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NBC's Parenthood: How NOT to Parent a Kid with Asperger's


NBC's show Parenthood started it's fourth season this fall. I've watched this show since the beginning and in general I think it's a lovely show. The acting is good (in particular, Mae Whitman as Amber, an intelligent, likeable young woman in the midst of the complicated process of becoming an adult), the characters are complex and realized with good qualities and bad, just like real people. Sometimes I love them and sometimes I want to punch them in the mouth. Again, just like real people! I really like this show, with one exception: the treatment of the the character of Max Braverman.

If you don't watch the show, let me give you a little background. Max is a eleven year old boy with Asperger's Syndrome. He was diagnosed in the early episodes of the first season. If you are unfamiliar with Asperger's, it is a semi-mild form of autism. People with AS are high functioning (think more Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory and less Raymond Babbit from Rain Man), usually highly intelligent, incredibly focused on one or two specific topics, studious and determined. These positive traits unfortunately come with some drawbacks. As with most autistic people, those with AS have trouble relating to others. They do not instinctively read facial expressions and body language and so often unintentionally offend others. They are generally highly sensitive to loud noises, don't like to be touched, and react badly to unexpected occurrences. These sensitivities can lead to reactions called meltdowns: loud screaming, head-banging, foot stamping fits that resemble tantrums. And herein lies my problem with the show's treatment of Max.

Peter Krause and Monica Potter as Adam and Kristina Braverman

Peter Krause and Monica Potter as Adam and Kristina Braverman

On the show, Max has frequent meltdowns. They are very accurately portrayed by young actor Max Burkholder. He yells stamps his feet and generally acts in a away most neurotypical people would consider an overreaction. To all of us with AS people in our lives this is nothing new. We see it all the time. My problem is with the way the parents, Adam and Kristina, deal with these meltdowns. Let me give you an example:

Max Burkholder as Max Braverman

Max Burkholder as Max Braverman

Max and his family go to a diner to celebrate his older sister's immanent departure for college. The restaurant is crowded and noisy, not ideal for any AS person. Max is getting upset and impatient. The waitress is slow in getting to the table. Max is getting more and more restless. He's jumping around in the seat and banging on the table. His parents don't say anything about this behavior, even though he's knocking into his sister and clearly disturbing other diners. Finally the waitress arrives. Max loudly informs her that she is a terrible waitress. She's slow and she sucks and whatever else. Again his parents ignore this behavior. Max orders a torpedo burger and the waitress tells him that burger is no longer on the menu. Then all hell breaks loose. Max devolves into a full out meltdown, screaming, kicking, slamming the table. Do his parents stop this? Do they give him any strategies for calming himself? Do they remove him from the diner until he is calm again? No. They are irritated with the restaurant for not bending to Max.

Trying to reason with a meltdown, Adam?  Don't bother.

Trying to reason with a meltdown, Adam? Don't bother.

I could go on with example after example of this show's portrayal of Adam and Kristina attempting to bend the world to fit Max. As a parent of a child with AS I find this appalling. My son has meltdowns just like any other AS person, but his dad and I try to teach him strategies to control and contain these episodes. We are trying to teach him that it is not okay to disturb others and we never, never allow him to speak rudely to others without consequence. This is not to say we punish him for these things that are not in his control but we point them out as unacceptable behavior and ask him to apologize to anyone he has offended. You see, we believe in preparing him for adulthood and we don't want him to be shocked and dismayed when he finds out that the world doesn't bend to his will. It's sad to think the creators of this show think letting AS kids run wild is a good way to parent. Hopefully most parents of AS kids don't think this way, because I shudder to think of the lonely, unhappy life the fictional Max is headed for in adulthood.

Well this hub has gotten awfully long, so I'll sign off now. If anyone out there has anything to add or disagrees with me, I'd love to hear from you. Leave me a comment and I'll reply as soon as I can.

For more information about autism and Aperger's Syndrome here are some websites to check out:


Brooke on January 23, 2016:

I am not a parent, nor do I know anyone with Aspergers. I just started watching parenthood and I feel love/hate for this show. Mostly because of max, while I think he's a good actor I just don't understand. He is NEVER punished, I'm at the end of season two right now and I just don't understand why he can get away with anything? Amber was just in the hospital and he proceeded to have a tantrum. Screaming at the top of his lungs, saying he didn't care about amber, telling his grandpa to shut up, and hitting his mother. Adam later tried to talk to him and Max doesn't see how he did anything wrong. I guess I just want to know if this is normal? I've heard max say multiple times that haddie needs consequences for something she did, but does he think he doesn't?

Kie on February 28, 2015:

I think that Parenthood should be taken for what it is, a tv show. If people start to use it as a guidebook on how to parent, then we're going to have a problem.

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Each of the characters in the show has flaws, and i think that's the beauty of it. It shows the complexity of family life without making any of them perfect.

So sure there are going to be plenty of moments where the characters anger us or do things we'd do differently. In my eyes that's just the sign of a well written tv show.

LiL on February 05, 2015:

FINALLY!!! Someone with some sense. Everyone makes excuses saying how generous she is and how her life is so hard. Shes rude, judgemental, and thoughtless. She lets Max use Aspergers as an excuse to act like her. They are both rude. Her and Adam are the worst. I really feel bad for Haddie. I hate how they think everyone else has to be understanding and cater to their son's fits. He has such potential to be a better person instead they spoil him and blame everyone else. I get soo angry watching them. They make it seem like their problems are the only ones that matter. Adam trying to sell the Luncheonette without caring what his brother wanted. I couldn't even feel bad for Kristina when she got cancer. I can't stand their whole family other than Haddie.

I love Zeke and Camille. Sydney and Max, biggest pains ever but Max is his parents fault. Hes a great actor though.

reneeymoore from Temple Hills, Maryland on January 20, 2015:

I just started watching this show on Netflix. I thought it was me. I scream at the TV every episode.

1. I'm SICK of Kristina's crying. She cries every freaking episode and I'm on season 4 so that is a LOT of crying.

2. I want Adam to say NO to someone/ anyone sometimes. I'm sick of Kristina manipulating him with her constant crying.

3. I want them to parent Max. I don't understand the bending of rules and never punishing or addressing his behavior. They always seem to excuse his behavior because he has AS. I don't have a child with AS so I didn't know if this was normal but I do know that he gets away with some terrible behavior on this show. They can't protect him from the world. And they aren't preparing him for it either.

When he called Kristina a bitch that day before the family trip, I was shocked that she punished him. Then of course she gave in and flew out to meet them. Someone would have found my lifeless body had I said that to my mother so I just don't get rewarding him with a trip. The same with that bratty attitude with the dog. And when he wanted to run for student council, they wanted him to not do it b/c he might be teased. So? Who hasn't been teased in their life? Or lost at something? Why not allow him to run and see how it goes. Let him try to fail or try and win. But stop trying to protect him from what will ultimately happen when he grows up... LIFE!

pam on November 21, 2014:

Hi, i watch parenthood on a regular basis and have been struggling with how maxs parents handle his outbursts. As a parent without a child with AS i wasn't sure how they should handle him! But as the show has gone on i keep saying to myself, "please parents stop letting him walk all over you!" I was happy to hear ur comments of how they shouldn't be letting him get away with his behavior, cuz i was irritated at how they handled him but as a parent w/o a child with AS i didn't know! I would hope they(on the show) fix how the parents handle him so other parents don't try it their way!! God bless!

R on June 07, 2014:

As someone who works with autistic children thank you so much for this post! Too often parents encourage and condition inappropriate behavior because they are afraid to say no to their children. It is a much harder job to say no to a child that may not necessarily understand or why and it takes a tough parent who truly wants the best for their child to do it!

Carmen Francis on May 23, 2014:

This show does not represents real life families, they seems to be in each others business to much, they are terrible at parenting their kids, I think the only parent on the show who really discipline their child is Jasmine. Adam and Kristina are the worst parents on the show, who the hell start a school, because your kid can't get along with in a regular school setting, are they going to start a university for their son too, or a company for him to work. He has to learn how to act and behave in society, like the rest of us, and that starts in the home, at school, and other places in the community.

laura on May 01, 2014:

I like the show, but I think everyone's "parenting" (what ever happened to "raising" a child?) sucks. They all hover, micro-manage, over-protect, and invade each other's space. IMHO this is not a functional family.

gina on April 25, 2014:

I love/hate this show. The so called parenting (I call it non-parenting) of Max is one thing that drives me nuts. In season one, Zeke (Zeek?) makes a comment about how "That kid is running your household," and I thought Finally! Someone's going to start doing something that resembles discipline. Boy was I wrong. I'm almost at the end of season two and still, that little brat is in command. Glad to read from actual parents of, and "sufferers" (pardon me if I'm not p.c.) agree with me. I don't believe in corporal punishment, but I do believe that giving the reins over to a child spells Doom.

Susan on March 22, 2014:

I'm only in the first season, so I can only comment about that. I don't think the show is endorsing or recommending Adam and Kristina's parenting style. After all, look at the quality of parenting of everyone else in the show - it's problematic, too. I don't think the show is endorsing the parenting of Sarah, Julia, Crosby or grandpa either. I wouldn't watch this show for insights on how to parent, just for the "pleasures" of knowing some flawed humans - their good and their bad.

Asher on March 19, 2014:

I have AS myself, and I even entertained the thought of acting ANYTHING like Max, my mom would've smacked me clear into the next county--both as a kid and now. If you ever wondered how to parent a kid on the spectrum, look very closely at Adam & Kristina, and do THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what they do--i.e., spoil and constantly give in to said kid.

latresef on November 13, 2013:

I have taught special education for twelve years. I love this show, however their discipline in general is scary. Even the little niece who is not autistic, she threw fits literally throwing things and yelling that she hated her parents. They put her in her room for time out, and sat outside her door all evening to make sure she stayed. That was THEIR punishment! Horrible examples of discipline in the show!

Kendra Hoffman on November 11, 2013:

I feel a bit vindicated by your post. I'm mom to an 11-year-old AS kid, and person after person points me to this show, thinking I'll love it. But it's akin to someone who's a real-life doctor trying to suffer through an episode of the latest hospital drama. What's extra aggravating is that my friends now think they understand ASD better. I feel a little better knowing I'm not the only one rubbed the wrong way. =)

Meg Davis (author) from Saint Louis, Missouri on September 29, 2012:

Thanks Amy, I appreciate the feedback. Every time I watch this show, I end up yelling at the television. As I've told my son hundreds of times: Aspergers is not an excuse to act like a brat.

Amy Becherer from St. Louis, MO on September 28, 2012:

I don't watch "Parenthood" on a regular basis, Meg, because, in general I find the parenting, especially in this fictional family, insipid. Recently, a friend of mine stopped by and was dismayed to see he was going to miss that evenings episode. I told him he could watch it here, and, of course, I joined him. I was incensed by the way this family dealt with an incident where Max wanted a dog. When the puppy he ultimately bonded with was sold, just as the father (who acquiesed to the mom's insistence that they give Max what the mom had promised), Max had another meltdown. The mother is held hostage by Max's Asperger's. Instead of being a responsible parent, she is reduced to behaving like a child herself, unable to capably handle his condition like an adult. She whines, cries, and wimps out. I find it disgustingly revolting and for this reason, I was criticized by my friend as being unreasonable, not understanding that the character is a "good" mom who wants to make Max's life easier. In real life, she would be doing everything but helping Max. In real life, no one loves us like our parents and allowing Max's character to bully his parents into getting his way all the time sets him up for dislike and a lonely future out in the real world. I object to the example "Parenthood" depicts for those families struggling to find the best way of raising a child with Aspergers. Frankly, I am surprised that any organization involved with help for Aspergers victims and their families hasn't objected. I will continue to avoid the program for the very reason you site here, Meg. Thank you for an informative, well written article on a topic that's been on my mind lately.

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