Ok, so there is this amazing TV show called Parenthood. And, if you have not seen it, then you literally need to stop reading, get your but over to Netflix and binge watch the crap out of this show. I remember the day I first found Parenthood. It was all so innocent really. My husband and I are Netflix and Amazon junkies. We finished up with whatever show we had just devoured and were ready for something new. I spent a few minutes perusing the TV show category and settled on Parenthood. I was a former Gilmore Girls fan so I figured I would give it a shot. It was only about 20 minutes into the first episode when I knew that we stumbled across something that was going to change our lives. Believe me, I know this sounds ridiculous. I completely understand that the idea of a TV show changing someone’s life is absurd. But, it did. In the first episode of the show, we meet Max Braverman. And as the first episode continues, Max’s parents begin to discover that their son is living on the autism spectrum. Parenthood did not hold back. It showed the truly raw emotions that families feel when they are faced with diagnosis. The parents were resistant and full of denial. They were angry and scared. They felt in the dark and full of unanswered questions. They struggled with acceptance. And throughout the course of the show they struggled with many other things; difficult things. I am sure all parents, all people really, related to the emotions of the show. But there was something so raw and so real about the character of Max Braverman that touched my heart.
I will admit here that I can count the number of episodes that did not leave me in a puddle of my own tears on 1 hand. This show was everything that I needed at exactly the time I needed it. I needed to give context to the things in my head. I needed to relate to something that I could see playing out in front of me. I needed validation to the things I worried I should not be thinking, let alone saying out loud. I needed to see how one person’s autism can infiltrate an entire family system. And, I needed to see how wicked awesome amazing Max Braverman would be as he continued to navigate his life. I know…these people are not real. My husband kindly reminded me of that nearly every episode. But to me, the issues that they were discussing, the topics that they were brave enough to cover were incredibly real. Sometimes I felt like they were stealing thoughts from my head. Sometimes I felt like they were giving me the words and the strength to navigate situations that I was facing. And so to me, the Braverman family and the story they told were as true and real as anything else.
There are so many things I love about Max Braverman. He is smart, brilliant really. He is so much smarter than most people. He speaks without a filter and he is not afraid to tell people exactly what he is thinking; not because he is rude, but because he does not know another way. So he says things that seem harsh and extreme, but he is just being honest. Max was un-unnervingly naïve. He wanted to believe that the world was as simple and as good as he saw it. He had so much faith in people. He approached situations without bias. He asked a million questions; about literally every single thing in his path. He needed to understand exactly why and when and where and what. He NEEEDED to know. This part may be hard for you to understand. Kids living on the spectrum do not want to be a nuisance. They are not looking for ways to annoy you. They are purposely asking questions or repeating behaviors or having an emotionally inappropriate response just to rattle you. Everything they do is for a reason; a specific and calculated need. They need things to be a certain way. He needed his mother to spend hours filling the neighborhood with LED candles; because flames made him paranoid. He needed people to give him space and not invade his personal space. He needed people to avoid certain words and triggers so that he could stay on task. He needed to ask enough questions to understand exactly why he was asked or expected to do something. He needed these things like we need air. I cannot explain it to you. But I can tell you that I know this to be true. I live this every day. I can see my son needs something so much that it causes a physical reaction. I can see that he needs things to be a certain way. I can tell you that this is not a small deal to Grayson. He will no “just get over it.” So, if Grayson needs only green cupcakes, or 2 suckers instead of 1, or exactly 2 Matchbox cars to go to bed with him; so be it. If he cannot stand the thought of going to be without socks on, or he cannot let anyone else in the family share his favorite color (green), or he cannot even think of starting a movie at any place other than the beginning, fine. Those things are little. Those things do not matter. He needs them; and so I give them to him. And Max Braverman helped me understand that.
Things I learned from Parenthood:
- Family will always rise to the occasion. They will see you through the lowest lows and they will celebrate with you at your highest highs. They may not always understand your journey, but they will always travel it with you. I texted my mom and my mother-in-law about 30 minutes into my first episode. I said “WATCH THIS SHOW NOW.” And they did. And just like it gave me a voice; it gave them an understanding. It helped them relate. I can remember saying to my mom “Call me when you get to the camping episode” or “you will understand when you see the urine episode”. My family watched this show because they wanted to relate to me, to Grayson, to what we are going through. They are on this journey with us and they will always be right by our side.
- Autism only changes what you let it. Living our life without becoming victims of autism is a state of mind. It is a decision that we make every day. I realized early on in the show that it is completely normal to let autism infiltrate your entire existence…for a while. And then after a while it is time to take back control. This process is incredibly difficult. And, I often feel like we are doing it with such a very small (or non-existent) amount of grace. The Braverman’s, like us, were overcome with their diagnosis. It became who they were. It defined them. And then, one day they decided not to let it. And then it did not define them anymore. It was always a part of their journey, but it became a much smaller piece of their family puzzle.
- Sometimes people suck. The urine episode. It is hard for me to explain just how this made me feel as a mom; more importantly as Grayson’s mom. I know you may not have seen the show, so let me just say this; when a family receives an autism diagnosis it is normal to think about all of the ways that your life will be effected, not just in that moment but for years to come. We have fears about the future that are sometimes to terrifying to put into words. In this episode a group of kids does something to Max that is despicable. And, they do it because Max is different. That part is even more despicable. In the secret compartments of my heart…in the deepest pockets of my brain; these are the fears that keep my up at night. No one wants to imagine a future for their child that is difficult and full of pain. But when you are the parent of a child with special needs, this is a part of the journey. I watched this episode completely drenched in my own tears. In this episode the mother is in the front of the car as her son recounts to her what happened. As the son acknowledges that people think he is a freak. And she sits in the front of the car silently sobbing. It is a moment that she thought about and dreaded and prayed would never come. And when it came, all she could do was cry. And I cried along with her. Sometimes people suck. Sometimes they do something terrible. If you are parent, teach your children to be kind. To accept and understand difference. Do this because it is the right thing to do. Do this because you have no idea how difficult this journey is. Teach your children to be wiser. To love more. To judge less.
- “Freak” is relative. Max Braverman is obsessed with insects. Sure, insects are kind of creepy and maybe not for everyone. But he loves them, and they make him happy. And this does not make him a freak. He is interested in something. He cares enough about something to study it; to learn more about it. He shares it with his friends. Bugs are his thing; and having a thing makes Max feel happy. Grayson has a lot of “things”. The latest obsession is match box cars. I have to remind myself daily that there are WAY crazier things that he could be obsessed with. Sure, at the end of a long day the last thing I want to do is pick up 40 cars from the ground (again) just to have them tossed back out of the bag at sun rise. Sure, it is annoying when he calls me into his room 5 times at night because he’s dropped (again) one of the 2 cars he is allowed to take to bed. Sure, sometimes it is a battle explaining to him exactly why he cannot take 40 cars with him everywhere that he goes. But, he loves cars. And cars make him happy. I love that he loves something so much that it excited him. People may do thing or collect things that we do not understand; this does not make them a freak.
- Autism is not a life sentence. In the beginning it feels like all of the walls will cave in. As if at some point your tombstone will read “Autism swallowed her whole.” The biggest gift the show gave me was an understanding that autism is as fluid as anything else in life. It ebbs and flows. In the beginning of the show, you can see that the members of the family often feel resentful towards Max. Now, what I mean is that they feel resentful towards the autism, but when you are living through this it is really hard to differentiate. James and I experience this all of the time. We will say “sometimes I just get so frustrated with him; and then I remember it is not him…it is the autism.” This is a huge piece of understanding how to move forward. By the end of the show I think that every member of the family would say to you that the symptoms of Max’s autism are some of the things that made him so special and unique. And without those things; Max would not have been Max. You have to be able to forgive the autism. You cannot stay bitter and angry forever. Autism is a life diagnosis, but it does not have to be a life sentence.
Since we binge-watched Parenthood; the whole 6 seasons only lasted about a month. (I swear, if it were not for my job, family, house, need for sleep, and general life responsibilities I would have watched the entire 6 seasons in a week!) As we prepared to watch the final episode I told my husband that I was not sure if I was emotionally prepared for the show to end. I needed to see Max grow up. I needed to seem him graduate high school and go on a date. I needed to know what his life held in store for him. I needed to see how his mom found the courage to let him spread his wings. How after years of arranging every moment of his care and treatment; she let go. I needed to see that they could survive autism. That they were not only surviving but that they were better for having lived through it. I thought that I needed all of these things to help me on my own journey. I thought it could somehow be a beacon to guide me. But, when it was all over I realized something important…this show helped me find my voice. It made me brave. It gave me hope. Sometimes it scared the shit out of me, but I needed that part too.
I love Max Braverman. I love that in 2009 someone was brave enough to create that character. To let him live through real experiences. To show his parents struggling to get by day to day. To show his sister loving him and hating him all at the same time. To show his extended family unsure what to say or do in the wake of Max’s symptoms. I love Max Baverman and I am so thankful for him. I feel like he will help makes this world a safer place for Grayson. This show gave a voice and a face to autism in a hugely publicly way on a hugely ginormous scale. I can use this show to help Grayson be stronger. To be a braver man.