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NBC'S Parenthood portrays autism challenges within a school system

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NBC’s Parenthood is doing a bang up job at introducing the perils, pitfalls and sometimes profound joys of living with autism. One of the families on the show has a child with Aspergers Syndrome. We walk the walk with Adam and Kristina Braverman, as we learn through their eyes, what it is to feel alone. We learn through their experience what an IEP (Individual Education Plan) or PPT (Planning and Placement Team) meeting is. We feel their collective anxiety and their crushing blows as their son Max faces barriers in a neuro-typical arena. However, we parents who have faced Adam and Kristina’s plight, cringe in reminiscence or nod in affirmation that the message is being shared.

Inclusion is the way of the world these days, when it pertains to children on the autism spectrum. I am truly conflicted.

Twenty two years ago we outplaced our non-verbal 4 year old, because we knew in our hearts that it was the right thing to do. He needed speech 24/7 and that was not happening in the town program. The decision making meeting, the infamous PPT, placed a large elephant in the room, as if Barnum and Bailey drove up with a truck.

“Why wouldn’t he stay in the same public school with his brothers and sister, he could learn from other children” said the special education staff member, as she visibly pondered her fiscal responsibilities. It is a costly venture to out- place a child. I learned the lingo to respond: “He has been living in the same house with 3 other 4 year olds and language has escaped him thus far. He needs a dedicated speech and language program”. Quiet elephant, large and looming; disapproving eyes darted from my gaze.

And so our boy began the journey to find words. He was an affable kid, liked to sit in laps and snuggle, as he looked at books. He learned to read, and then speak, and five years later said: “I want to go back to school with my brothers and sister’. And so he did.

It was not the panacea we dreamed for or what he wanted or even needed. The notion of inclusion is a tricky concept. Sometimes, it may mean that the child attended special education classes for academics, but inclusion for lunch and recess, a concept that escapes me. Like barking pigs, anomalies, special needs children are led to join in, more elephants in the room.

Our son’s story was different. Staff believed that recess was too stimulating, and counterproductive. Middle schoolers are bulls in a china shop on a good day, not the role model for a child who is learning appropriate behaviors. And so he was isolated yet again. Fifteen years later, he asks: “Why was I not allowed to go to recess?” I am conflicted again.

Back to Parenthood (current full episode here); Max Braverman is smart and sassy. His sassiness is not on purpose. He regurgitates information, just because he knows it. Following a lesson when Max butts in while demonstrating his vast knowledge of historical events, his History teacher requests that he go to the library; we are keenly aware that this is not a first occurrence. We witness class members roll their eyes and sense the teacher’s frustration; a teachable moment forever lost. When the Bravermans discover that Max is relocated to the library ninety nine per cent of the time, they call a PPT meeting and revisit the “dance” of politely disagreeing with the administration. The school Principal supports Max’s History teacher and explains that this is the best way to deal with Max’s issues, while keeping him in the school system. He goes on to say that Max cannot learn in the current environment, and his teacher cannot teach in the current environment, but they are doing the “best’ that they can do. Kristina replies that their “best” is unacceptable. We are given a snippet to be continued. Kristina may just open her own school.

I am conflicted once again. Today’s school life is tomorrow’s community life. How will teachers and students learn to accept people with differences, if they don’t spend time with them. How will future employers understand how to hire individuals with differences, if they haven’t experienced time with them. These are more statements than questions.

In my perfect scenario, Max Braverman’s teacher would allow him to teach a lesson, and ask his peers to volunteer questions. Max would also practice perspective taking and with help, learn to negotiate his plan. However, the scene in Parenthood is spot on, as more often than not, the child is excluded.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s politicians and employers. Autistic children become adults with value to contribute to our ever changing global world. It is time to get real, learn from our mistakes, and take advantage of what is right before our eyes. The elephant in the room might just be the next ring leader.

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