By Nils Skudra
The ABC miniseries “The Good Doctor,” which has become an extremely popular television show of late, features the English actor Freddie Highmore as Shaun Murphy, a young medical genius with “high-functioning autism” and Savant Syndrome. In the TV Series, Shawn is hired at a San Jose, California hospital as a surgical resident over the objections of the majority of the hospital board. The hospital’s president, Dr. Glassman (ably portrayed by Richard Schiff), a father figure to Shaun since the latter’s childhood, stakes his professional reputation on his young protégé’s prospective success and insists that the hospital hire him, declaring that he will resign as president in the event of Shaun’s failure.
While Shaun is initially shunned by most of the hospital staff and given the menial task of “scut work” by the supervising surgeon Dr. Melendez (portrayed by Nicholas Gonzalez) who visibly feels professionally threatened by him, he builds a close rapport with Claire Browne (portrayed by Antonia Thomas), a fellow surgical resident who develops a strong sensitivity and empathy toward Shaun while learning to navigate his difficulties with social interactions. Over the course of his work at the hospital, Shaun repeatedly demonstrates his genius as a surgeon and plays an important role in cases with different patients while struggling to gain acceptance from the hospital staff and the families of patients due to his social challenges as an individual on the autism spectrum.
Among the strengths of “The Good Doctor” is Highmore’s highly sensitive portrayal of an individual with autism. Although some critics may point out the representational problems of casting a neurotypical actor in the role of an autistic protagonist, Highmore displays superb versatility in capturing Shaun’s social challenges and conveying them with both striking accuracy and emotional depth. Through this portrayal, the miniseries highlights many of the characteristics associated with autism, including the tendency to interpret statements literally and at face value (illustrated in Season 1 Episode 2 when Shaun takes Dr. Melendez’s sarcastic remark “Nice call, genius” as a compliment); the difficulty with responding to other individuals’ inquiries and then a tendency to spontaneously state one’s thoughts (reflected in Claire’s conversations with Shaun in which he sometimes does not answer her questions but then speaks his mind when no questions are being asked); and the challenge of empathizing with other individuals in a position of vulnerability. This latter characteristic in particular is something which significantly affects Shaun’s ability to emotionally connect with patients, as he fails to express adequate sympathy for a young boy with terminal cancer despite making an attempt to do so by reading a passage from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird about stepping into someone else’s shoes.
While “The Good Doctor” does a superb job of portraying the challenges associated with autism, one significant shortcoming that many people in the autistic community would take issue with is the miniseries’ depiction of a savant protagonist as a representative figure for autism in general. While one episode features Shaun working with an autistic patient who is differently functioning than him (with the result that he is better able to connect with Shaun during treatment), the overall emphasis on the protagonist’s talents and challenges as characteristic of autism poses representational issues since Autism Spectrum Disorder’s range varies on an individual basis. The miniseries’ failure to launch into a broader depiction of autism’s varying degrees carries the potential for conveying a misleading representation to viewers who are unfamiliar with the diverse range of autistic behaviors, with the effect of further perpetuating stereotypes of the archetypal autistic individual as an intellectual savant, which does not hold true for all people on the spectrum.
As a person on the autism spectrum, I found it particularly interesting to see the miniseries’ depiction of Shaun’s effort to navigate the world of potential romance with Leah, a neurotypical individual who turns out to be his neighbor. My mother, who is neurotypical, observed upon watching the miniseries that Leah clearly had a romantic interest in Shaun, evidenced by frequently telling him that he was cute, knocking on his door, offering to teach him to drive, and reassuring him of the importance of not perseverating over issues that he feels embarrassed about. Given the fact that Shaun has Asperger’s Syndrome, he does not possess the emotional literacy whereby he can appropriate intuit, through social cues, the actual feelings of this young woman. This is a struggle I myself have in trying to discern and comprehend whether someone of the opposite sex has an interest in me that is simply curious, casual or romantic. My hope for the character (and myself as well) is that with maturation, a larger emotional vocabulary will evolve whereby social cues will eventually be more readily understood.
Overall, “The Good Doctor” is most definitely a miniseries that everyone on the autism spectrum should take time to watch. While they may take issue with the representational problems of casting a neurotypical actor in the lead role and of featuring a “high-functioning” protagonist as a poster boy for autism in general, the truth is that understanding any human being’s intentions and behavior is a multifactorial and highly complex process, one which is foreseeably much more difficult for those with diagnoses on the autism spectrum. By sensitively portraying the challenges that autistic individuals struggle with, “The Good Doctor” serves an educational purpose in raising autism awareness and conveying the reality that all of us struggle with interpreting the behaviors and intentions of others, irrespective of whether we are or are not on the spectrum. I’m getting ready to watch tonight’s episode of “The Good Doctor: Season 2” and am so impressed by how much courage it takes to be a person with significant challenges and to persevere in the face of them.
“I am an artist on the autism spectrum, specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history as a second-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children.
I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.
I have also been pursuing a side career as a freelance journalist, and I have had at least 8 articles published in local magazines and newspapers from various cities and towns in North Carolina and in Pittverse Magazine (based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), which is staffed entirely by people on the autism spectrum. I am very keen on contributing articles as a regular blogger for the Art of Autism. Among my ideas for article topics are my experiences with disclosing my diagnosis in the workplace; and local businesses which are staffed by people on the spectrum and which donate their proceeds to autism causes. Through these blogs I hope to highlight the issues of autism’s portrayal in film, the challenges of discrimination that autistic individuals encounter in the workplace, and to promote support for local organizations that are dedicated to autism causes.”