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Autism story line in 'Parenthood' based on real life

HOLLYOOD — That NBC's family drama "Parenthood" rings true — even in its most painful moments — should come as no surprise.

Much of it is based on real life.

And that includes the ongoing story line in which parents Adam (Peter Krause) and Krisina Braverman (Monica Potter) deal with their son's autism.

"Well, I have been researching it steadily for the past 13 years because I have a son with Asperger's," said executive producer Jason Katims, whose credits include "Friday Night Lights," "Boston Public" and "Roswell."

Both Katims' son and Max Braverman (Max Burkholder) have Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism that is marked by impaired social reactions. Symptoms range from mild to severe, but include difficulty developing meaningful relationships; inability to understand subtleties of communicating through eye contact, body language or facial expressions; and inability to show affection.

Asperger's is less severe on the autism scale than many forms, but it definitely sets kids who have it apart. And makes it tough on their parents.

"(It) is very important for me to depict that as realistically as possible," Katims said. "And not only meaning to depict Max ... but also the parents and how the parents are dealing with it and everything that they go through."

It's been an acting challenge for 12-year-old Burkholder — who's done such a good job that he's been asked if he actually has Asperger's syndrome.

Burkholder said he knew "next to nothing about autism and Asperger's" when he auditioned for the part. But the producers "brought in someone who was an Asperger's doctor and his son had Asperger's himself."

"So that helped a lot. And every couple of episodes, I get to together with Larry, an Asperger's doctor, and we discuss things that Max might be doing, things he might be looking at, stuff like that," Burkholder said. "It really helps me a lot. And I've done some research on my own for the role."

Similarly, Krause and Potter have learned what it's like for parents of kids with autism. And it hasn't been easy for Adam and Kristina to deal with. First because Max was struggling to fit in, both in school and at home. Second because the Asperger's diagnosis was a shock.

In the pilot episode, Kristina is in tears as she tells her husband the doctor "thinks that he may have Asperger's."

"Asperger's?" Adam said in disbelief. "Like autism? Max is not autistic! I've seen autistic kids!"

And, third, because dealing with it is something they face every day of their lives. It's an ongoing issue for them not just as parents but as a couple.

"I was shocked to discover how many times this breaks up marriages," Potter said.

"The odds are against you," Krause said.

Statistics show that up to 80 percent of the parents of kids with special needs end up divorcing.

"Not us," Potter said.

"So far," Katims added.

"Parenthood" is intended as entertainment; it's not a documentary. But Katims said he still feels an obligation to get it right.

"What was important for me in terms of talking about it was just to normalize it in a way and make it, not take the mystery out of it, (but) just — this is what this family is dealing with," he said.

"Parenthood" has been praised by various support groups for parents of children with autism and Asperger's. Peter Bell, executive vice president at Autism Speaks, even had a small role in the season finale — which featured a fund-raiser for Autism Speaks.

But Katims said he didn't set out to stand on a soap box. In a way, Max's Asperger's is emblematic of the theme of "Parenthood," if there is one.

"When I started working the show, what I thought of was that your children are never who you expect them to be," Katims said. "That was the idea that I had — the organizing principle. And (Asperger's) is one example of it."

In the 1989 movie "Parenthood," on which the series is based, the character of Kevin (Jasen Fisher) had emotional problems. But there was no hint of autism or Asperger's.

That came when Katims adapted the movie for TV — and it came out of the standard write-what-you-know theory of scriptwriting.

"On one hand, I think the gravy that's come from that that I didn't expect was sort of raising awareness and people sort of coming to know about it a little bit more," Katims said. "And knowing sort of where to go if that comes up in your life or the life of your loved ones.

"But, to me, from a storytelling perspective, it's just — this is what happens in life. Things happen. Everybody has something in their lives. ... Everybody is going through something. It might not be as big or as extreme as having an autistic child, but it's never as simple as it looks.

"And those are the kinds of stories I wanted to be telling."

If you watch ...

What: "Parenthood"

When: Tuesdays, 9 p.m. (The second-season premiere airs Sept. 14)

Channel: NBC/Ch. 5