these things. Max does not. Those with Asperger's syndrome have difficulty with the emotion of empathy. They don't fully understand how life events affect others - even serious life events like cancer. Instead, Max is totally focused on the circumstance that affects himself, such as his desire to get the vending machine back in school since he has such a love of Skittles. Everything else is crowded out of his focus. His single-minded mission is to be president of the student body so he can get the machine back. Side by side, whether the cancer or the campaign is more important should be a no-brainer, correct? Not when you add Asperger's into the mix.
Parenting children with Asperger's syndrome can be confusing and frustrating. Commonly, parents, teachers, co-workers and casual contacts in the community see the lack of empathy, the one-perspective thinking, the problems with change and the lack of social understanding as personality flaws and feel frustration, anger or sadness that the person "just doesn't get it." But we must not forget the strengths of individuals with Asperger's: the self-determination; the never-ending drive to accomplish a goal; and the willingness to do the work that will reach the goal.
Max is a fantastic kid. He recognizes his strengths and used them in his speech to persuade the student body to elect him. He faces his fears of speaking in front of a collection of peers - peers who could easily have shunned him - and shares not only the nature of his disorder, but the difficulties he has with it, the strengths it has lent him, and how these strengths could be a benefit to the school.
I was so proud of Max for being a self-advocate and recognizing all of this at his young age. Many older individuals with Asperger's cannot yet share their disorder with the world or recognize their own strengths. Max not only could, he did, and he used it to his advantage to gain the student body presidency.
Max will still need instruction on the menace of his mom's breast cancer. Cancer changes the dynamics of a family; Adam, Kristina, Haddie, and all the cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents will be prey to strong emotions as Kristina faces future treatments. Cancer brings out these strong emotions - emotions which Max should learn to recognize and respond to. Cancer is a scary thing. But the strong emotions displayed by his family members should be easier for him to recognize, and he may gain a better understanding of how he should react than the harder-to-identify subtle emotions. It will be very interesting to see how Max adjusts to this change in the atmosphere of his family and how he comes to understand the seriousness of his mother's condition.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.