The Full Spectrum: Aspergers Is The New Black

The Full Spectrum focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising a child who ranks on the autism spectrum.

Aspergers is the new black. Or so it would seem in Hollywood over the past few years. Movies such as Adam, Temple Grandin and award-winning Australian film Mary and Max all have main characters with Aspergers Syndrome.

The books are flowing, too; there’s John Elder Robison’s 2007 memoir Look Me in the Eye and his new book, Be Different, which currently has him on a major North American book tour speaking to sold-out audiences.

The news media, as well, seems most excited about the popular Aspergers trend: Barely a week goes by without someone sending me an article from a major newspaper on the topic (stories range from science discoveries to fundraisers to day-in-the-life exposés).

What’s transfixed me the most this year, however, is the NBC show Parenthood, starring Peter Krause, Dax Sheppard, Joy Bryant, Lauren Graham ­– and every other eligible actor over 40 in Hollywood. The series has everything a television audience could ask for: a weepy drama with witty dialogue about the trials and triumphs of a big, gooshy family. There’s even a 10-year-old boy with Aspergers in the mix!

It didn’t take me long to discover this show when it first aired in 2010– everyone was reaching out to me with the news about “the show with an Aspergers kid.” People were excited for me and, truth be told, I was excited that friends and family would finally be getting a glimpse, Hollywood-style, into the world of Aspergers.

How could I have been so naïve?

In Parenthood, young Aspie Max is one of the most annoying and unlikeable characters I have seen on television. I know that many Aspergers kids have dark circles under their eyes but Max verges on Night Of The Living Dead territory. Speaking of… where is this kid’s energy and passion? The show does a great job of showing us Max’s obsession with bugs, for example, but even he seems bored by his own obsession!

During one of the season’s final episodes, Max’s parents are told he is ready to go to a mainstream school; they’re happy to hear it yet they’re conflicted about the possibility. As a fellow ASD parent, I should have been thrilled by this turn of events for Max and his family. But all I could think was, “Really?!

Max’s character has not really grown or changed in the two years of the show and I couldn’t understand what the school was seeing in Max that I couldn’t. Before you judge me as taking this too seriously – it is just a TV show, after all – you have to remember that while I’m viewing the show, I’m also thinking about everyone else I know who watches the show. I was depending on Max’s character to teach my friends and family about living with Aspergers – both from the child’s perspective and a family living with him. This was my opportunity to let someone else do the preaching to my people.

I knew they would add a Hollywood twist to Max’s character, but it was supposed to be in the good way – you know, like the-hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold vibe or come-through-when-the-chips-are-down kind of mainstream cliché. Not a whiny, tantrum-like version!

Before Parenthood’s portrayal of Aspergers, I spent a lot of time simply trying to explain what Aspergers is to those around me. Post-Parenthood, it has become all about explaining what Aspergers is not.

So much for my Hollywood moment.



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  • Lindsay Cross

    Wow. I don’t often stop to think about how important media portrayal is, but you make such a great point! Even though Aspergers is becoming more well known, many people don’t know a child personally with that condition. So lots of us form assumptions based on things like TV shows and books. If a major source of information is slurred by poor character development, it can create a lot of false information. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine how frustrating that would be!

    • alison

      Thanks Lindsay-it is nice that hollywood is paying attention to different kinds of people than just the usual “perfect” people! that said, it would be nice to have a bit of the gloss on this show!!!

  • Carolyn

    It seems that on TV the grown ups with Aspergers are quirky, funny, kind. Yet they show the kids in a much darker light. What’s up with that? How hideous for you. how could you NOT want to undo any potential as-seen-on-TV judgements??

  • sam

    this is your hollywood moment sister.

  • Linton

    I agree and was really excited initially about Max’s character. I have been disappointed at the portrayal of Asperger’s as well. Our kids are so funny and brilliant – I am hoping they will get to that next season.

    • Alison

      they are using such a basic stereotype for Max!! So strange as the show is trying to be portraying the “reality” of families etc. let’s cross our fingers for next year!

  • sara winter

    I loved this post. I had to stop watching Parenthood because I felt it was too close to the bone for me. Awareness is a great thing and it should make it EASIER to understand each other; not harder.

    • Alison

      thanks sara-i agree the show makes me cry all the time (maybe too relatable) but the parents have a seemingly perfect relationship even with the challenges of their kids on the spectrum as well as other unrealistic things that just make me feel like i cannot cope!!!

  • Valerie

    I happen to know a few children with aspergers, and some of them are just like Max. Two of them are less functioning then Max and one is high functioning, shes really learned how to put herself out there but shes now 15 or 16.

    I get that Max doesn’t cover every aspect of aspergers for you, but to hate on the show or the kid for being a stereotypical poster child is shameful of you.

    Instead of trying to explain to people what it is like to raise a child with aspergers, simplify instead, and explain what you have to do to get things accomplished…and best of luck to you and your child hope you find a good support network of people!

  • Asher

    I have Asperger’s myself, and I was nothing–I repeat, NOTHING–like Max, both now and as a kid. On last week’s episode, when Sarah told Adam & Kristina that they don’t know how to say no to him, I practically jumped out of my chair and started singing the Hallelujah Chorus. I’d been waiting so long for someone to tell them that!