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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 (72 Responses)

  1. Carol Romero says:

    Wouldn’t it be possible to find an actor with autism to play the role. Save time “learning” about autism when they are “living” autism

  2. Amber says:

    In response to Carol….I’m not speaking for everyone with autism, but I personally wouldn’t be able to handle acting. It would be too much pressure and I could become very anxious. I don’t like being around a lot of people. I think this could be one of the reasons there are not very many (if any) actors with autism. But I hope someday there will be!

  3. n. says:

    There are plenty of autistics that are good at performance arts. Not all are shy and hate public speaking. I’m one of the kind that’s bad at acting but like the kid said there’s all kinds of us.

  4. Pamela Dahl says:

    It would be good to have someone with Asperger’s playing the roll of Max!

    =Pam

  5. Cristine says:

    I think Max is doing a really good job playing the role. I’m glad that the show in general is showing the difficulties with having autism. I really applaud the show and Max.

  6. Can we just STOP IT!!! says:

    Okay, I get it, but COME ON!!!! Everyone that HAS a heart attack isn’t hired to play the heart attack character, just like you don’t get real docs to play them on tv! This kid’s an actor, he’s doing justice to the role, and while he wouldn’t have the learning curve if he HAD Asperger’s, there might be OTHER curves present during the filming process as well. Grow up. PC sometimes goes TOO FAR!

  7. Pam who has a child with Asperger's says:

    I haven’t watched the show in a few years but started up again this year. Max, you are doing an amazing job portraying a person with Asperger’s. The fact that you can’t read social cues is huge though I realize you are following a script; still you do such a great job I came on here to find out if you actually do have Asperger’s. One does not get “better” from Asperger’s, and as I work with my own teenager with Asperger’s it has me in tears at times as I teach him to struggle through and learn that the world is not going to understand him as he grows and things can’t always go the way that makes sense to him. For instance, the last episode where Max is no longer able to be photographer for the yearbook is a classic example of how this is totally unfair to Max. One of the traits of Asperger’s is they understand things in black and white, fair or unfair, and they understand things literally with no compromise/do not understand analogies. (Also they cannot lie because that involves concepts that make no sense to them.) The best thing “Mom/Monica” can do at this point for Max is to teach him how to deal with this unfairness (unless they plan on keeping him sheltered for the rest of his life) and teaching him how not to explode over these things and becoming extremely creative in finding another outlet for Max’s photography. Attempts at teaching Max to read facial and social cues may work though I have not found that to be so with my own son. (It just doesn’t make sense to him.) Parenthood nailed it on the head when Monica sat with Max and said – yea I’m mad too. With my own son, I often have to acknowledge his feelings that things are not fair in order to diffuse his anger and then I try very creatively to look at and point out another way to look at the same situation in such a way that CAN MAKE SENSE to my son. It is very hard to crawl inside the mind of Asperger’s to find that other point of view, but with a lot of work and love it is possible. Parenting a child with Asperger’s is exhausting and out of the 24 hours in a day, the only time I can’t be parenting him is when I’m sleeping. It is a fulltime, minute by minute, second by second activity that will never end. However, I would not give up one second with my son for anything else in the world. Max, great work on portraying your character so well.

  8. Michelle Richards says:

    Carol Romero,

    My 13 year old son has Asperger’s Syndrome. I understand why you would think that it might be easier to get someone with Asperger’s to play the role, but let me share my experience. Although my son is extremely intelligent, he is even more shy and freezes up in any high stress situation. He doesn’t like to be in crowds (even of just a dozen or so people) and the anxiety he feels when people, even people he trusts like his own family, look at him can set him off into a full blown panic attack. Getting someone with Asperger’s to work in a setting with cast and crew would be extremely difficult.

  9. Wrenna says:

    Max rocks!

  10. Julia says:

    “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”

    It would be nice if he would meet aspies or autistic people his age as research for the series, rather than ONLY talking with people who THINK they know autism. It would be great if an autistic kid could be included in the show in the place of Max, but there is too much discrimination in Hollywood against autistic people for there to be many autistic people as seriously-considered actors.

  11. Quincy says:

    I personally think that Max does an amazing job at portraying a boy with Asperger’s. Although the character seems to have it more on the low end of the spectrum, I myself have the syndrome, and I see myself reflected often in the character Max plays.

  12. TJ says:

    Daryl Hannah has Asperger’s and from what she has said, her obsession with watching movies as a kid led her to become an actress. I’m a female with it and I agree, for someone like me it would be impossible to be on a TV show, but apparently there are exceptions.

  13. Just a boy says:

    I’m Max’s age and I have asperger’s as well I started watching before I found this out and I had been thinking I could relate to max on alot of things so it didn’t surprise when my mother told me I was diagnosed with it but now it just seems like this is an extreme representation of autism but (even though i’m not sure) it’s nice to learn about what other people feel like when they go through some of the thing I went through like social cues a part that alot of people knows im really not good in regular conversation and sometimes I just scare at other people because I have no idea how to respond which leads to me walking in middle of conversation and making most keep their distance from me

  14. Carol Albanese says:

    I have loved this show right from the start.
    I am impressed with Max (the actor) sensitivity and thoughtfulness in portraying Max Braverman.
    His portrayal is so real and honest. I think the character is written well and adds a new dimension to TV sitcoms.
    thanks Max for a great job.
    Carol

  15. Joanne Halladay says:

    Max is one, if not the most, of our favorites on the show. His interpretation of an Asperbergers character is so real and fascinating that I had to look online to find if he is or isn’t Autistic. The show is one of the best on TV!

  16. Shirley Bass says:

    Having worked with children who have Aspergers Syndrome, I could not tell if you were acting or if you were an actor who had aspergers. you are that good. great job and great actor.

  17. Kelly Robinson says:

    Max’s Mom is named Kristine, not Monica…

  18. TJ Johnson says:

    To watch Max act with such intensity and to portray the character so truthfully is pure joy to me.

    As far as the people that state that it would be nice for someone living with autism to play the role, the demands of a TV production schedule are extremely rigorous, and the producers have to be confident that they will be able to get the shots on time, every time. I worked with an awesome actor with Aspergers on an indie film a few years back, and there were days that were sheer brilliance, and days that he didn’t want to play at all (and yes, I do understand that every person is different and there are surely some Autistic actors that are up to the challenge). As an Indie film, the shuffled scenes around and made it work, with a TV show they don’t have that latitude. Myself, I think that the young Mr. Burkholder has done an outstanding job of portraying his character and I look forward to every episode.

  19. Heather Cash says:

    Kelly Robinson – Monica is the name of the actor who plays Kristina :)

  20. Mimi Shireman says:

    I actually just pulled up this article because I wanted to see if Max was autistic in real life. He plays this role so convincingly that I could not believe he did not in fact have autism. What a good and inspiring actor!

  21. Mary Lou Benneian says:

    My 16 year old son, Henry has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. He has been told by several people that he is just like Max on Parenthood! Henry is a couple of years older but the similarities are definitely there. They even look a little like each other! I enjoy watching the show because it verifies that my husband and I are not alone in raising a child that is very unique. Asperger kids have so much to offer the world and this show is putting it on the “map”. Thank you Max for your hard work and excellent portrayal of Asperger’s!

  22. Tina fyffe says:

    Max you do a wonderful job I am a parent of a son with aspergers and it is do awesome to see someone do such a great job expressing what it is like so many people are ignorant as to what it is like and so many people are cruel it is so nice to see from parent and child point of view prayerfully watching you more people will understand and be more empathetic thank you so much ! Keep up the good work!

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