Character with autism introduced on ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’: Meet Max

PBS Kids adds Max, Teacher Harriet’s nephew

"Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" (Photo provided by Respect Ability)

There’s a new friend in the neighborhood!

“Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” that is.

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This beloved children’s show -- which is basically a modern-day “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” -- is very wholesome and sweet, so it only felt right that they made this move.

Just last year, viewers got to meet Max, Teacher Harriet’s autistic nephew.

The show cast Israel Thomas-Bruce, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 4, as Max. Israel is now 13. He said this experience gave him “an extra boost of confidence,” according to a news release.

One in five people lives with a disability in the U.S., the release said. And the lack of representation -- less than 1% in children’s television -- means that millions of children are unable to see themselves in media today.

“Furthermore, when representation exists, almost all representation of autism on screen is of white males,” the group Respect Ability said. “By making Max’s character Black, ‘Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood’ is ensuring that a population, which is often overlooked, is represented.”

The team worked with several consultants, including the University of Missouri’s Dr. Wes Dotson, whose previous research showed that autistic children could learn skills from watching episodes of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” and applying lessons to their own lives, as well as Kristyn Roth of The Autism Society of America. In addition, Jessica Rosh, a woman on the autism spectrum, also consulted on these episodes, making edits to the script based on how she felt Max should be portrayed.

Including autistic individuals as consultants and in the writers’ room is vitally important to ensuring authentic representation, the release said.

“Autistic people live and breathe the autism experience a lot,” Rosh said. “So, they know what it is like to be autistic. They have a chance to have their voices heard and make change.”

While Max is being introduced this month in celebration of Autism Acceptance Month, he and his sister Amira will be included in episodes going forward.

Storylines surrounding Max will not be focused on his autism, but about everyday preschool life and things going on in the neighborhood.

While the show did decide to say Max is autistic, the term is mentioned just once. The episode above focuses more so on Max and his full personality.

“The strategy of the episode is to focus on, ‘When a friend needs different things than you, there are some things you can do,’” the show’s supervising producer, Chris Loggins, said. “This relates to everyone, applied to a range of both children and adults.”

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