TV Show Portrays Candid Experience of Having a Child on the Spectrum

By: Beth Vaughan

NBC’s hit show “Parenthood” returned on Thursday night for its 6th and final season. If you are not familiar with the heartwarming show, it follows the story of the Braverman family; made up of a set of grandparents, their four children, and their families. One of those Braverman grandchildren is named Max, the first character in TV history to portray a candid experience of living with autism.

The actor’s real name is Max Burkholder, who was only 11 years old when the show first began, and fully committed to learning about autism so he could actually portray “Max Braverman” in a realistic light. And, if the audience’s response to his character is anything to go by, he has more than succeeded. From his social quirks to his more emotionally-charged scenes, Max Braverman has touched the hearts among so many people inside and outside of the autism community.

One of the most emotional scenes came during Season 5, when Max goes on his first, unsupervised school field trip. Max was so tormented by his classmates that he threw a tantrum, resulting in his parents coming to pick him up. In the car ride home, after almost 2 hours of complete silence, Max finally asks, “Why do all the other kids hate me? Is it because I’m weird?” His parents, Kristina (Monica Potter) and Adam (Peter Krause), are speechless, but Max is overwhelmingly honest. It is a moment that showcases a realistic situation many people on the autism spectrum – and their families – unfortunately deal with regularly.

Parenthood writer and executive producer, Jason Katims has a child on the autism spectrum, which obviously inspired him to create Max’s character. When Katims decided to adapt the 1989 movie Parenthood into a television show, he wanted to find a way to include his own parenting experiences, and that meant the challenges of raising a child on the spectrum, something that would be difficult for him for multiple reasons. Katims said in an interview, “I didn’t know that we could do it because there weren’t any shows or movies that told the story of a kid with Asperger’s. I was worried. Would everybody reject it? Like, this doesn’t relate to me. It’s depressing. Would we be able to do a good job of telling the story, representing in some way what the experience is really like for a family dealing with this? And I didn’t know the answer to that.”

As Parenthood has gone on, Katims and the show’s writers have shown Max dealing with a wide range of issues, including his mother being diagnosed with breast cancer in Season 4. When Kristina and Adam tell Max, he responds with an impassive “OK,” and then asks if he can watch TV. Later on in the episode, Max asks Kristina if she’s going to need chemotherapy, and explains to her that the treatment kills the healthy cells as well as the bad cells. It’s a precise depiction of how a child with Asperger’s would respond to an emotional burden: through factual explanations. “The way that Max thinks of things is rationally and logically, rather than emotionally,” said Burkholder, who reacted very differently than when he dealt with a similar situation in his own life. “In his mind, rather than, Oh my god, my mom might die. I’m so sad. What am I going to do? It was more like, Hmm, it’ll be really inconvenient to not have a mom. That’ll suck if she’s gone. No one will be able to drive me to school, make my meals, things like that.

Burkholder knows that part of the show’s legacy is not only its realistic portrayal of a child and his family dealing with Asperger’s, but also the way it forced its audience to see Max as more than just someone on the spectrum. “At first, I thought playing Max was about the fact that he had Asperger’s. But over time, it’s been more like his Asperger’s is more secondary to who he is,” the actor said. “It’s really easy to categorize people with differences, like, ‘everybody who has Asperger’s is like this, so they must all be into this, they must all act like this,” he continued. “But it’s not as much about playing someone with Asperger’s; it’s about playing Max Braverman.”

When Parenthood concludes its final, 13-episode season this spring, one thing is very clear: Max Braverman and the series will be greatly missed among many in the autism community.