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Prime-time television tackles autism

By Camille Wright Felton, CNN
  • NBC's "Parenthood" portrays a family in which the son has Asperger's syndrome
  • Autism in its various types isn't often depicted in prime-time television
  • Producers use consultants to keep the storyline as accurate as possible
  • The show has faced some criticism over lack of realism

(CNN) -- In a scene from NBC's "Parenthood," two parents are attempting to get their 8-year-old son ready for school. The child insists on wearing a pirate costume to class, again. His father asks him to take it off so he won't get teased. His mother says it's OK, mainly so she can get him out the door on time.

It could be a scene from any prime-time comedy. But its context in "Parenthood" is unusual.

The 8-year-old boy, the son of main characters Adam and Kristina Braverman, has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

What is Asperger's syndrome?

Perhaps because tackling a sensitive issue such as living with a child with special needs can take a deft touch from the writers, producers and actors, a storyline dealing with autism spectrum disorders isn't something that's been portrayed often in Hollywood.

The most recent regular prime-time character with Asperger's was Jerry Espenson on ABC's "Boston Legal." The character's run lasted from 2005 until the show ended in 2008. Another ABC show, "Grey's Anatomy," introduced a short term character during the 2008-2009 seasons. Dr. Virginia Dixon appeared in a three-episode arc.

"Parenthood" is one of the few shows that have included a regular character with Asperger's from the beginning.

The show has gotten good reviews in general and favorable comments from people affected by the disorder.

One reader named Dani, who has an 8-year-old with Asperger's, wrote, "Overall I think it's been really true to the behavior our Aspie kids display -- which is often confused for being naughty or a lack of discipline. Thanks for doing your homework NBC!"

Because the show has received good reviews and positive feedback from families affected by the disorder, it may seem apparent that including a character with Asperger's was a good move. Executive Producer Jason Katims says it wasn't so clear at the beginning.

"I think there were moments everybody had of whether to do it, including myself," he said. "I felt like it was a big thing to take on. It's a very personal thing to me."

He's not exaggerating. He has a son with the disorder, and though he had an intimate knowledge of dealing with Asperger's, he sought out experts to help shape the characters and the stories.

"When I decided to take this on, I felt an enormous responsibility to make this as real as possible," he says. The show consults with psychologists, teachers and other parents "to make the depiction of both this character and his parents as accurate as possible."

A behavioral therapist consultant works with Max Burkholder, the actor who plays Max Braverman, and with Monica Potter and Peter Krause, the actors who play Max's parents, Kristina and Adam Braverman.

The consultant also works with other cast members whose characters interact with Max and with the show's directors.

NBC has been very supportive, Katims adds. He said there was a conversation with the network, not about whether to introduce the storyline, but how quickly.

Peter Bell, the executive vice president of Autism Speaks, the country's largest autism science and advocacy organization, said his group hadn't worked with "Parenthood" on scripts, but Bell was on set recently to be a part of the May 18th episode. He had a chance to talk with the actors and production staff.

Bell called the cast and crew "thirsty" for information about Asperger's and autism. "I was really struck by how wonderful they all were and how interested in the topic they are."

When I decided to take this on I felt an enormous responsibility to make this as real as possible.
--Jason Katims, Executive Producer "Parenthood"

The work the cast and crew has put into the show seems to have drawn the audience's interest. The day after the episode in which Max was diagnosed, Asperger's was one of the most searched subjects on Google.

That pleased Katims. He says a character like Max can help take the mystery out of Asperger's, which is important for people who are dealing with the disorder.

Not everyone has been pleased with "Parenthood's" treatment of autism. CherieT commented on CNN's Marquee blog that the show "misses the mark sometimes on Asperger's traits." She says while she's glad to see a show trying, "Parenthood" gets more things wrong than right. writer Angela Timpone, the owner of a business that supports families with autism and the mother of a boy who was diagnosed with autism five years ago, has taken issue with how the writers are handling Max's education.

In an early episode, Adam and Kristina meet with a teacher at Max's public school, who says Max doesn't fit there. Max is almost immediately moved to a private school. In her post, Timpone notes laws require public schools to provide an education to all students, even if the schools must make accommodations for special needs students. She said the writers could have drawn some good stories from showing Kristina and Adam advocating for Max in the public school.

"I know the drama of it all was captivating. There's also drama in the fact [parents of autistic kids] have trouble with the public school system," she said.

She also thinks the show hasn't delved deeply enough into the financial and emotional strains an autism diagnosis can put on a family. She understands the show can only do so much, but "I wish maybe they had dialogue about how this costs so much money," and how making changes in a child's care and education can change the family dynamic.

Katims expected criticism. "I would be critical because I know what it's like," he says. "You want to be truthful to the situation, but you're also storytellers."

Timpone says she enjoys the show, and through her Facebook page, she's heard from other moms of autistic children who liked the depiction of what Kristina Braverman goes through.

She says it's great more people are hearing about autism, "but it's not the regular autism family story."