A Plea for Parenthood: How Max Braverman Has Made The World a Better Place

parenthood

Written by: Nicole Moore

Did you know that today 1 in 68 children falls on the autism spectrum? I didn’t either, but that’s because I spent a good deal of my life untouched by autism. I grew up in a relatively small family, none of whom had autism. I didn’t know any kids my age that were autistic, and while there surely were some in my school system, they were all hidden behind a door labeled ‘special education.’ There were no autistic kids in the books that I read, or characters with Asperger’s on television.

However, when I met my husband, he immediately began telling me stories about his brother Michael. Michael, now 26, grew up with autism in a small town in rural, Southern Illinois. Born in 1987, Michael was one of the few kids that was diagnosed with Autism in the area. He was the first one to be diagnosed with autism in his family. He didn’t have any friends with autism. There were no books for him to read with autistic super heroes. When I went to my first Thanksgiving meal at the Moore household, I didn’t know what to expect. Sure, I wanted to impress the whole family, but the way that my husband had talked about his big brother made me want to impress Michael the most. That night Michael only said a few words to me, and called a relative (who we won’t name) a bitch…twice. I left knowing that I had completely won the parents over, but the jury was still out with Michael. The next few visits went similarly, and I felt like an outsider looking in whenever something would happen with Michael. Each family member had their way of responding to Michael—they’d had to learn over the years. However, I had no idea how to relate to Michael—that was, until I started watching NBC’s Parenthood.

max braverman

Parenthood tells the story of the Braverman family, an extended family of 18 who live in Berkeley, California. The series, which premiered in 2010, boasts a dynamic cast that includes Craig T. Nelson, Lauren Graham, Ray Romano, and Dax Shepard, just to name a few. The fictional family covers all of the typical stereotypes and then some—from the daughter who married a junkie to the irresponsible son who lived on a boat. Throughout the past five seasons, viewers have celebrated weddings, births, new jobs and engagements and cried over betrayal, mental illness and broken homes alongside the Bravermans. Somewhere in the midst of all of this is Max, a pre-teen boy living with with Asperger’s Syndrome. Played by Max Burkholder, Max has allowed viewers to get a sense of what life is like for someone on the autism spectrum. Even more so, the show has allowed viewers to get a glimpse into the joy, pain, frustration and celebration that is experienced as a family member of someone on the autism spectrum.

As someone who felt like an outsider to the world of autism, Max helped me normalize my own experiences with my now brother-in-law. He showed me ways to relate to Michael, and affirmed that simply because Michael didn’t want to hug me or ask me about my life, it didn’t mean that he didn’t love me. Max’s obsession with insects led me to understand Michael’s fixation with animated movies and helped me relate to him on a deeper level. The way that Max excelled in certain academic areas led me to learn more about the ways that people with autism excelled. In short, Max was a catalyst in my own journey with Michael. He helped me understand some of Michael’s social limitations, offered me unique ways to grow closer to my new brother, and his actions often served as a starting point for me to do my own research about the autism spectrum.

As much as Max’s character has benefited me, his presence in pop culture is important for a plethora of other reasons. First and foremost, Max has given those living with autism and Asperger’s someone to relate to. A recent campaign launched that advocated for diversity in books, which featured famous authors and people of color holding signs that discussed the importance of children being able to relate to main characters that looked like they did. This campaign has done amazing things and has let the world know that it is vitally important for children to have fictional characters that they relate to. While I have read a few books and watched a few movies that boasted minority main characters, I haven’t seen or read anything that had a main character living on the autism spectrum. Max has broken the cultural norm with his presence in American television, and I’m grateful that he has. Because of Max, kids that have autism and Asperger’s have a role model that they can look up to—someone who shares in their struggles, but who also became student council president, created meaningful friendships, and pursued his first crush. His presence on television screens has done more than most teenage television stars have.

Max is not only a role model for young people on the autism spectrum, his role is also important because it has given parents of children with autism and Asperger’s a story that they can relate to. My brother-in-law was the first child that was diagnosed with autism in his area, and my mother-in-law had no other parents to share stories with. After several years, she eventually rounded up a group that included a speech teacher, special education teacher, and another mom of an Autistic child. This group would attend conferences on autism, where they would learn about autism and be able to talk with other parents. My mother-in-law had to do a great deal of work to figure out how be an advocate for Michael as the mother of an autistic son in the early 90s. Today, parents can tune into Parenthood to see how Max’s parents, Adam and Kristina, handle the joys and struggles of having a son on the autism spectrum. Through Adam and Kristina, viewers see the inevitable parenting failures, the natural longing for physical affection from their son, and their struggle with the public school system, just to name a few scenarios. While their role on the show doesn’t serve as a support group would for parent’s today, their role does normalize experiences, affirm tough decisions, and again, serves as a starting point for further research. Through his role on Parenthood and the personal look into family dynamics that viewers receive, Max has given parents of children on the autism spectrum a comrade in their journey—a family to relate to, laugh with, and provide comfort in times of need.

I recently found out that Max Burkholder, who plays Max Braverman, doesn’t have Aspergers. My husband and I, both avid fans of the show, were shocked as he manages to portray the character so well. Apparently Burkholder, who was only 13 years old when the show premiered, goes over scripts with a behavioral psychologist in order to do Max’s character justice. I think the kid should receive an Emmy, and I’m not alone in that belief. NBC recently announced that Parenthood will return for its final season this fall, and while I’m sad because I’ll miss tuning into see the family drama, I’m infuriated that the world will be losing Max Braverman.

The point is, there’s a lot of shows that aren’t uplifting, enlightening, or even entertaining. There are shows about people surviving in the wilderness without clothes. There are shows about women who are married to the same man. There are shows about meth cooks and violent biker gangs (don’t get me wrong, I like these types of bad shows. I tend to binge-watch them). But Parenthood isn’t one of those shows. It’s about a family that overcomes. It talks about divorce and addiction and disease and God and even autism, and it’s important. I think that Max Braverman has managed to make the world a better place during the last 4 years through the cultural conversation he started and the solidarity he’s built among those living with autism and their families, and I think its a shame that he’ll be leaving our screens soon.

2 comments

  1. I completely disagree with this. As a mother to a child with a severe behavioral disorder the way this child acts and is treated by the adults in his life is abhorrent. The way that this child has been written on this show and how they have continued to write him as he has gotten older is as a person who has no concept nor understanding of the way the world works. He cannot be told no and in fact many episodes have shown that telling Max no or that the way he behaves is not acceptable is just the way that things should be. Family members have been shamed for pointing out to Christina and Adam that they have raised a spoiled brat. Which is what Max is, he is a spoiled brat who is allowed to act the way he wants to and is able to use the fact that he Aspergers to explain this fact away. When they show an episode where Max does not get what he wants, where he is told that in fact, “no, life is not fair and you cannot expect it to abide to the rules that you have set out and your parents cannot shame another adult until they let you get your way” then I will feel that he is a better rolemodel for children on the spectrum and with a behavioral disorder.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Ann. I really appreciate it, and wrote this piece knowing that there could definitely be some pushback from people who have personal ties to people with behavioral disorders. I do think that its important to remember that all children are different, especially those living on the autism spectrum. Your experience with your own child does not define others’ experiences, just as Max’s experience doesn’t define the experiences of anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a behavioral disorder, or autism for that matter. I do wonder if your child has autism- most people don’t refer to it as a behavioral disorder, and autism is vastly different from things like ADHD, OCD, anxiety, or other behavioral disorders because most children with those are able to lead a completely “normal” life with the proper medication and treatment. This isn’t the case with my brother, who is high-functioning autistic. That’s where I take serious concern with your statement: “the way that this child has been written on this show and how they have continued to write him as he has gotten older is as a person who has no concept nor understanding of the way the world works.” There are several children and adults who do have a very hard time understanding the way the world works around them because of their autism, which affects their social interaction skills. My own brother didn’t speak for a large portion of his childhood, experienced extreme anger, and still has a great deal of trouble with social interactions. Telling him to “suck it up” because he isn’t going to get his way would do nothing for him. Helping him learn how he can live a meaningful life with autism, and teaching him that he is a whole, complete individual in every stage of life is how my family has helped him. He currently lives in a group home, and he struggles with the idea that he’ll never be able to be married or have children, and can’t always seem to understand why. That’s not to say that my family has babied him, but that they have had to learn how to parent a child with limited social capacities, who will never know what it means to live a “normal life” (whatever that means). Like I said, I don’t know the situation of your child, and I want to remain respectful of your parenting. All that I can say, is that my family, who grew up with a son with high-functioning autism, completely validates the experiences of Max and his family. Its a television show, and so it certainly doesn’t do the entire situation justice, but the presence of a child with autism on television is important, and I’ll stand by that. We’ve also seen great progress with Max throughout the years(progress which has mirrored the own progress my brother-in-law experienced around Max’s age). I hope this helps you understand where I’m coming from. Thanks

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