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Characters with autism getting prime spots on major TV series

Parenthood: Amazing Andy and His Wonderful World of Bugs, with Max Burkholder as Max Braverman.

Danny Feld/NBC

When Parenthood creator Jason Katims created the character Max Braverman – an intelligent, inscrutable, insect-obsessed youngster with Asperger's – he had in mind his own son, Sawyer, who was similarly diagnosed.

But while many are absorbed in the travails of the mop-topped Max on the generously open-hearted family TV drama, Katims's own teenaged son isn't among them.

"Everybody else in the family watches it but he doesn't," the Emmy Award-winner said in a recent telephone interview, chuckling softly.

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Fortunately for Katims, millions of other people are playing close attention – particularly those with a loved one on the autism spectrum.

And those numbers are growing. One in 88 American children has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and – while no federal monitoring system exists in Canada to provide a similar rate of prevalence – ASD is the most common childhood neurological disorder or severe developmental disability here. (A controversial decision was recently made to fold Asperger syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism, into an umbrella diagnosis for autism spectrum disorder, but the families interviewed for this story largely used the terms interchangeably.)

Television can often be painstakingly slow to adapt to such shifts in demographics. But it's clear that some of the challenges faced by the autistic population have captured the imagination of TV writers, who are increasingly penning eccentric characters whose quirks would seem to align with typical characteristics of ASD on shows including The Big Bang Theory and Bones.

These characters are never diagnosed, but they are smart, focused and passionate about certain subjects, stubbornly rigid and navigate human relationships with either much effort or bemused distance, confused by sarcasm, idioms or other unspoken rules of social interaction that come naturally to most – traits that are incredibly familiar to some people on the spectrum and those around them.

But if these shows are helping to craft the popular understanding of a neural disorder still largely shrouded in mystery, it should be asked: Are they getting it right? And how do people on the spectrum or those close to them feel about the representations?

It was a consideration of crucial importance to Katims, who of course counts himself among that community. When the 52-year-old began developing Parenthood – after bringing his beloved gridiron TV drama Friday Night Lights to a gratifying conclusion – he saw an opportunity to tell stories that weren't being told on television: His own.

But he also felt a heavy sense of responsibility. "When we were starting out, I really had a lot of apprehension about our ability to tell the story accurately," he said. "I was sort of overwhelmed by the challenge of doing that and was sort of determined to make it not feel like a bad television version of it, but to make it feel real."

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One way he accomplished that was by culling many of Max's stories from his own life. Though Katims does his best to nimbly sidestep autobiography, sometimes he'll casually share details of his home life with his writers, leave the room, and come back to find his personal anecdote expertly adapted into a pitch for a storyline. The show also employs behavioural psychologist Wayne Tashjian to work with the show's cast and crew to ensure accuracy.

Tom Hibben, a 30-year-old paramedic from Oklahoma City, was still reeling from the diagnosis of his son with Asperger syndrome when he and his wife sat down to watch the Parenthood pilot in 2010.

In that episode, a teary-eyed Kristina Braverman (Monica Potter) informs husband Adam (Peter Krause) of their son's diagnosis. In volatile disbelief, Adam spits back: "Asperger's? Like autism? Max is not autistic! I've seen autistic kids!"

Watching at home, Hibben and his wife exchanged stunned glances. They were initially a little "horrified" by what they were watching, but they also got sucked in and continued following the show. Nowadays, they even sometimes do so with their son (now nine years old), who identifies with aspects of Parenthood – specifically, Max's nonplussed reaction when he learned he had Asperger's.

Hibben, meanwhile, found himself more strongly relating to the stomach-churning anxiety Adam and Kristina felt when Max – galvanized by his righteous indignity over the removal of a school vending machine – decided to run for student-council president. The fictional Bravermans were stuck; they wanted to support him but didn't want to see his spirit crushed.

"That kind of hit home for us," said Hibben, a father of three who authors the blog "You want them to get involved, but do you want them to have that potential for them to get stomped or made fun of?"

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That storyline culminated in Max delivering a stirring speech to his classmates explaining the particulars of what makes him different, resulting in his successful election.

Karen Wesley watched that scene through tears. The Austin, Tex., mother has three children, two of whom are on the autism spectrum. Her 16-year-old son had recently written an essay about his own struggles and read it over the PA system at school.

"Oh my God, I was in tears because [Max's] speech was very similar to the one that my son made," said Wesley, who writes about her life at

Bones's Canadian-raised creator Hart Hanson once told the Newark Star-Ledger that he based the show's central forensic anthropologist in part on a friend with Asperger syndrome, but decided not to label the character because he wanted the Fox show to appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

As played by Emily Deschanel, Temperance Brennan (nicknamed Bones) is a brilliant scientist who struggles to parse social cues in her dealings with perennially at-odds love interest Booth (David Boreanaz), and whose clinical curiosity and lack of emotional expression sometimes leave co-workers complaining that she's as chilly as the corpses she so expertly probes.

Canada's top-rated show The Big Bang Theory – a comedy about nerdy, socially awkward men and the patient women they don't really deserve – has a somewhat similar character in its breakout star, Sheldon Cooper.

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Sheldon, like Bones, is a bona-fide genius, a physicist of considerable renown and a walking encyclopedia who exhausts his friends with deep reserves of obscure trivia. But he also abhors physical contact, sticks so religiously to routine that he won't let anyone sit in his spot on the couch, possesses such an intractable obstinacy that friends roll their eyes at any nascent signs of a disagreement and treats social convention like the one complex puzzle he can never quite solve.

But, as on Bones, Big Bang has never directly confronted the reasons behind Sheldon's idiosyncrasies. The show's co-creator, Bill Prady, has said they resisted diagnosing Sheldon because the resultant responsibility would be too much for what is, at its heart, a goofy sitcom.

Wesley loves Big Bang. She says her kids draw strength from seeing characters who bear some resemblance to them on TV. But she says it would be beneficial if producers at least alluded to the possibility of a diagnosis for Sheldon.

Natalie Dalton, a mother of two from St. John's with a son diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, disagrees. She "adores" Sheldon and says that his Asperger qualities are readily apparent, but magnified to the thousandth degree. Which is why she'd rather not see him overtly associated with the condition.

"To diagnose his character now would be to make a mockery of Asperger's/autism," she wrote in an email. "Although I love the show, I would be offended if Sheldon was meant to accurately depict a person with Asperger's."

Dr. James Bebko, a professor and autism researcher with York University's department of psychology, is similarly skeptical that Sheldon displays anything more than a shallow resemblance to someone actually dealing with Asperger syndrome.

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"One of the things that's part of society now is that it doesn't seem okay anymore just to be eccentric – it has to be pathologized in some way," he said.

"Part of the dynamic of what's going on is that [viewers] with various disorders or challenges are also trying to normalize their experience or their child's experience, so they're looking for examples of that sort of behaviour in recognized personalities or in media."

And Bebko says it's easy to understand why: Sheldon and Bones are highly successful professionals, and thus optimistic examples for young people on the spectrum.

But their lives are not reality for most people with different forms of autism. In fact, a recent study published by Pediatrics found that one in three young adults with autism had no paid job experience, college or technical school nearly seven years after high-school graduation – a poorer showing than those who have mental disabilities.

While Bebko thinks that TV shows drawing attention to autism is a positive development, he warns that there's a danger in viewers forming strong impressions from fictional media.

"What's important is that they have to realize it's entertainment," he said.

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