In a series that has depicted teenage pregnancy, abortion, alcoholism, a breast cancer battle, and a young war veteran’s PTSD, one of the most emotional, and painful, scenes to watch on NBC’s critically acclaimed Parenthood came when Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) went on his first unsupervised school field trip in Season 5. A few hours in, he is so tormented by his classmates, he throws a tantrum and has to be picked up by his parents. In the car ride home, after two hours of silence, Max begins to tell them how one of his peers peed in his canteen. “Why do all the other kids hate me?” Max asks. “Is it because I’m weird?” His parents, Kristina (Monica Potter) and Adam (Peter Krause), are speechless, but Max is overwhelmingly honest. It’s a moment that showcases a realistic situation many people on the autism spectrum, like Max, and the families of those people unfortunately deal with regularly.
When Parenthood showrunner Jason Katims started thinking about Season 5, he knew the difficult scene was on the horizon. “I had this instinct that I really wanted to make sure we weren’t sugarcoating the experience of what it would be like for Max. And I was thinking about what would be the next challenge and I thought the next challenge would be Max’s awareness that he was different,” Katims told BuzzFeed News of the character who was diagnosed with Asperger’s in the show’s first season. “I thought that that scene itself was just so wrenching and… Max in particular was so relentless in his performance. He went to a place with it where he was really there and it was just such a beautiful, heartbreaking scene.”
Parenthood, which begins its sixth and final season on Sept. 25, has been telling the poignant story of Max’s battle with autism since the series premiered, detailing his diagnosis and the subsequent issues that both he and the extended Braverman family deal with at the heart of the show as he grows and struggles with his disorder daily. And while a majority of that comes from Katims, who has a child with Asperger’s — though he is clear to note that Max is not directly based on his own son — Burkholder has also made incredible contributions to the show’s portrayal of a child on the autism spectrum. “As a parent who’s gone through this and knowing a lot of parents who have gone through this, I had a wealth of experience and things to draw from as a storyteller,” Katims said. “But Max gave me the confidence to know I didn’t have to shy away from any story.”