The Touching Asperger's Storyline on Parenthood

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.


In recent episodes Max has formed a friendship with his aunt Sarah Braverman’s former love interest, the socially awkward Hank (played by Ray Romano), who is teaching him about photography. Hank and Sarah broke up last season due, in part, to Hank’s inability to connect and have a mature emotional relationship with Sarah. Hank, who is divorced, also has a stilted emotional connection with his teen daughter.

As Max and Hank spend time together, it becomes obvious (to everyone but Hank) that they have more than photography in common. They share the same quirks. They dislike the same things, the same people. They’re happy to be left alone to hyper focus on their work for hours on end. Hank seems to instinctively understand Max and gives him pointers on how to cope with the people and social situations he encounters, including imparting dating advice after Max is rejected by Hank’s daughter, Ruby. “It’s going to happen for you Max, trust me,” Hank encouraged. “Guys like us…just take time. Don’t need to rush it.”

While it becomes obvious to viewers that Hank also has Asperger’s, there’s a subtle backstory that is both enlightening and heartbreaking to those of us who grew up before the modern Asperger’s diagnosis era. We think about that “weird kid” in school who didn’t fit in socially, talked endlessly about astronomy, wore the same t-shirt and khaki pant to school every day of 9th grade, and covered his ears whenever the music was too loud. We remember the students and the teachers who were mean to him because they didn’t understand what was happening in his brain — that it worked differently — and lament that we probably completely missed his exceptional gifts. This storyline about Hank on Parenthood makes us wonder what happened to that kid, who was so misunderstood before teachers and parents knew what they now know about Asperger’s. Hank gives us insight into how their lives might have gone.

In a touching scene in last week’s episode Hank comes to see Max after he has read a book on Asperger’s and begins to realize that they share the same disability-gift. Max had run out of Hank’s studio after throwing a tantrum because Hank had to change plans when something came up at work. Max, who doesn’t “get” empathy,  has been coached by his parents on the right words to say to try to smooth things over with his friend and delivers his speech in his typical rehearsed, monotone voice:

I’m sorry that I yelled at you and threw things inside of your store. I understand that there’s a difference between a promise and a lie and that it’s not nice to accuse someone of dishonesty in a casual manner. I respect the time and the work that you do. Will you accept my apology? My parents said that if I apologize, we’ll be friends again.

Both of them avoid eye contact as Max extends his hand and they shake on it. “Yeah. Apology accepted,” intones Hank in his own monotone voice.

Max invites Hank to join him in a game of chess as his parents beam with pride for a moment outside Max’s bedroom door, celebrating one of those cherished moments the show’s creator describes of a child “being successful, or progressing, or showing love.”

And we all celebrate a moment like that for Hank, as well, as we wonder again about that socially awkward classmate we knew all those years ago.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching Parenthood you can get caught up on Amazon Instant Video.