Alienating Asperger’s: Parenthood and What’s Wrong With Max

Curator's Note

The opportunities for the entertainment media to enlighten the public on complex issues are endless. They come in the form of movies, songs, poetry, plays, and television shows. Thanks to improved technology and accessibility, entertainment media is ambient, and thus so are its opportunities to deconstruct the misunderstood. When Parenthood first aired in 2010, we were introduced to the Bravermans. We were led to believe they were pretty much your average American family with a few exceptions here and there. One of those exceptions was Max, a gaunt boy with unruly curls and a penchant for pirate costumes and collecting bugs. He was weird from the outset, cast out by his peers and misunderstood by his teachers.

Diagnosed with Asperger’s early in Parenthood’s thus-far 90-episode run, Max has been portrayed as an isolated individual who needs to be medically treated for his cognitive differences and who can only be empowered through emotionally charged and overtly atypical hero moments. The accompanying clip shows one such moment, clarifying for the audience that Max is both strange and able to overcome his oddity only through the acceptance of his classmates. This moment crystallizes what disabilities studies scholars have called the portrayal of individuals with Asperger’s or other conditions as “supercrips.” They may be disabled or labeled as such, but they have extraordinary gifts.

In this clip, Max owns his condition and its label and at the same time notes that he is “smart” and “remembers almost everything.” This cues a positive reaction from his peers, who seem to suddenly respect him more for his Asperger’s. While the clip is no doubt emotional, it assumes Asperger’s is a condition that needs to be diagnosed, treated, and overcome. The latter, as the clip would have it, can only be achieved through the approval of one’s peers — acceptance that comes at extraordinary measure. The writers of Parenthood, none of whom have Asperger’s, have based their interpretations of the diagnosis on secondary experiences. They have failed to accurately look through the eyes of Asperger’s, instead relying on the emotional stigmatization of the diagnosis to continue a worrisome trend in entertainment media. For it is far easier to promote a false discourse if it aligns with what the public expects and what ratings call for, even if it risks the continued alienation of individuals.


Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post, Avery! It's now impossible to think about the representation of Autism on TV without thinking of Max and Parenthood. I agree that the character of Max is a little too "glossy" in certain respects, even though the show's producer has a child on the Spectrum and the show consults regularly with experts in the medical field. Would love to hear your thoughts on the most recent season, in which Max has a meltdown on a class trip, gets ridiculed/bullied by his peers, and gets thrown out of class (repeatedly) for "bad behavior" (ie, stimming, inability to sit still, perseverating on a topic, dominating classroom conversation). These are, to me, more realistic scenarios than previous Max story lines, which have typically been neatly resolved within a few episodes. In the most recent season, I particularly enjoyed the introduction of Max's teacher, who realizes that Max's "bad behavior" can be helped by simply allowing him to wander around the classroom instead of requiring him to sit still in a chair. I think this gets to the heart of the "cure" problem of that you point out. This teacher isn't trying to cure Max's Asperger's; instead, he is seeking ways of accommodating Max's sensory differences so that he can participate and excel.

Thanks so much, Nedda. For me, this season is very similar to other seasons with the exception of really ramping up Max's actions. In Season 1, we were shown a Max that was simply different. He was prone to outbursts, outcast by his peers, and frequently shown as an isolated individual. Fast forward some 70 episodes and we have a teenage Max going through some typical teenage behavior. Yet, we continually get these bursts of what the producers/writers believe Asperger's looks like. The trouble with this, and it's a difficult point for them to address, is that Asperger's is different for everyone. Yes, there are common threads, but the show has a chance to show the differences. Instead, they continue the stigmas attached to Asperger's. Max's "defining moments" are almost always when his peers accept him; his "down moments" are behavioral outbursts or alienations. Just as we had a hero character in Season 1/2 (Max's therapist), so too do we have one now. Again, Max's condition is portrayed as one of brokeness. Only those around him can "fix" him, and he can only feel empowered through acceptance from others. These are dangerous blanket metaphors to be casting out the public. Again, I would note that while the pilot epsiode was written by the father of a boy with Asperger's, he has only consulted since then. No one with Asperger's, at least to my knowledge, has worked with or been consulted for the show. That needs to change.

Picking up on your comment about "what the producers/writers believe Asperger's looks like," something I have noticed is that most TV representations--Max included--seem to have *every* symptom/sign of Asperger's. It's as if writers, etc. looked at the DSM and used it like a recipe, following it to the letter. I think this "kitchen sink" approach is what leads to these generic representations of ASD, even though, as the adage goes, "If you've met one kid with Autism, you've met ONE KID with Autism."

I have been looking forward to reading this piece. The character of Max is typically praised for being so well-researched, so it is interesting to think on the other side of this. Having watched Parenthood for many years, I know the show very well and how they tend to write the stories around Max. I do see what you're referring to in that all of his major stories are only considered a success if his peers decide accept him. It can sometimes come across as an "after-school-special" rather than a real portrayal of what Max's life is like. I do think they could benefit from more consultation from someone who actually is diagnosed with Asperger's rather than medical professionals or others.

It's kind of like asking a dozen oncologists about what it's like to experience cancer without ever asking someone who actually has cancer. Just missing a real window into the experience. There are already a good number of folks with Asperger's out there working on this, writing autobiographical accounts that are helping to change the stigmas created by people with second-half experience. Let's hope that trend keeps pushing ahead.

I certainly agree that Max's success revolving around the acceptance of peers is limiting and plays too much to neurotypicals' assumptions about what individuals with Asperger's need to be "happy". However, I think the program still offers a relatively accurate view of how Asperger's can create both challenges and opportunities (as this clip suggests). That is a viewpoint that needs to be more commonplace. The truth that everyone with Autism is different can be applied to Max. Maybe he's just this way, with an overabundance of Asperger's qualities. In this way, when someone looks to a child that they know, they may see something of Max and be able to relate a little easier.

Hi. For years, I've used that video in my presentation on the subject of autism, which I present to middle schoolers. Recently, I found that the link no longer works. I found the video here and no place else. Do you own it, or did you get permission to share it? I'm trying to find out how I can get permission to use it again. Thanks.

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