Consisting of two grandparents, four children and the children’s families, the show focused on the difficulties of a regular American family. One family member, Max, was the first television character to show the realities of living with a child on the Autism spectrum.
The character, played by Max Burkholder, was just 11 years old when the show began filming. Before Max began shooting the show, he studied Autism so that he could play the role accurately. Max said he was determined to understand Autism before filming the show because he wanted his portrayal to be accurate. As Max, scenes he filmed featured personality tics and deeply emotional scenes designed to hit home with families of children with Autism. His role helped bring awareness to the spectrum.
During season 5, Max had one particular scene where he goes on an unsupervised field trip with other students from his class. His classmates teased and bullied Max until he had a meltdown, forcing his parents to drive up and get him from the activity. During the drive home, Max said to his parents, “Why do all the other kids hate me? Is it because I’m weird?” His on-screen parents played by Monica Potter and Peter Krause, were left speechless. This scene in particular hit home with many parents. The direct honesty and harsh reality of misunderstanding from others is something families with Autism face deal with regularly.
Writer and producer, Jason Katims, based the television show after a film of the same name. He got inspiration for Max’s character from his own son who lives on the spectrum. Katims said he wanted to include some of his own challenges as a parent, including the difficulties of raising a child on the Autism spectrum. When he first started, Katims said he was unsure how it would work because there weren’t any other shows or movies that dealt with the disorder head on. “I was worried. Would everybody reject it? Would we be able to do a good job of telling the story… what the experience is really like for a family dealing with this?”
Throughout the course of the show, Max’s character is seen handling a variety of everyday situations, and some not-so-everyday situations. In season four of the show, Max’s mom is diagnosed with breast cancer. When his parents tell him she is sick, he responds with, “Okay. Can I go watch TV?” In the same episode, Max tells his mother that if she gets chemotherapy, the treatment will kill healthy cells along with the sick cells. This episode accurately highlighted the typical response those suffering with Asperger’s usually have to emotional situations. In many cases they respond with facts, things they know how to deal with.
Burkholder said, “The way that Max thinks of things is rationally and logically, rather than emotionally. In his mind, rather than, ‘Oh my god, my mom might die. I’m so sad. What am I going to do?’ It was more like, ‘Hmm, it’ll be really inconvenient to not have a mom. That’ll suck if she’s gone. No one will be able to drive me to school, make my meals, things like that.’“
Part of what made the show special was how the audience learned to see someone living with autism as a human.
“At first, I thought playing Max was about the fact that he had Asperger’s. But over time, it’s been more like his Asperger’s is more secondary to who he is,” Burkholder said.