Q&A: Inspiration Behind Character with Autism on Parenthood

Autism Speaks interview with Jason Katims, writer and executive producer of the NBC hit series “Parenthood.“

In 2010, Autism Speaks did an interview with Jason Katims, writer and executive producer of the NBC hit series “Parenthood.“ The series features a main character with autism named Max Braveman. Read about Max’s impact on autism awareness since the show started here. 2014 will mark the series’ sixth and last season. Below is a scene from the show in which Max gives a speech at school.

Q: Tell us about your inspiration for the character Max, who has autism, on your new show “Parenthood”.

A: When I set out to write the pilot for “Parenthood” I wanted to tap into themes and stories that I would connect with. With a television show you’re hoping for something that’s going to live for years, so you need characters and material that you have a lot to talk about. I have a 13-year-old son with Asperger syndrome. Naturally that has informed so much about my experience of parenthood. It has been difficult at times, but it has ultimately deepened me as a person. It’s changed me. It was somewhat scary to tackle this subject for various reasons, but at the end of the day I was compelled to and the network and my producing partners were very supportive.

Q:  How much of the story line about Max and his family is drawn from your personal experiences?

A: A lot of the story lines are drawn closely from my experiences. However, I have been careful to make the character of Max not like my son – there are differences in how they present, when they were diagnosed, etc. It’s important for me to protect my son’s privacy. I think my wife and I are way more exposed, since the stories are really told from the point of view of the parents. What it’s like for them. What they go through. I have gotten so much positive feedback, even from the first few episodes from parents who are dealing with children with Asperger syndrome and autism, which makes me think we’re off to a good start.

Q: Autism Speaks recently developed a tool kit for families of newly diagnosed children with autism. What resources did you use when your son was diagnosed?

A: We were entrenched with psychologists, in-house aides, teachers, PT, OT, speech therapists, you name it. They all had a major influence on our lives. My wife and I have become very close to other families in similar circumstances to us. We have bonds that go way back to our son’s preschool days. Someone once said to me that when it comes to the people who help with these kids you meet a better class of people. I think that’s true. It’s one of the beautiful surprises about this experience.

And it’s one of the ideas that I hope gets translated over time in “Parenthood.”

Q: What kind of training is the actor that plays Max’s character getting to prepare for the role?

A: The writers and directors have had a lot of people help us along the way. Psychologists, parents, special needs teachers, researchers – we’ve opened ourselves up to as many resources as possible. With the actor, Max (played by Max Burkholder), we don’t want to overwhelm him with too many voices. So the system is, we have a behavioral psychologist, Wayne Tashjian, who is our consultant on the show. Wayne will read the script, then meet with Max, Max’s mom and the director of the episode to go through every scene in the script that involves Max. At that point, Max and Max’s mom will rehearse the scenes together ahead of time, and refine things with the director and other actors later. At times when there is a specifically challenging scene we bring in an additional technical consultant to be on set, in order to make the scene as accurate as possible.


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