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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.

The Experts Speak – Episode 215: Just Go Home

February 9, 2011 6 comments

For the “Just Go Home,” episode recap, visit here.

Asperger’s syndrome and keeping secrets – isn’t this an oxymoron? In this episode, Max quite naturally (and without malice) reveals a secret that his sister, Haddie, would rather he didn’t. She’s still seeing Alex against her parents’ wishes and has been hiding it, but as Haddie is reminded in this episode, if there’s an individual with Asperger’s syndrome in the family, secrets are non-existent.

This can cause great difficulty, uncomfortable situations and family disputes. When Max lets her secret slip, Haddie is put into a painful situation as Adam and Kristina become surprised and upset with her. Adam and Kristina had already grounded her in a previous episode for keeping secrets, and now Max has let her cat out of the bag. This doesn’t endear Max to Haddie, a problem that siblings of Asperger’s kids struggle with on a daily basis.

Having the ability to hold secrets for any length of time requires trust between individuals and an understanding of others’ needs. This is very difficult for someone on the spectrum. A core feature of autism spectrum disorder is impairment in understanding the social needs of other people, since ASD entails a lack of underlying social understanding and perspective taking.

In order to keep a secret, one needs to know who can be told the information in question and who cannot. This type of problem solving requires abstract reasoning and sorting through a myriad of information bytes at lightning speed, and finally coming to a reasonable solution that works out for all. Those with autism spectrum are concrete thinkers and exceptionally honest – if asked a question, they will respond with the truth, without taking the time to analyze and reflect what should be said and not said. Thus, secrets are hard for them to keep for any length of time.

ASD or not, some secrets should be kept – such as answers to test questions and personal family information. But other secrets are best told, such as those involving criminal activity or anything entailing the exploitation or manipulation of the person with ASD. But how is a person with autism spectrum to know the difference? Some secrets are tiny and have no real consequences; some are major and can endanger life. As siblings grow up, they tell each other many secrets (parents, this should not be a surprise) and as a result, they learn by doing: when to keep secrets, when to reveal them, and what should never be told. But when you add a child with autism spectrum disorder to the mix, typically developing siblings may end up feeling that they can’t trust their own flesh and blood, and the sibling with the disorder is placed in social situations he can’t figured out and that continually get him or her in trouble.

When faced with the type of situation Max finds himself in in this episode, those with ASD will usually tell it like it is – revealing to parents, siblings, their friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers things that shouldn’t be told. This can be either a positive or a negative; how others handle the completely honest statements made by the child with ASD will determine how much trouble will follow. If a very young child, most adults will laugh over the blunder; if an older adolescent or adult, grave consequences can result.

For the child with autism spectrum, this whole business of keeping secrets can be very confusing. Appropriate instruction on secret keeping is both difficult and delicate and should be tackled carefully by parents and teachers. Even after intensive instruction however, making this type of judgment requires split-second analysis of multiple factors, both concrete and humanistic. So don’t be surprised when the kid spills the beans.

Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.

To read this full article visit, “The Experts Speaks,” on the Parenthood website.

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