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The Touching Asperger’s Storyline on Parenthood

Inviting us into the world of Max and others like him.

Paula Bolyard


January 15, 2014 - 3:00 pm
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Spoiler alert for the December and January episodes below!

Many shows on TV offer viewers an escape from reality — shows featuring highbrow families living in ornate castles or series’ where immaculately dressed crime investigators pick their way around gruesome crime scenes in stiletto heels.  And there’s always the option to tune in to a scripted “reality” show that bears no resemblance to reality.

NBC’s Parenthood is no such escapist fare. Now in its fifth season, the series tells the story of the Braverman family of Berkeley, California — Zeke and Camille, their four children and assorted grandchildren. The show alternates between funny, quirky, awkward, poignant, and brutally honest. Kristina Braverman’s battle with breast cancer last season was incredibly raw and painful, but laced with enough humor to make it bearable. (Monica Potter, who plays Kristina, was absolutely robbed of a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a Series by Jacqueline Bisset.) The show deals sensitively (and at the same time humorously) with a range of life issues common to many families: teenage rebellion, post-traumatic stress disorder, drug abuse, marital strains, childbirth, problems at school, the empty nest. Parenthood does it in a way that makes viewers say, “I could totally see someone in my family doing that.”

Perhaps the most acclaimed story line of the series surrounds Max Braverman and his struggles with Asperger’s syndrome. When the show debuted in 2010, actor Max Burkholder played 8-year-old Max Braverman, who had not yet been diagnosed with Asperger’s. Burkholder has brilliantly “grown up” with his character, who is now a high school student. If you know a family that has been touched with an autism spectrum disorder, you’ll see them in this family, even if the details are not exactly the same — fear, frustration, exhaustion, giftedness, surprises, and social isolation are all common issues for these families.

Jason Katims, the show’s creator, has a son on the autism spectrum, so the scenes reflect the realities of life with a child who sees the world on a completely different plane than the rest of us. Katmis told Mari-Jane Williams at the Washington Post that he wasn’t sure they would be able to do the story line justice. He also had concerns about his son’s privacy, but he said the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Katmis explained that he wanted to convey both the challenges and the triumphs of life with a child like Max:

It’s not only the challenges but also the unexpected beauty of it, and we definitely felt it was important to explore that. It really makes you focus on what’s important. You just want them to have friends and be happy and be in a place where they are seen and heard. That’s what you should want for any kid. As parents you really share the triumphs, even when they’re just small moments, even when they’re things that nobody else would even notice. Those moments, when they happen, of him being successful, or progressing, or showing love, I feel like they are much more cherished moments.

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This isn't by any chance the same storyline where the Aspergers kid is shown Bill Clinton's "apology" during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, is it? If so, sorry, but even though I'm a high-functioning autistic person myself, I really can't feel any joy in that storyline, when the implication was that the teacher was effectively teaching said aspergers child to lie with his teeth, fake apology. Roger Simon and Michael Chetwynd, when they covered that scene in Poliwood, even noted the implication of that scene.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
It's a fair criticism, EJ01. I certainly don't endorse everything in the show (I probably should have offered that disclaimer). Having known some families dealing with Asperger's, I know that teaching empathy, something that doesn't come naturally to many kids dealing with this, is especially challenging. Some kids never develop the feelings but can be taught to say the appropriate words that will help them to function in society. There's a fine line, I think. I would agree that we don't want to teach children to lie, but I think perhaps there are ways for them to learn to say, "I was wrong" in a way that helps them to survive in the world. Obviously, their family members would understand their issues, but kids at school or in the workplace would not be so forgiving, so to a certain extent, lifeskills must be taught (as they are for so-called "normal" kids, just in different ways).
1 year ago
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