How "Parenthood" Broke Down The Autism Awareness Barrier

    With showrunner Jason Katims' raw storytelling and the passion and dedication of young actor Max Burkholder, the NBC drama has depicted a journey never before seen on network television, shedding light on life on the spectrum.

    In a series that has depicted teenage pregnancy, abortion, alcoholism, a breast cancer battle, and a young war veteran’s PTSD, one of the most emotional, and painful, scenes to watch on NBC’s critically acclaimed Parenthood came when Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) went on his first unsupervised school field trip in Season 5. A few hours in, he is so tormented by his classmates, he throws a tantrum and has to be picked up by his parents. In the car ride home, after two hours of silence, Max begins to tell them how one of his peers peed in his canteen. “Why do all the other kids hate me?” Max asks. “Is it because I’m weird?” His parents, Kristina (Monica Potter) and Adam (Peter Krause), are speechless, but Max is overwhelmingly honest. It’s a moment that showcases a realistic situation many people on the autism spectrum, like Max, and the families of those people unfortunately deal with regularly.

    When Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims started thinking about Season 5, he knew the difficult scene was on the horizon. “I had this instinct that I really wanted to make sure we weren’t sugarcoating the experience of what it would be like for Max. And I was thinking about what would be the next challenge and I thought the next challenge would be Max’s awareness that he was different,” Katims told BuzzFeed News of the character who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in the show’s first season. “I thought that that scene itself was just so wrenching and… Max in particular was so relentless in his performance. He went to a place with it where he was really there and it was just such a beautiful, heartbreaking scene.”

    Parenthood, which begins its sixth and final season on Sept. 25, has been telling the poignant story of Max’s battle with autism since the series premiered, detailing his diagnosis and the subsequent issues that both he and the extended Braverman family deal with at the heart of the show as he grows and struggles with his disorder daily. And while a majority of that comes from Katims, who has a child with Asperger’s — though he is clear to note that Max is not directly based on his own son — Burkholder has also made incredible contributions to the show’s portrayal of a child on the autism spectrum. “As a parent who’s gone through this and knowing a lot of parents who have gone through this, I had a wealth of experience and things to draw from as a storyteller,” Katims said. “But Max gave me the confidence to know I didn’t have to shy away from any story.”

    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. “I struggled with whether or not to do that for privacy for my family. I didn’t know if it was going to be the right thing to do. But I also struggled with it because I didn’t know if we’d be able to tell the story well. I didn’t want to take on something that was a very personal story to me and have it be bad because that would suck,” Katims said plainly. “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 it just be a point of people turning away from the show? And would we be able to do a good job 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.”

    Katims went back and forth about including Max in his loose television adaptation and even wrote two outlines for the show, one with the character and one without. But, by the time he wrote the pilot, he had decided that Parenthood was going to move forward with Max. “I wanted to honor a kid like Max. And I wanted to be as brutally honest as you could do on a network television show,” he said.

    But while the decision to tell Max’s story was difficult, choosing who to cast in the role was far from it. Max didn’t have many lines in Parenthood’s pilot episode, so in addition to reading, Katims asked each young actor auditioning for the part to throw a tantrum, a common characteristic among children with Asperger’s who don’t know how to express what’s bothering them when they’re frustrated. Phil Abrams — an actor, friend of Katims, and a parent of a child with autism — worked with the actors in the running for the part of Max, giving them some guidance as to how to react. Then, he did some improv with them. “I’d like to say I was so brilliant and just knew Max Burkholder was going to be genius in this role,” Katims said. “I didn’t really know! He stood out, absolutely. Max was always my first choice because of something that was imperceptible to me. I didn’t know why, I just had a strong feeling. I connected with him in some way.”

    Burkholder was 11 years old when he was cast on Parenthood to play 9-year-old Max Braverman. Katims, whose son was diagnosed at age 3, said he wrote the role as old as he felt would be realistic to tell all elements of Max’s Asperger’s journey. “I feel that in Berkeley, a very sophisticated place with good educators, that the likelihood would be that they would see something at a young age. To me, I thought to make the character 8 or 9 years old was as far as I felt we could stretch it to tell the story and include every aspect,” he said. “I wanted to start the story with the first awareness that the parents had. Any younger, I didn’t think there was any way to get an actor who was capable of doing it.”

    Burkholder, who’s now 16 and knew “just the basics about autism” when he was cast, was determined to fully commit himself to the part from the get-go. Right after he was cast, he started researching the disorder, reading books, speaking with activists, getting involved with the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, and generally gaining a better understanding of what it means to be on the spectrum.

    Since Asperger’s is a mental, not physical, disorder, Burkholder was tasked with portraying a condition that’s invisible to the eye. “If you line up five people with autism against a wall and five people without autism against a wall, you’re not going to really be able to pick one out,” Matt Asner — the Los Angeles executive director of Autism Speaks, a parent of a child on the spectrum, and an avid watcher of Parenthood — told BuzzFeed News. Today, 1 in 68 children is diagnosed as being on the spectrum, but Asperger’s is a type of autism that many people are still completely unfamiliar with. The syndrome was only added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1994 and about 1 in 500 people lives with it. It is commonly identified by an inability to make eye contact and show emotional connections, missing certain social cues, resisting physical contact, and a fixation on specific topics or eating habits.

    And what’s made Burkholder’s Max earn the favor of the largely underrepresented autism community, in addition to his standout performance, is the actor’s approach to the character, as being someone who’s more than his disorder. “Once I got the general idea of what Asperger’s is down, I sort of stopped thinking of Max so much as a kid with Asperger’s, rather more as just the character himself,” Burkholder said.

    Burkholder’s mother, Kelly Wolf, is often on set with her son, and she’s able to see everything that is asked of him right away. Wolf, who’s also an actress and who had a guest-starring arc on the series as Mrs. McKindall, Max’s teacher in Season 3 and Victor’s (Xolo Mariduena) in Season 5, told BuzzFeed News she nor her husband have ever had any concerns about Burkholder taking on heavy material at such a young age. “I think more than anything, we felt honored he was given a chance to play this role. I thought this would expand his knowledge and compassion, and that’s exactly what’s happened,” Wolf said. Since the first season, neither she nor her husband has ever guided Burkholder, who won his first major role at age 5 in Daddy Day Care, through a scene. “My husband and I really give him the freedom. He does it himself. We don’t do anything,” she said. “I just think, as an actor, it’s got to come from you.”

    And Burkholder has grown as an actor with the series, resulting in Katims and the Parenthood writers giving him more to work with. Toward the end of Season 2, there is a moment when Adam is yelling at his brother Crosby (Dax Shephard) for sleeping with Max’s behavioral aide Gaby (Minka Kelly). When Adam screams, “You don’t sleep with your autistic nephew’s therapist,” Max overhears and asks his parents what Asperger’s is, leading his parents to sit him down at the dining room table to discuss the disorder. It’s the first time the way Asperger’s affects Max is shown from his perspective, as he realizes he is different from his family and friends in certain ways. “It was hard for Max, considering he just learned something about himself that he had no idea about before that is sort of an extremely defining trait about him,” Burkholder said, looking back on a scene he filmed four years earlier. “It’s a defining moment for Max because it’s caring about the cause and effect. He now has a reason in his mind as to why he does the things that he does, he has to do the things that he does — like, working with Gaby when other people don’t.”

    Just before Parenthood writer Bridget Carpenter put together that episode, Katims’ wife had given a speech about her personal experience telling their son he has Asperger’s at an event that honored the couple for their work with the autism community. Carpenter asked for a copy of the speech to help recreate those emotions for Adam and Kristina. “One of the questions as a parent of a child with anything, but particularly with autism, is: When is the right time to tell them? Everybody has a different answer to that. This was something my wife and I went through. Everybody has dealt with it in their own way and different ways,” Katims said.

    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.

    While a therapist has been on the Parenthood set over the years to explain how a person with Asperger’s would behave in certain situations, Burkholder is now able to recognize and adjust when the script calls for Max to do something that he feels isn’t characteristic. For instance, in one Season 5 scene, Max and his older cousin Amber (Mae Whitman) are bonding over their terrible middle school experiences and the script direction noted Max should look Amber directly in the eye. “I was like, ‘No!’ Whether or not this is a big emotional moment, that’s not going to happen,” Burkholder remembered thinking when he read the script.

    But as comfortably and seamlessly as Burkholder gets into Max’s mindset, the actor is clearly very different from the character he’s played for the entirety of his pre-teen and teen years. On the Parenthood set one August morning, Burkholder was quick to offer a wide smile and strong handshake, things viewers have rarely seen from Max Braverman. He spent all of his time before the director called “action” in deep conversations with crew members, talking about his upcoming shots, taking notes, and concentrating. When the cameras rolled, Burkholder instantly took on Max’s persona, so much so that even his voice dropped with one word into the character’s signature monotone. The actor became Max in the “flip of a switch,” as he described the instant process of stepping into the sneakers of a character he’s worn for six years now. “It’s a really simple transition,” he said. “Literally, right before they call action, I can be extremely animated and jokey. And then I can stop.”

    In a scene with Potter and Krause in the new, partially completed Chambers Academy, Burkholder’s character doesn’t want to attend the school his parents co-founded and the three of them argue about him continuing home-schooling. The actor later explained that what was most upsetting to Max is that the school offers three electives and not one of them is photography, a passion the character’s developed with the help of his Aunt Sarah’s (Lauren Graham) boyfriend Hank Rizzoli (Ray Romano), who’s also been portrayed as possibly being on the spectrum. “I’m sure I have a complete grasp on Max and how I’m going to handle each scene,” Burkholder said. During one of the last takes of the scene, the actor added a line, asking where the nails are to accompany the hammer he’d been tossing around in his hand. Then, he abruptly walked away searching. It may seem like a slight addition, but it’s comments like that that are quintessential to Burkholder’s character, who was clearly done paying attention to the conversation he was being forced to have with his parents. It was a strategic move and spoke directly to Max’s Asperger’s: When you become disinterested in what you’re doing, you go do something else. And Burkholder added just that with a mere question.

    But while Parenthood has done a remarkable job showing the various stages of Max’s struggles and triumphs with Asperger’s, one storyline some viewers have taken issue with is Hank’s journey figuring out if he’s on the spectrum as well. Hank forms a unique friendship with Max, and, as he learns about Asperger’s through his photography protégé, he begins to diagnose himself and eventually, sees Max’s doctor. Hank had difficulty in social situations since joining the series in its fourth season, but the connection to Max seemed a bit overwrought at times to the Parenthood audience. Some fans who felt the show had done an exceptional job handling Max’s situation, believed Parenthood was dropping the ball when it came to Hank. But, according to Katims, it’s more of a “jump ball.” “I think that Hank has struggled enough in his life that there’s sort of a flavor of it,” he said. “I was somewhere the other day and someone said, ‘We have to start using the phrase “autisms” instead of “autism,” because it is such a spectrum.’ It can look like so many different things — even within Asperger’s, it can present in so many different ways.” Katims explained that Hank’s storyline was inspired by a conference he attended where he met two dads who had been diagnosed with Asperger’s after their children had been diagnosed. “There’s more awareness now and more medical professionals understand it,” he said. “Lots of people can have seemingly normal lives and hold jobs and have relationships and all those things and have Asperger’s.”

    Despite the inconclusive way the show has dealt with Hank thus far, the additional portrayal of someone dealing with possibly being on the spectrum is incredibly valuable to offer audiences. “Max is one person with autism. That is it. You cannot show all the difficult aspects of living with this disorder in one character. It’s just impossible,” Asner said. “He’s one character of autism and that’s it What they’ve done for autism awareness is incredible. And the way they’ve handled it is important to note.”

    This season, Burkholder will have to tap into a side of Max that viewers have yet to see: his emotional side. “Max has his first real crush on a girl,” Burkholder said, clarifying that Max’s relationship with Hank’s daughter Ruby (Courtney Grosbeck) in Season 5 was more of a, “Oh, she’s 14, I’m 14. This should happen. This should be a thing,” sort of situation. This time around, Max is going to experience an actual connection, not something fueled by logic. “He goes about it in a very Max manner with extensive research. He needs to have all the facts before he can have an emotional attraction,” Burkholder said. “I think it’s going to be very matter of fact. I think it’s not going to be a normal teenage, angsty, puppy love, embarrassing, blushy love fest. It’s going to be, ‘Oh yes, I enjoy being in your presence. Let us continue being in each other’s presence.’ Something in that nature… I can imagine him citing something like, ‘Oh, love is just an emotion caused by a dopamine rush in the brain when you see the object of your affection. It’s characterized by pupil dilation and increased heart rate.’ Trying to put it into terms he can understand.”

    When Parenthood concludes its final, 13-episode season this spring, it’s clear Max and the series will be missed among many in the autism community. “I know there are going to be a lot of parents of children with autism that are going to be missing that show and that’s a lot of people,” Asner said, though more series, like FX’s The Bridge, are beginning to write characters that are openly on the spectrum. “Hopefully, we’re coming into a day and age where this is just going to be part of the makeup of a show. You’re going to have a couple of characters on the show who have autism because it’s a reality that we all need to face. I think Parenthood was pioneering because autism was not talked about. It was shown. You had a family dealing with this and dealing with the joys and the pain and taking you through every step and giving you a window into a situation a lot of people don’t understand.”

    But 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.”