Primetime Portrait: The Depiction of Asperger’s on "Parenthood"

Curator's Note

Parents of children who have forms of autism praise Parenthood’s depiction of a family with a child who has Asperger’s. This success is due to the significant level of research and personal experience incorporated into the show’s production, unlike another popular network show, Glee, which has failed to contact any wheelchair users for their portrayal of a teen who uses a wheelchair, to much criticism. Parenthood has worked extensively with “experts” in the field of autism research, and as showcased in the clip, the actor who plays Max works with doctors to understand the ways in which Max might respond to particular situations. The character is also informed by the producer’s experience raising a son with Asperger’s. In addition, NBC maintains a weekly blog, “The Experts Speak,” wherein doctors and researchers comment on each episode and provide parenting advice for families with children on the spectrum.

While this level of detail, research and personal experience contributes to a more complex representation than what is found on most primetime television, the narrative still maintains an inherently abelist visuality in its depiction of autism. The narrative of the show focuses on the way that Max's Asperger's affects his parents as they struggle to understand Max's behavior and face larger fears about Max’s future as a normative member of society. The abelist narrative of the show marginalizes the “abnormal” viewpoint of Max in favor of the normative viewpoint of his parents. Therefore, it is not surprising that neurotypical parents publicly praise the show for its representation of Asperger’s, as the show exclusively caters to their perspective.

The third episode of the series opened with the only scene that has been from Max's perspective. This scene depicted Max experiencing a sensory overload, and contained heightened sound effects with dramatic tension-building music to help visualize Max's perspective for the audience. While the scene was brief, it was effective in that it invited the viewer to consider Max's viewpoint, but as the scene depicted Max in a state of crisis it could potentially exoticise Max's abnormalities instead of fostering a recognition of his experience.

It will be interesting to see if the producers return to Max's perspective in future episodes, and if they work with teenagers with Asperger's, instead of continuing to rely on "expert" doctors and researchers.


Dear Kaitlin:


Thank you for your thought provoking post. One of the most intriguing ideas you present is the idea of separating the perspective of the "neurotypical" parents, with which neurotypical viewers will presumably identify.  By contrast you suggest the possibility of presenting autism through Max's perspective. This is an intriguing notion.

What I would like to hear more about from you or others, or think further about with you, is what formal  implications that sort of filter--Max's (autistic? High functioning?) perspective--might have for the representation on screen.  The question is interesting particularly in the case of fairly extreme cases of autism.  You did mention one brief episode presenting Max's perspective, but this looks like an exception.  Are there extant cinematic or other mediated examples of a more thoroughgoing, consistently faithful representation of autistic perspectives on the world, examples you would recommend as say clinically sound as well as sympathetic?  To project an analogy with literary representation of mental derangement, would such a representation of a truly autisic perspective assume a Faulknerian, Sound and the Fury kind of filmic syntax (i.e. something like the disjoint prose representing Benjy's thought processes, although I am not suggesting Benjy is accurately described as autistic)?  Would it derange narrative logic to present an autistic experience on film, in the case of significant autism?  Beyond the musical or sound effects you refer to, what other kinds of formal elements might capture an authentically autistic experience on screen? For example, would such elements amount to a neo-Expressionist paradigm? 

Samir, I appreciate your comment, as it leads to the next logical step in this argument, that is, how would the producers of Parenthood accurately or sympathetically portray Max's perspective, or if this portrayal would be effective for a neurotypical audience?

HBO's recent production of Temple Grandin (trailer here) is one example of the ways in which the perspective of those with autism can be formally visually represented on screen. The film's scenes are frequently from the perspective of Temple, who was initially diagnosed with severe autism, but credits behavioral therapy for helping her learn to communicate in a socially acceptable way. The film represents her visual skills in a photo-realistic manner, as this is the exact description the actual Temple Grandin has given to communicate how her brain works to those people who do not also "think in pictures." 

I am unsure if I could go further into offering a solution to this representational dilemma, as there will never be a universal depiction of the autistic experience. I would be most interested in seeing how a multiplicity of experiences could be represented, drawing from the self-representations that already proliferate across the internet, like Amanda Baggs (video here) contribution, which disrupts narrative logic in a fairly conventional, yet effective way.

For Parenthood, these formal techniques would possibly signify a break with the "reality" of the traditional aristotelian drama, implying that Max's perspective is somehow less real than that of his family. I wonder if it is possible for Parenthood to move past the abelist construction of their narrative style?


Didn't we see a kind of autistic subjectivity in the HBO movie Temple Grandin? I recall (been a while since I've seen it) a filmic representation of Grandin's "thinking in pictures."

I've seen Katims speak to an Asperger's organization (consisting of parents, professionals, and people with AS), and he talked about how there is an inherent conflict between the narrative of autism and the writing of drama for television. Katims talked about the need to focus on dramatic moments in the narrative, and some aspects of parenting a child with AS do not quite fit in (for example, an IEP meeting would be a dud of a scene on the tv show).

Then again, life in general is incompatible with dramatic narrative; different events and other aspects must be chosen and arranged into a narrative.

Hi Kaitlin--thanks for your reading of the "inclusion" of a person with Aspergers.  I think there is a lot of similarity here with other prime time shows that try to include social issues/problems as part of the plotline: the social issue/problem impacts a character who is not central to the story, and is only included to explain the personality or relationships of main characters.  So, despite the episode where the parents discussed Max's strengths and weaknesses, the show really frames Max's condition as a problem that needs to be solved, not another means of experiencing the world or a vehicle for questioning what it means to be a "typical" child or family.  As a mother of a kid with Aspergers, it's nice to read your take on the show, which often leaves me throwing things at the TV screen...Keep us posted on your future work.

A few thoughts after reading Samir and Catherine's comments... As most of us are aware, autism is a spectrum disorder, so it manifests very differently from individual to individual. Each time I watch "Parenthood," I think it's not a completely accurate representation of any single person--it is, after all, a sanitized-for-TV version of autism. However, I think that Max's particular manifestation is probably pretty close to true for some people. (Of course, I enjoy watching the show, so I am rationalizing here a bit!)

This variety of manifestations also muddies the waters when we think about how to formally represent autism, as Samir mentions. Which traits should be (and CAN BE) represented? The Temple Grandin movie did a pretty good job of showing us what her mental processes are like. She's a highly visual thinker--a trait that is common in people with autism, but by no means universal.

Many autistic people are also associative thinkers--the mention of a single word can spark a new line of inquiry (think of the Bing commercials), which might be represented by the kind of disjointed narratives Samir discusses.  Still other traits include sensory integration ("overload") problems, social skill deficits, and repetitive (stereotyped) behavior...

How to represent these? and: would audiences be receptive to this kind of cinematic experience?

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