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Max From NBC’s ‘Parenthood’ Talks Asperger’s


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When NBC’s “Parenthood” premiered in March, viewers quickly learned that 8-year-old Max Braverman has Asperger’s syndrome. Since then, autism has emerged as a central part of nearly every episode of the drama, which focuses on the experiences of three generations of a California family.

Max Burkholder plays Max Braverman on NBC's "Parenthood."

Max Burkholder plays Max Braverman on NBC's "Parenthood." (Mitchell Haaseth/NBC)

The Asperger’s storyline follows the family’s journey to accept Max’s diagnosis and help him progress, all while dealing with their own emotions. The show’s heavy focus on life with a developmental disability is believed to be a first and so far audiences both with and without ties to autism seem to be responding.

“While not all parents are dealing with autism or Asperger’s, what I do find is all parents are dealing with something with their kids,” says Jason Katims, the show’s creator who himself has a son on the autism spectrum.

At the heart of the “Parenthood” drama is actor Max Burkholder, 13, in the role of Max Braverman. Nearly halfway through the show’s second season, Burkholder opens up to Disability Scoop about what it’s like to play a character with Asperger’s.

Disability Scoop: How did you land the role of Max on “Parenthood”?

Max Burkholder: I went in to audition and I really liked it a lot, so I was hoping that I would get called back. I had no idea what autism was before so I wanted to be able to learn more. It’s hard sometimes thinking of stuff that a person with autism might do in any given situation, but it’s still really fun.

Disability Scoop: What’s it like to play a character with Asperger’s syndrome?

Max Burkholder: It’s quite a bit harder because I have to figure out a way of expressing what Max is feeling without making it seem that he doesn’t have Asperger’s.

Disability Scoop: What goes through your mind to get into character?

Max Burkholder: I just think what Max might be feeling. He has special interests, like he loves bugs, anything about bugs. So whenever there’s something about bugs I try to seem really interested. But he doesn’t like to be touched so I make myself think that if this person touches me, it’s going to hurt a lot.

Disability Scoop: How do you make sure that your portrayal is realistic?

Max Burkholder: Every couple of episodes I get together with an Asperger’s doctor, the director and the executive producer and we talk about what Max might do in the given situations in the script. I get new ideas about what to do during the scenes — how he would act, what he would say — because a lot of ad libbing happens on the show. As I do more and more, I start to understand more about what Max might be feeling.

Disability Scoop: What have you learned about autism since taking on the role?

Max Burkholder: It’s different for every person, but it’s really just being a little more sensitive than you normally would be to things like sight, sound and touch and they can’t really understand facial expressions and social cues.

Disability Scoop: In real life, are you anything like the character you play?

Max Burkholder: I tend to obsess over things as well. I obsess over video games. In that way, I’m kind of like Max. Another big similarity is I don’t like my food to touch. Some big differences are I don’t mind being touched and I can change the topic of my conversation and I can read expressions.

Disability Scoop: What’s the most challenging scene you’ve had to do on this show?

Max Burkholder: At one point I had a hissing cockroach right in front of me during a scene where I was eating and I just had so much trouble keeping it down. It was not a fun day.

Disability Scoop: Have you gotten any feedback about your portrayal of Max?

Max Burkholder: I recently got a letter from a girl who has Asperger’s and she thought that I was doing well and I was really excited. It’s pretty touching when someone who actually has the syndrome thinks I’m doing a good job at portraying it.

Disability Scoop: Do you know what comes next for Max or is there anything you’d like to see him do?

Max Burkholder: We usually get the script only a few days before we film, so I don’t know what’s coming next. If I had to guess, I’d probably say he gets better. I’d like to see him conquer some of the harder things that people with Asperger’s go through like not being able to read social cues.

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Comments (108 Responses)

  1. Sue Bruns says:

    As a retired educator and administrator, I recall many students with whom I worked over the years who have Asperger’s. In fact, the first student ever diagnosed in the district in which I worked was mainstreamed into my high school journalism class. When I started watching Max Buckholder’s portrayal of a young person with Asperger’s in the series Parenthood, I was amazed at the way he captured so much of what happens with Asperger’s. I still see my first Asperger’s student occasionally around town. He has become an amazingly talented man – now in his 40’s. He holds three jobs: He has his own gospel music radio program on a local radio station, he works for a computer repair shop, and he just picked up a third job that also has to do with computers. Max’s portrayal and Parenthood’s inclusion of a character with Asperger’s are so important to the general community to help people to understand the many challenges that families face but also the capabilities and talents of people with Asperger’s. Max’s award for his portrayal is well-deserved.

  2. Lee Ann Hammit says:

    I just started watching the show on Netflix, so I can watch back to back episodes, and I am just amazed at this young man and his portrayal. He is phenomenal. I was convinced he had this syndrome. He did a PERFECT job. I cannot wait to watch each night. I love the show, especially Max. Thanks you for this show and for the great actor and character he plays. BRAVO!!!!

  3. Thomas Polisoto, M.D. says:

    My hats off to you, Max. I am a physician who takes care of people with developmental disabilities such as Asperger’s syndrome and just so happen to have a 28-year-old son with it. This is great that you are working hard to portray a young man with the disorder as realistically as possible and expose many folks in society to the fact that even persons with differences are part of a family. Everyone needs to be understanding and accepting of differences in people in society and nurture growth and development in all of us for the betterment of our communities and society.

  4. Sihle Nyashanu says:

    I am a mum with 2 boys affected with autism. My oldest is 11 and high functioning and my youngest is 8 but on the severe end of the spectrum. I started watching Parenthood from Season 1 up to the last season. Max did an excellent job in portraying his character. His parents did an equally amazing job as well. I could identify with almost everything that was portrayed in the episodes and every time felt like I am able to face anything and do all I can to help my boys. Thank you for doing the show.

  5. Luminas says:

    I suppose some children this young with Asperger’s would have a little bit of trouble using expressions that neurotypical people could interpret “correctly,” and so they couldn’t get an actual child with Asperger’s this young to play the kid with Asperger’s. But it still leaves me with an unpleasant taste in my mouth, like having a white guy cast as a known black or dark-skinned character.

    There are at least some of us that age who are in fact expert social mimics (Albeit in an odd, exact sort of way) and could perform the role. I was definitely NOT one of those guys (XD), but I’ve read their testimonials and seen them around many times.

    With that said, it’s wonderful to see some disability inclusion on television and satisfying to know that he is taking this seriously and performing true-to-life. :]

  6. Dominique DeNardo says:

    what a lovely, young man who is educated about autism! I admire him because I think it would be really hard to act like you have autism!

  7. Lileana de Moya says:

    Wouldn’t it have been nice if they would have cast a real person with Asperger’s!!!

  8. WILLIAM says:

    Also, this is not the first portrayal of someone with autism. If you remember the medical drama ST. Elsewhere (starring Howie Mandel, Ed Begley Jr, and Denzel Washington), from the 1980s. Dr. Westfall’s son, Tommy, had Autism. That child did an incredible job portraying Autism. He portrayed in a child with severe Autism. And his father was a physician who struggled with his child and his diagnosis. He still wanted his child to be normal so that he could achieve what he has achieved in life. No touchy-feely everything’s going to be alright be b*******. He knew that life was going to be extremely difficult for his son in the years ahead. No sugar coating. It was extremely moving and real. It’s what life is REALLY like for families with Autism.

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