Mari-Jane Williams is a news design editor at The Washington Post and a regular guest contributor to the On Parenting blog. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and two children, one of whom has special needs.
Most television shows, even those based on real-life situations, are not realistic. Just ask any surgeon, forensic scientist or attorney if what plays out on Grey’s Anatomy, CSI or Law & Order bears much resemblance to their day-to-day experiences.
How could a television show possibly do justice to the nuances of parenting any child, but particularly a child with special needs? The frustrations and joys and the difficulties of dealing with public perceptions of your child and your parenting skills? How will producers know how amazing these kids’ victories are? That most of the time, they are so amazing it trumps everything else? Not possible.
I tuned in anyway, and after two-and-a-half seasons, I can happily say I was wrong (and I have previously referenced this show in a blog post). More often than not, the show reflects with poignancy my experience parenting a child with developmental disabilities. Take, for example, this scene from the Nov. 29 episode, in which Max temporarily goes missing and returns home in a police car to find his sister, Haddie, played by Sarah Ramos, distraught. It’s both amusing and heartbreaking.
I recently spoke by phone with the show’s executive producer, Jason Katims. Katims’s 15-year-old son, who has Asperger’s, is part of the inspiration behind Max’s character. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
What are your favorite things about Max on the show?
What Max Burkholder has done with this character is so much more than anything I could have imagined when I set up to do this story. He’s able to strike this balance between being so committed and accurate, but at the same time very entertaining.
When I first did the pilot, I was very on the fence about whether to include this story line. I didn’t know whether or not we’d be able to do it justice. I was unsure whether it was the right thing to do for the sake of my son’s privacy and my family’s privacy. ... What’s amazing is the legs this story has. We have been able to take a full journey and watch them, from the pilot, when he wasn’t even diagnosed yet, to see how far this family has come over those years, in terms of finding out about Max and helping with him, and to watch him progress.
You’ve talked about how the show explores the ways in which your children are not who you expected them to be. How have you used Max to show this surprise in positive ways?
It’s not only the challenges but also the unexpected beauty of it, and we definitely felt it was important to explore that. It really makes you focus on what’s important. You just want them to have friends and be happy and be in a place where they are seen and heard. That’s what you should want for any kid. As parents you really share the triumphs, even when they’re just small moments, even when they’re things that nobody else would even notice. Those moments, when they happen, of him being successful, or progressing, or showing love, I feel like they are much more cherished moments.
How has the response from the public been? Has it surprised you, and why?
For some reason I didn’t expect it would be as talked about and written about as it has been. I realized it’s because it hasn’t been out there on network television or any television in this way. I don’t think it’s just autism. It’s special needs being dealt with in a way that’s real and an ongoing story. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Yes, people quibble with things here or there. They’re going to; I would too if I were a parent watching the show. But the overwhelming response has been “Thank you for doing this.” People are using it to make people understand what their experience is like: “You know that kid Max on ‘Parenthood’? My kid is sort of like that.”
For parents of children with Asperger’s, what advice would you offer, especially to those with children who have just been diagnosed?
Go out and gather as much information as possible, not only through the medical professionals, but through people you know. Even if it’s third hand, anybody who has a kid in a similar situation will talk to you, it doesn’t matter how thin of a connection it is. ... Parents will help you so much on many levels, from referrals for therapists and schools, to helping you understand what it is that you’re about to go through. It’s a hard thing to do right away, because in the beginning there are lots of reasons why you might not want to jump into that, whether it’s not wanting to be public, or a level of denial in some people. The shorter the amount of time you can make that period and the sooner you can start reaching out to other people in this community, the better.