When Is The Right Time?

I don’t know if you’ve seen the new TV series Parenthood, but if not I highly recommend checking it out. I was originally interested in it simply because I was curious how they would portray, well, parenthood. It’s true, marketers have me pegged – put the word parent or mommy or mom in a title, and you can guarantee I’ll check it out.

The show is funny. Very funny. And sometimes painfully funny - in that way where you laugh but inside you cringe a little because you’ve been in that exact same situation and remember how humiliating it was. But the show also takes itself seriously in portraying the lives of an extended family, all very different people in very different situations. These people could be us, and in watching the show you quickly find yourself drawn to identifying with one person who is most like you, yet recognize so many of the struggles faced by the other characters, too.

In watching the show, the one thing I never realized was that Parenthood would also be tackling the subject of autism. In early episodes, one couple discovers that their son is on the spectrum, and their world is turned upside down in so many ways. When I quickly realized where they were going with that plot topic in the first episode, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Would they make the topic of autism light and fluffy? Would they make it worse than it really is? Would the boy be little more than a caracature of a child with autism, or would they really make it realistic?

Truth is, they have so far done a brilliant job of walking the line to bring awareness to the condition. I’ve cried several big, fat tears while watching this show because these parents could be us. Hell, their names are Adam and Kristina – how much closer to Aaron and Christina could you get? I watched them struggle with even accepting there might be something wrong with their son, and remembered my own struggles with the same topic. They frantically searched for a “cure” just like I did. They’ve tried to protect Max from those who don’t understand him, the same way we’ve tried to protect Cordy.

Of course it’s a TV show, and there will never be enough time in each episode to present a full, clear picture of autism, but I’ve been impressed with how real it is thus far.

This week’s episode really affected me, though. In it, the family teams up for the Walk for Autism, with Max as family cheerleader, determined to win the trophy. At one point, he shouts, “Let’s help those kids with autism!” and everyone in the room is suddenly aware that Max doesn’t know yet that “those kids with autism” includes him.

I don’t think we’ve ever told Cordy that she has autism. Granted, she’s much younger than the character of Max (who is nine, I think), but it’s never been something we’ve talked about. She’s attended special-needs preschool for three years now where she’s had weekly speech and motor skills therapy. For three quarters of a year she’s participated in a research study for kids with autism, requiring several cognitive and developmental skills tests. She’s taken pills purely at our request, never really knowing why we asked her to take them other than “they help you stay healthy,” just like her vitamins.

But despite saying nothing to her directly about it, there have been clues. She knows she won’t ever wait at a bus stop for her bus like other kids. She’s aware that some kids in her class can’t talk and have meltdowns that sometimes require them to be restrained. For herself, she knows she has “the flappers” who live in her arms and sometimes make her flap. She knows she has irrational sensory fears. And there are times I’m sure I can see right into her mind through her eyes, watching as she fights internal battles with herself over her confusion on social cues and her reactions to the world around her.

The TV show psychologist told Adam and Kristina that they will know when the right time is to tell Max about his autism. I hope the same is true for our family. She’s probably too young to even understand it at this point, and I don’t want to further burden her with the knowledge that she is most definitely not like other kids. She already has moments where she seems so distant and sad, as if she’s pondering how to solve world hunger, wars, and the environment all at once. Why add more weight to such small shoulders?

I don’t want Cordy to feel different, but at the same time I want her to know it’s OK to be different. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite – I’ll stand proud and defend her differences, reminding anyone who would shun her that autism isn’t a choice, but I also want her to improve and hope she’ll be able to fit in better with her peers. It is possible to defend her diffences and yet want her to change in the same breath?

No one said parenting would be easy. It’s no surprise why I watch any show with the word parent in it and participate in the parent blogging community - it’s impossible to do this without looking to others for support and a little validation that I’m not the only one who feels like I’m parenting blindfolded without a net sometimes.

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  1. I have a hard time watching that show for just this…it’s almost a little too close to our reality.

    Our son was just given a diagnosis of Asperger’s. We found ourselves having to explain it to his big sister (she’s 8 and very aware of…everything). As we were talking to her, I realized that we didn’t talk to our son about it. He just knows that Mommy talks to “school people” all of the time while he’s at preschool.

  2. I posted about this show a while back too, for just that reason. We started watching it because I was curious if it would be as funny as the movie was. Then we realized they changed what was an “anxiety disorder” to Asperger’s – which makes total sense really – and we also watched it to see how they’d handle that. My husband has Asperger’s and our son is, I suppose, “high risk” for it since it seems to run in my husband’s family. It’s interesting to watch those particular portions of the show with my husband, because he talks back to the parents about the things they shouldn’t be saying to their child (“you might or might not do X” being one of those phrases that often confused my husband and led him into awkward situations growing up) and how similar certain things are to what he experienced/went through with his parents.

  3. I think you just follow her cues, Christina. This year was a real turning point for my son and for us as a family; it wasn’t just his official ASD diagnosis, but that this was the first time we could see him realizing he is different and wondering why that is. So we talk about it. Lord, we talk about it all the time. We read books about it. He tells people, now, casually even, and is incorporating it into his identity, not as a crutch or a bandage, but as a piece of who he is. It’s been really interesting to watch.

    You’ll know when Cordy’s ready.

    As for Parenthood, I can’t decide if I love it or hate it. I think they’ve taken great pains to keep Max from being “too weird” in their effort to make him appealing, and I get that, but I also sometimes feel like it misses the mark because of that.

  4. I do watch the show, which seems to bear little resemblance to the movie. While we don’t deal with Asperger’s or autism directly in our home, we have two friends, one whose son has Asperger’s and one whose son has autism, and have watched their struggles.

    Our Middle Child is dyslexic, which he is well aware of – Hubby is too. 40% of the grade below him at our school are on IEPs for ADD, ADHD, and various autism spectrum disorders, so it’s not unusual to hear the words.

  5. Rachael says:

    I absolutely LOVE this show and have heard from a couple of different parents of kids on the spectrum that it’s portrayed well. I am overly emotional (I blame pregnancy hormones, and now postpartum ones), and am a crier normally anyhow and this show GETS to me. That scene with Max made my heart ache a little. Actually your post got me a little teary. I think that you will know when it’s right, like you said Cordy is still young. But I know it must be a hard thing to think about. She’s just blessed to have such great parents, really.

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