Last month, I waxed emotional about the TV show Parenthood and its handling of Max’s Asperger Syndrome. Turns out I’m not the only one paying attention, because Variety decided to address how viewers respond when the media tackles serious health issues. The coolest part of reading their article? Seeing “Renee Helie Wheelock, a mom in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.” quoted in the piece.
I tried to get in touch with Renee to talk more about this with her, but it turns out that she’s tricky to get a hold of! (Renee, if you somehow find your way over here, please leave us a comment. I’d love to know how Variety found you! You rock.)
The article got me to thinking more about how kids with special needs are portrayed in television and movies. There was the autistic son in the short-lived TV series Flash Forward, more of your stereotypical savant character than the more realistic character of Max on Parenthood. And it may have been a comedy, but I loved the character of Stevie on Malcolm in the Middle – he was still always getting into trouble with the other kids despite having severe asthma and tooling around in his wheelchair. Who remembers Corky, the boy with Downs Syndrome (I may be dating myself here) on the old drama Life Goes On? The actor had Downs Syndrome himself, which may have been a first at that point in time. And there have been portrayals of deaf children on Weeds, ER, and All My Children – with varying degrees of realism.
In the movie My Sister’s Keeper, Kate is a teenager who has lived with acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) nearly all her life. Her character was ready to die – something that makes many parents extremely uncomfortable. But again on the comedy side is Spencer from As Good as it Gets, a kid with asthma so severe that it drastically impacted his life. The film made a point about health care disparity that any parent of a child with medical problems can sympathize with – his mother’s HMO never paid for very basic testing to find a treatment that would actually help him, but once Jack Nicholson’s wealthy character paid for a private doctor, Spencer was able to experience life like a “normal” child.
I had to draw from memory – and the memories of my Twitter friends – to come up with this many young characters with special needs. I had a hard time trying to find anything with a Google search. So let me know… What characters have I left out? Did you feel they were portrayed realistically, or did they end up being little more than a caricature of a stereotype?