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.
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.