Max Burkholder strives to be a normal teen while working on the TV drama Parenthood.
The 16-year-old actor attends school when he’s not filming the show (which airs in Australia on the Seven Network) about the ups and downs of a large family living in Berkley, California.
Burkholder’s character, also named Max, isn’t your typical teen. He has Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism.
Burkholder says he was 10 or 11 years old when he got the part, and he didn’t know about Asperger’s.
“In the beginning… I would meet with a doctor who specialises in working with children with Asperger’s as well as the director of the next episode and we’d talk about what Max should be doing, how he’d react in certain situations, things like that,” Burkholder said in an recent interview.
Parenthood is now in its fifth season. Burkholder says he feels more comfortable with the character and receives guidance less frequently.
“I sort of feel that I’ve figured out how Max specifically acts rather than how a person with Asperger’s would generally act.”
Burkholder’s character is extremely intelligent. He rarely looks others in the eye or displays emotion, unless it is frustration. He is blunt and matter-of-fact in his speaking, but his observations can be funny – even cringe-worthy, because they are so honest and unrestrained.
Monica Potter, who plays his mother, says she marvels at working with Burkholder.
“Working with Max is one of the greatest things about coming to work. Wicked smart, extremely talented and beyond hilarious,” she says. “Everyone should be so lucky to get to work with genius like him.”
Matt Asner, executive director of Autism Speaks in Southern California, says Burkholder’s work on the show is a great message for everyone.
Many people don’t know what autism is, Asner says, “and so they’re getting this message from him on a weekly basis and what his family has to deal with (because of) the disorder. It’s amazing. Knowledge is power.”
As Max Braverman grows, much of his story involves trying to be a normal kid, but with social awkwardness getting in the way.
In a recent episode, he decided a character should be his girlfriend because they both liked the same hockey team.
“It wasn’t even romantic with Max,” recalled Burkholder. “It was just something like, ‘Oh, requirements have been met.’ It wasn’t even Max wanting (a girlfriend). He thought it was something that was necessary.”
Asner says that portrayal is spot-on.
“When you get… older, you want to be like everyone else. You want to like the same things that everyone likes, but the fact is you’re not like other people. It creates frustration in that person and can create some very rough emotional times…
“You’re dealing with life in a very different way than most people would call typical.”