Autism now affects 1 out of every 88 kids in America. They are everywhere, and that includes prime time TV. Every week Monica Potter plays Kristina Braverman, mom of a child whose Asperger's diagnosis in the pilot of Parenthood rocked her family and made the nation stand up and pay attention to how special needs kids are being treated on television.
In time for Autism Awareness Month, The Stir sat down with Monica to find out what it's like to be a voice for moms of kids on the spectrum. She let us in on what's next for her on-screen son Max if (her words, but we're saying when!) Parenthood is picked up for another season by NBC.
The real-life Potter isn't that much different from the working mom she plays on TV. Both have three kids -- Potter is mom to Daniel, Liam, and Molly -- and both struggle to find a balance between work and home.
"I just can't go for a haircut and then take pictures of my haircut, and then Facebook about my haircut!" Potter admitted, marveling at the celebrity moms who seem to have it all, and a social media account to track it! She's too busy trying to figure out mom challenges like finding a movie that will appeal to 17-year-old Liam and not be inappropriate for 6 1/2-year-old Molly, or teaming up with Kellogg's to fight childhood hunger.
But her biggest challenge at work? Learning about autism. "I'm learning with Kristina," she confessed.
Although in part Potter says she knew little about the disorder simply because none of her kids are on the spectrum, she wanted to give authenticity to the role of a mom struggling to make sense of this new world of parenting a child with autism. Like most parents, Kristina and Adam Braverman didn't know what to do when the diagnosis came. Potter wanted America to know how confusing this is for parents.
When we asked her what kind of feedback she gets about her character from the general public, she laughed. "They say I'm too nosy!" she admitted. The autism community, on the other hand, has welcomed her with open arms.
Potter credits the show's creators for ensuring the story told on screen is a realistic re-creation of the life of a family with a kid with Asperger's. It's a real story because it's their story. Executive producer Jason Katims' son has Asperger's.
"This isn't someone saying this is what we think autism is like," Potter points out.
And it's not something the cast of Parenthood simply milks for viewers. Each year, Potter and her cast mates take part in fundraisers for national non-profit Autism Speaks (expect the team at Autism Speaks' 10th Anniversary Los Angeles Walk Now at the Rose Bowl later this month) where they walk to raise money to fund the research that will hopefully help these kids in the future.
The future of kids with autism is something Potter thinks about a lot. Watching these kids grow, wondering how those who are consider "high functioning" like TV-son Max, she says she'd like to see Parenthood run for another decade so they can begin to address some of the even bigger issues for parents of children on the spectrum. "What's it going to be like for these kids to date, for him to get a job?" she ponders.
In fact -- mini-spoiler here -- that's likely the next "big thing" to hit the Adam and Kristina sector of the Braverman family. As if a new baby (Potter confessed she's still carrying 10 pounds from her TV pregnancy because she ended up using the fake belly as a food tray just like real preggos do!) and a teenager headed to college weren't enough, it looks like Kristina will be struggling with a son with autism hitting the teen years with the same hunger for independence as his peers. Watch out!
What do you think Parenthood has done right in telling the story of parenting a child on the spectrum?
Image Kellogg's/Alex Della Gatta/AP