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.
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.