Is there ‘something wrong’ with kids with special needs?

Yes, this is my second post in two days on NBC’s new family drama, “Parenthood.” But while Tuesday’s post offered a general review of the show (good, not great), I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about something that happened in the final seconds of the premiere but that has had me thinking for three days.

Talking to his father, Adam Braverman (played by Peter Krause) says tearfully, “There’s something wrong with my son.” The son in question, Max, we find out, has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism.

In the moment, I was hugely disappointed in NBC. While certainly autism is not the norm, many people with the disease, especially those with an Asperger’s diagnosis, view it as a gift and see their abilities — which often include an excellent memory, strong three-dimensional thinking, and musical or artistic ability — as gifts.

Moreover, to label any child with a disability as “wrong” is hurtful, plain and simple. Some parents expressed those views on Access Hollywood last week, where they found an ally in host Billy Bush.

But something happened yesterday that made me rethink the situation. We got a comment on a story we ran in the most recent edition of Special Parent. The story was a profile of Kathy Lavin, a Chicago-area mom of three children, the oldest of whom has Down syndrome. At one point, Lavin is talking about the birth of her second child, Michael, and says: “…having Michael was a healing moment for me. It proved to me I could believe in myself to create something perfect.”

One reader left the following comment:

So let me get this straight. Are you saying that people living with dissabilities [sic] aren’t perfect? Are you saying that you are? Or are you telling your son that He alone is perfect?

The reader makes a fair, though perhaps a little harshly worded, point. And in light of that message, I rethought the “Parenthood” moment.

Of course, we shouldn’t be reinforcing the idea that a child with special needs is fundamentally flawed or that, like all children, they’re not a source of joy and inspiration for their parents. They are.

But in a sort of squeamish, uncomfortable way, I think we can all understand what parents of children with special needs like Adam or Kathy must feel, at least in the immediate aftermath. A sense of failure, perhaps? Of loss? Of disappointment? Of guilt?

Let’s not judge Adam Braverman or Kathy Lavin or any of the millions of parents of children with special needs out there. As much as their children need to know that they are valued and loved, parents need to be reassured, comforted, validated, and, yes, maybe even allowed to indulge in a moment of politically incorrect guilt.

Being a parent is hard. Being a parent of child with special needs is unbelievably hard. They don’t need your judgment on top of that.

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