Autism Unexpected: NBC’s ‘Parenthood’ Brings Real-Life Autism to TV

Max Burkholder as Max Braverman © NBC Universal, Inc.

As a parent of a child with autism, I have watched with interest several television programs that have featured autistic characters. NBC’s new hour-long drama “Parenthood” is the newest of these programs, and one that holds a great deal of promise.

I am interested in autistic characters on television for the same reasons many other minority groups are interested in seeing people representative of them on television. It educates, it normalizes and it includes. I’ve been disappointed in the past by autistic portrayals on TV, notably Mary McDonnell‘s doctor with Asperger’s on “Grey’s Anatomy,” because the characters just didn’t ring true and seemed to perpetuate stereotypes.

I’ve been seeing commercials for “Parenthood” for a long time, but just learned last week that one of the characters, Max, is a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. This is intriguing because I can’t think of any instances in which a child has played a person with autism. I was further compelled to watch after learning that “Parenthood” producer Jason Katims has a 13-year-old son with Asperger’s, which means the situations surrounding Max come from a place of experience.

I watched “Parenthood” alone today on my DVR. I did a little laughing and enjoyed the show, but when Max and his parents came on the screen, I saw my family. When I watched Max refusing to go to a baseball game, choosing instead to play with Legos, I saw my family and our extensive Lego collection. When I watched Max’s classmates give him funny looks for acting strangely, I saw my son’s classroom and the looks his classmates give him. When I watched Max’s mom cry, “Don’t leave me alone in this,” to Max’s dad, I saw inside my own head.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with my autistic child, but when I watched Max’s dad sadly observe his son on a playground repeatedly jumping into a puddle and then say, “Something is wrong with my son,” I sobbed. Because I know that look and I am quite aware of how often it is on my face as I watch my son behave in a way that is so different.

Based on reactions I’ve heard from other autism moms, they agree. One friend of mine even noted that the same day her daughter with autism refused to reciprocate a greeting to a classmate at school, she came home to watch a similar scene play out on her television in “Parenthood.” This show touched them—and me—in a way that others haven’t.

There are other television characters that members of the autism community have claimed as their own, for instance, Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory” and Abed from “Community.” While neither of these characters are labeled as autistic or Aspergian, I’ve enjoyed them as success stories of quirky people.

But “Parenthood” is the first TV program I’ve watched that shows what I experience every day. Granted, my family is not Max’s family, and Max’s experiences will not mirror my son’s. (Not to mention that there are many autistic people to whom Max probably has few similarities.) TV life is not really all that similar to real life. Max is to my son as “Parenthood’s” single mom, played by Lauren Graham, is to my real-life friend the single mom. They are different, oh so different, but there is common ground.

Producer Katims has said in interviews regarding the autistic character, “My hope would be that it normalizes it, so there’s no stigma to it, no mystery to it.” I hope so too. I hope that Max, played incredibly well by Max Burkholder, might help people understand a little bit what it is like to raise an autistic child.

No television show can perfectly capture something as complicated as autism. However, Max on “Parenthood” is a human, non-sensationalized face of a child who isn’t a terrifying vision of a ruined future. His is a story about a family living with a child who has high-functioning autism. It is my story. And I am grateful to see it on television.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on March 3, 2010.

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