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NBC’s ‘Parenthood’ Explores ‘Tough Love’ and Autism

February 15, 2012 3 comments

This is a re-post from NBC‘s ‘Parenthood‘ ‘The Experts Speak.’

Many of us know the feeling of being chosen last for a team or the wish to “ditch” gym. We all know the desire to make a friend. In this episode, we see Max struggling with these issues. In some ways, these are typical struggles for a middle school student.

There are at least three issues here. The first issue is Max’s not wanting to be part of a group that wants to exclude him; the second is using his Asperger’s disability as an excuse to avoid a difficult social situation; and the third is his taking the time to make a friend. All in all, except for using the Asperger’s diagnosis as the excuse, Max sounds like almost any adolescent to me. That’s a great thing.

The central concern in the episode for me is the gym teacher’s failure to facilitate both Max and Micah’s participation in gym. It isn’t Max using his Asperger’s to get out of an awkward situation that is the problem, but the teacher’s failure to use it as a teaching moment for both him and the other students. However, because Micah is sitting out, too, we know that she isn’t one to look for accommodations.

With regards to Micah, she simply isn’t doing anything to accommodate him during the class at all as he sits alone on the sidelines with his electronics. Regarding Max, she does nothing to facilitate his being part of the group so he can learn and participate by accommodating his social disability. Her actions are not simply wasting the boys’ time, but are actually depriving the boys of a free and appropriate public education (in this case, the physical education curriculum) as required by law. She and the school, by extension, are breaking the law. She is also unfortunately teaching the children that it’s okay to discriminate.

This is a serious breach of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), a law that protects students with disabilities from being discriminated against in the public school system and mandates that children with disabilities receive a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE). The laws governing the education of a child with disabilities also assert that education take place in the least restrictive environment. The gym – with all of the nondisabled students – is a perfect, least restrictive environment to make the accommodations necessary for the boys with disabilities to learn the lessons we all learned in physical education.

As I was thinking about what to write regarding this episode, I talked over the general issues it raises with Sarah Vinson, one of the Emory Medical School residents I teach in my clinic. Sarah astutely pointed out that students aren’t ever allowed to simply “not participate” in math class. This, of course, is true: if either boy had a math disability, the math lesson would be modified to allow their full participation at a level appropriate for them, and they would be expected to participate. The time wouldn’t simply be wasted. The boys wouldn’t simply be left to their own devices, literally.

Thank goodness Max and Micah find one another and use what could be completely wasted time to work on their social skills and to make friends. Good for the boys!
I remember nearly every time Frankie has made a friend. These have been times of celebration and pride for us as parents. I am sure parents who have children who struggle with mobility, sight or reading have the same memories of their children’s successes in overcoming their core difficulty. For those of us with children on the spectrum, our child making a friend is the real measure of winning against the autism. In the blossoming of Max and Micah’s friendship we see all of his, his parents’ and his therapists’ hard work paying off as he overcomes his Asperger’s. Too bad the school isn’t doing their part to help both boys.

Written by Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.

Autism Talk TV – Ep. 18 – Interview with NBC’s Parenthood Cast

December 16, 2011 1 comment

Alex, from Autism Talk TV, got the exclusive at the Autism Walk in LA. He interviews the cast of NBC‘s hit show Parenthood, starring Peter Krause, Lauren Graham, Dax Shepard, and Monica Potter.

Max Braverman is an autistic character in the show. The creator, Jason Katims, has a son with Asperger’s/autism.  Alex talks with the cast about autism, acting, and NBC’s hit show Parenthood!

NBC’s ‘Parenthood’ Tackles When Your Child Goes Missing

November 30, 2011 13 comments

In this week’s episode ‘Missing‘ of NBC‘s Parenthood, Max’s plans to go to the museum are ruined because both Kristina and Adam have commitments with work. Haddy is left to watch Max, but is involved with a school project. When Haddie is immersed in work and not being vigilant, Max leaves and tries to find his way to the museum.

Has your child ever gone missing? How have you reacted? Do you have protocol in place if a situation like this occurs? 

The Experts Speak says,

“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.”

Please visit our website for more information on Safety Products and Safety Tips.

Also check out, ‘Why Do Children with Autism Wander and Bolt from Safe Places?

NBC’s Parenthood Tackles Bullying

November 16, 2011 23 comments

Last night on NBC‘s Parenthood Max falls victim to bullies. Max thinks that they are all friends and impressed with his math skills, but that is unfortunately not the case. Adam and Kristina are unsure how to deal. When they drop Max off to school, they catch the bullies in the act. Kristina gets out of the car and gives the young boy a piece of her mind and reprimands him for his behavior.

Was Kristina right or wrong? How do you handle bullies? Have you or your child been bullied? If so, how do you respond? Do you have any strategies?

Bullying is an incredibly serious issue. In ‘The Experts Speak,’ Sheila Wagner M.Ed. says, “Bullies. The bane of the educational system. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes, all ages, races and religions.”

The Interactive Autism Network(IAN)  recently launched a national online survey on bullying and children with ASD to begin to address this troublesome issue in the lives of children on the autism spectrum.

Learn more about the bullying survey here.

NBC’s Parenthood: Addressing the Needs of ALL Children

October 5, 2011 11 comments

There was a lot going on in NBC‘s Parenthood last night! ‘Clear Skies from Here on Out‘ got us thinking about how to handle the needs of both neurotypical children and children with special needs. Here is a quick rundown of the Max synopsis!

Jabbar and Max now go to the same school and they eat lunch together. One day Max is having a great time being quizzed on his timetables, but Jabbar is incredibly bored. Jabbar’s friend Jensen invited him to eat lunch, but Max says no, because they are cousins and best friends, and must eat lunch together everyday.

When Jabbar explains to his mother the situation she tells him he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. He can eat lunch with whomever he chooses.

At school, Jabbar eats lunch as fast as possible, then tells Max he’s going to play with Jensen. Max refuses, and it’s not long before he’s screaming and pushing Jabbar. Max isn’t done eating yet; Jabbar can’t just leave! Finally, Jabbar blurts out that he’s only eating with Max because there’s something wrong with him. Not only do all the other kids hear this, but Max pushes Jabbar to the ground. You can view this clip here.

Needless to say, when Adam, Kristina, Crosby, Jasmine, Max and Jabbar meet with Principal Taylor and the lunch lady who broke up Jabbar and Max’s fight, emotions run high and there is a major argument.

This poses a major question. How do you address the needs of both your special needs children and neurotypical children? It is often a difficult balance and we’d love to hear your strategies.

To watch the full episode, please visit NBC’s website, here.

A Parent’s Worry Explored in NBC’s ‘Parenthood’

September 28, 2011 24 comments

Here is the ‘Experts Speak‘ commentary of NBC‘s ‘Parenthood‘ episode ‘Step Right Up.’

The Bravermans are having a baby! How exciting! From the look on Adam’s face in the final episode last spring, it was a real shock to both Adam and Kristina at first. Now they, as well as the whole Braverman family, are delirious with joy that Kristina will be having a baby – and soon! But underneath, there is tension and, like many families in similar situations, real fear as well.

Kristina and Adam know the statistics for having a second child with an autism spectrum disorder. The latest research study (Ozonoff, Young, et al., 2011) released just this August in the journal Pediatrics reveals that the chance of having a second child with an autism spectrum disorder is 19% (previous rates were stated between 3% – 10%). Since four out of five individuals with autism will be boys, is it any wonder that Adam and Kristina are hoping for a girl?

Learning that they are having a baby girl lessens the tension but probably will not totally eliminate it. The research in heritability of autism in families is difficult to ignore, and Kristina and Adam face what other families face when they already have a child with autism spectrum disorder. Some families that have a diagnosed child with ASD will choose not to have a second child at all – in research, that’s called the “stop factor.” To put it plainly, they stop having children.

And that is sad. Because each child – whether they have autism or not, and whether they are the first, second, third or more child with an ASD – should be a joy to behold. For families that have a child with autism, the family gets an extra package – a child that has a very unique way of looking at and reacting to the world. Individuals with ASD offer so much to our world – to parents and professionals alike. Too often, the world only sees the “downside” to autism: the lack of verbal language, the inappropriate behaviors, the social isolation. Professionals (like myself) hold days-long workshops on ASD, outlining the characteristics, teaching strategies and methods to reshape inappropriate behaviors, and how to ameliorate the symptoms of autism. But shouldn’t we be holding days-long workshops on what those with autism bring to our society? The joy of seeing progress, the huge rote memory, the insatiable curiosity, and the pure innocence that catches us unaware and makes us all humble?

Yes, it is a present fear that a family will have a second or third or fourth child with autism (and there are some families in this nation that have more than four children with ASD), and pediatricians and family physicians should be referring the family for genetic testing and counseling, so that the parents can make informed decisions for themselves and for their family. Although there is no definitive genetic marker for autism at this time, current studies are getting closer to capturing its elusive causes. Someday, there will be answers. Families who have a child with ASD (regardless of how many) should be referred for genetic testing, since other, underlying conditions can be identified (which may explain behavior and medical difficulties mimicking autistic behaviors) such as Fragile X, metabolic disorders, Rett’s Disorder, etc. In fact, genetic testing is a procedure that families may want to repeat every 10 years or so, since breakthroughs can happen (and are happening) at any time and in any number of disabilities and conditions.

Should Adam and Kristina be fearful? Not really; the baby is coming regardless of whether she has autism or not. A bit worried? Yes, probably, and totally understandably. But this is a strong family, and the love of their children is deep; they will love this little girl whether she has an autism spectrum disorder or not.

And she couldn’t be born into a better family.

Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.

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The High Risk Baby Siblings Research Consortium—in partnership with Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health Development announced the results of the consortium’s largest ever siblings study. The researchers followed younger brothers and sisters from infancy through the preschool period, when autism diagnosis becomes possible.  The study revealed a markedly higher risk among younger siblings than had been previously reported.

You can find more information about these findings here:

New findings on risk of autism in siblings – What do they mean for parents?

Increased Risk of Autism in Siblings LIVE Chat Transcript 

Increased Risk of Autism in Siblings News Coverage 

NBC’s ‘Parenthood’ is Back!

September 14, 2011 1 comment

We are so thrilled that Parenthood has returned for Season 3! The Braverman’s left us with many cliffhangers and we have been eagerly waiting to see how everything pans out!

If you missed the first episode, you can watch it online here.

We would love to share this clip with you all. Jason Katims and the Parenthood writers discuss their process and the birth of the character of Max.

* Unfortunately we were unable to add the video to our Blog, but you can watch it here!

For even more Parenthood, follow them on Facebook and Twitter!

Experts Reflect on ‘Parenthood’ Finale

April 20, 2011 21 comments

Emotions run high in the season finale of NBC‘s ‘Parenthood,’ and Max responds. Here is a clip of Max’s meltdown.


The Experts Speak: Hard Times Come Again No More

Intense emotional experiences are difficult for people with autism/Asperger’s. This is very true when the emotional experience involves other people and is not related directly to the needs or desires of the person with autism/Asperger’s. In this episode, Max is unable to relate to the feelings Sarah is experiencing when Amber is in the hospital. Indeed, the disability in being able to connect with other people and to develop an understanding of how someone else might be feeling is difficult and at times even completely alienating. A patient of mine (and an avid “Star Trek” fan) once told me that “having autism/Asperger’s is like being a Vulcan living among Klingons.”

For those of us who are “neurotypical,” we generally get a feeling of connectedness, satisfaction, and comfort when sharing in intensely emotional situations – especially those involving grief and/or death. For people with autism/Asperger’s, they just don’t get those same positive feelings that reinforce the interaction. In fact, a person with autism/Asperger’s will usually find encounters with others who are sharing feelings and comforting one another to be confusing and even frightening. The whole process simply makes little sense to them, and there is certainly nothing that is pleasant or reinforcing about the situation. Trying to get a person with autism/Asperger’s to understand and empathize is to reach the very core of their disability: social and emotional connectedness is the very thing that they are unable to do, or at least not able to do very well. Teaching empathy to someone with autism/Asperger’s is almost like teaching a pig to sing – it is a waste of time and annoys the pig (at least most of the time).

That being said, there are ways that people with autism/Asperger’s can learn to at least approximate feelings of empathy and compassion. With social stories and direct interventions in specific social situations, as Adam attempts to do with Max in this episode, people with autism/Asperger’s can at least “learn the rules” for how someone “should” act in an intensely emotional situation. When this goes well – when they get the rules correctly – they can feel a great deal of satisfaction with themselves for “getting it right.” As much as they don’t understand why people feel a certain feeling, they do often care if people respond to them in an odd or hostile way. When the important others get frustrated, disappointed or even angry with the person with autism/Asperger’s because they are not empathetic or “understanding” someone else’s point of view, it changes how that important other would generally interact with the person with autism/Asperger’s – and that’s confusing and scary.

When Frankie was very young, we began to intervene and attempt to teach the appropriate response to him when he was in a situation where he should clearly be expressing some empathy but “just didn’t get it.” This meant that we had to be vigilant about monitoring his interactions with others. It also meant we had to be ready to step in whenever there was a situation that provided a teaching moment. For many years, Frankie would not follow through independently on any of our “examples.” Eventually, he began to respond to situations in which he should show some empathy but in a very scripted way. Nonetheless, we would reinforce with praise and attention. As time has passed, Frankie has continued to respond in an almost appropriate way to situations where he should show empathy but he is clearly not directly impacted.

Like everything else with autism/Asperger’s, the key has been the intensity and persistence of the teaching. At this point, Frankie may even feel some semblance of empathy, but I know that he will never receive as much from these interactions as I do. I am grateful that at least at this point he, like Max, can feel good about himself and experience others feeling good about him as he struggles to connect socially in a world that often makes little sense to him.

Written by Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.

Visit our Topic of the Week, ‘How do you manage meltdowns?‘ to hear from the community.

Script Give-A-Way Signed By Cast of ‘Parenthood’

April 19, 2011 14 comments

NBC’s Parenthood is one of our favorite shows on television! We have had weekly discussions on our blog about different topics that the show touches on, primarily in coping with Max’s Asperger’s Syndrome. So much has happened this season and the finale is upon us – we want to celebrate!

Autism Speaks is going to give-a-way a Parenthood script signed by the entire cast and you can be in the running to win!

All you have to do is tell us on Twitter, ‘How has the television show ‘Parenthood’ affected you?’

Make sure to use @AutismSpeaks and @Parenthood when sharing with us!

Your Twitter Handle will then be entered in a random drawing to win the signed script!

Be sure to tune in to NBC tonight at 10pm EST to watch the the finale of Parenthood!

Parenthood and Learning to Let Go

February 16, 2011 4 comments

Episode 216: Amazing Andy and His Wonderful World of Bugs gave us a lot to think about this week. We can discuss the pressure and stress of planning a birthday party or even Max’s meltdown when Gaby changes her sticker rule.

But what really struck us, was  Zeek’s transformation in the way he saw Andy, the party planner. He was put off at first by Andy’s behavior. Why was he refusing help and not allowing people to touch his things? Once Adam explains that Andy does in fact has Asperger’s he is impressed. It was eye opening for him to see that he was living an independent life.

For those families who are preparing for the journey from adolescence into adulthood, please check out our Transition Tool Kit. It is an extremely useful resource.

We love the ‘Experts Speaks‘ portion of the ‘Parenthood‘ website, and we think it is important to share with you, especially this week. Here Roy Q. Sanders, M.D., shares his experience in learning to ‘let go’ of his adolescent son.

Our son Frankie will be 15 in May. Not a day goes by without my thinking about his future. The discussion over the past month has been whether he will go to our public high school or not next fall. He is absolutely sure that the time is right for him to “move on.” Yesterday, while we were cleaning the chicken coop (birds are his thing), he told me, in his own peculiar sounding voice, “I know I have autism. I know I am different. I am okay with that.” When I expressed my concerns about his not having the support that he has now at his current school (a specialized program for teenagers with autism) he told me, “You are worrying too much. You need to let it go.”

I had to smile. How many times have I told Frankie “You need to let it go”?

I suppose it’s difficult for any parent to imagine a child all grown up and taking care of him or herself. For those of us with children on the spectrum – and even though we worry about it every day – actually imagining a kid like Frankie all grown up and taking care of himself and being “okay with his autism” is an almost impossible leap of imagination. But we do know that our children will grow up, and we know each of them will live their lives as independently as they are capable with the tools we have given them.

Here’s another thing Frankie told me: “Don’t worry, you have taught me how to do this. You have taught me everything.” Like Adam in this episode, I tend to get so wrapped up in the day-to-day struggles with Frankie that I forget how much he is learning and how much his (and our) hard work are paying off. I often don’t see that we are making real progress in helping him grow into an independent adult with his own life, his own interests, and his own difficulties and quirks – just like Andy the Bug Man.

What I have seen with Frankie’s typical friendships is the same sort of understanding and support that Zeek gives Andy. Frankie’s friends are all ready to jump in and help. They “have his back.” Because they understand Frankie has autism and that he’s “different,” they do what any good friends would do: they help him out, and do what they can to structure the environment to give him room to be himself in all of his wonderful differentness.

For years I have counseled parents, teachers, patients and all sorts of social groups on how to look beyond any disabilities and see the abilities. I have advocated for inclusion. I have challenged us all to work to move beyond acceptance and toward embracing our children’s differences. I have believed (along with Jennie Weiss Block, author of “Copious Hosting: A Theology of Access for People with Disabilities”) that welcoming and embracing people with disabilities brings a theology of liberation – not only to the disabled but to those of us who are “abled” as well. We are all blessed. Now I find myself on the horns of a dilemma. Do I opt for safety, security, nurturing and growth in a very secure environment for the next few years before “allowing” Frankie the path to more complete inclusion… or do I walk with him now into the messiness of life in the “real world” and all the growth, pain and joy that this choice entails? Do I “allow” him to liberate himself while bringing liberation to those around him? Do I restrict his willingness to give himself or the willingness of others to give to him?

In reality, the choice may not be quite so stark, but it sure feels that way. This episode has been a great reminder of not only how our children’s passions can give them a life of working and loving, but also of how painful it can be for parents to “let go” and “allow” their children to risk the pain, but also experience the joy of living their own life.

Written by Roy Q. Sanders, M.D.

Make sure to visit the Parenthood website to watch full episodes!

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