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'Parenthood' and Asperger's: A Talk With the Show's Creator

Jason Katims reveals what’s next for Aspie Max, his wife’s surprising behind-the-scenes role, and who he’s cheering for on 'American Idol' 

Beth Arky

Writer
Child Mind Institute

Ever since Kristina and Adam faced the challenge of telling their son, Max, about his Asperger's, Parenthood has been in repeats, leaving fervid fans waiting and wondering about what lies ahead for the family. Kristina and Adam (Monica Potter and Peter Krause) had sought a diagnosis for 8-year-old Max (Max Burkholder) after an outburst at school, when he knocked over and broke his classroom's fish tank; he was subsequently moved to a special-needs school.

With the last four episodes of the season set to begin March 29, we checked in with Jason Katims, the executive producer and himself the father of a 14-year-old son with Asperger's. In this exclusive interview, Katims—who was also executive producer of the acclaimed Friday Night Lights—reveals the next major milestone for the Bravermans, his own wife's surprising behind-the-scenes role, and who he's rooting for on American Idol.

Kristina and Adam's explanation to Max of what Asperger's means, of his strengths and weaknesses, was so wonderful. Did a therapist consult on the script?

Actually, the writer, Bridget Carpenter, borrowed liberally from a speech my wife, Kathy, gave about how we told our son that he has Asperger's. Bridget even used some direct quotes.

Next week's episode is called "Taking the Leap." How does that pertain to Max's storyline?

For the rest of the season, Kristina and Adam are going to be deciding whether to mainstream Max again. They find out he's doing really well academically and isn't being challenged enough. He's also been doing much better behaviorally. The story is about whether Max is really ready and if it's right for him. It's also about how much his parents want it for him versus how much they want it for themselves. They're not necessarily on the same page about it.

While the Asperger's storyline is arguably the show's most riveting, it isn't the only one. You're keeping an impressive number of plots about the extended family in the air.

The premise of the show is that your children aren't who you expected them to be; that's what you have to deal with as a parent. That works both on the level of Max as a child with Asperger's and a teenage daughter who was out smoking pot.  

Many kids and teens with Asperger's are prescribed medication for anxiety and dangerous tantrums, along with behavioral therapy. Do you plan to address tough issues like medication?

It was scary to introduce Max and Asperger's into a series that was supposed to be a pretty light, comedic family show. But it was important for me to do, and I feel that it has deepened the show as a whole. I'm not opposed to doing a story about medication. Asperger's is a very big story to tell. For however long the show lasts, we will continue to tell it. It would take years to unfold and really understand it.

Is Max based on your son?

Max is not my kid. He's a combination of a lot of kids I know who have Asperger's. This is not an autobiographical story; my brother did not sleep with my son's therapist. Certainly, a tremendous amount of inspiration comes from something that happened in my family. Sometimes it hits uncomfortably close to home.

The Asperger's community has embraced Parenthood for portraying the family's experience in such a true-to-life way. Autism Speaks has also honored you for increasing autism awareness. Did you anticipate this kind of reaction?

It's surprised me a lot. When I decided to include the storyline, I grappled with whether we could tell it without it being too esoteric for a general audience. And, frankly, I was thinking about the privacy of my son and family. I wasn't really thinking it would become as important as it seems to have become for the community. It's one of the most profound things that have happened to me as a television writer, to feel I'm filling a void nobody knew was there. I've been lucky enough to work on shows I'm very proud of, but because of the response to this storyline, there is something unique and cathartic.

On the flip side, some in the community are critical that Max wasn't diagnosed until he was 8. You've said your son was diagnosed much younger. They feel that is unrealistically late, especially given all the red flags.

I've gotten feedback from parents that their children were diagnosed at Max's age. It's possible that someone who definitely has stuff going on can go under the radar; a lot of kids are not diagnosed until they're even older. And very candidly, I needed an actor old enough to attack this subject. Max Burkholder has proved brilliant at handling some very sophisticated stories and acting.

Has your family been watching American Idol?

I watch it with my wife and daughter, who's 9.

Is it safe to assume you're rooting for James Durbin, who has both Asperger's and Tourette's?

Of course! He's totally great and charming.  

What with Temple Grandin, Parenthood, The Amazing Race and now James on Idol, Asperger's has suddenly become very visible. Any idea why?

I don't know, but I hope this will normalize it for people, so someone won't see a kid having a tantrum or acting a little quirky and not quite know why. There was a woman who said her father-in-law couldn't accept that his grandson was on the spectrum, but in watching Parenthood he recognized him in Max. He was able to see, understand and accept what his grandson has. I get a lot of feedback like that. The show takes a bit of the mystery out of it.

Click here to learn more about Asperger's syndrome on Parenthood.

Photo Credit: NBC

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