By Nils Skudra
Last year’s premiere of the first season of The Good Doctor, starring Freddie Highmore as autistic surgical resident Shaun Murphy, drew widespread acclaim among many viewers for its realistic depiction of the strengths and challenges associated with being on the autism spectrum, which Highmore brilliantly captures, and for its strides in bringing autism into mainstream television for a contemporary audience. Throughout the first season, Shaun struggled to gain acceptance and understanding from the other hospital staff while repeatedly demonstrating his genius in finding innovative solutions to difficult surgical issues. The team members, in turn, had to learn how to navigate Shaun’s difficulties at social interaction, with the result that some initially skeptical individuals (like supervising surgeon Dr. Neil Melendez) gradually developed a new respect for Shaun’s medical brilliance. Things took a dramatic turn, however, at the season’s climax when hospital president Dr. Glassman (astutely depicted by Richard Schiff) was diagnosed with brain cancer and subsequently had to undergo hospitalization, presenting Shaun with new challenges that he would have to increasingly master on his own without the usual aid of his benefactor and mentor.
In this year’s newly released second season of the saga, Shaun and the other surgical residents are tasked with handling their own operations independently as part of their training. Since he is accustomed to having a supervising surgeon on board to oversee his work and provide professional input, this is something that Shaun finds extremely difficult to do. For example, when he and fellow resident Morgan Reznick are faced with the problem of how to devise an effective operation on a particular patient, Shaun makes several attempts to contact Dr. Lim, presently confronting her own legal troubles in court, but is sternly reprimanded each time by Morgan, who is unsympathetic to his challenges as a person on the autism spectrum. He ultimately manages to reach the doctor (in a comical moment while she is having sex with the prosecuting attorney from her case – ironically enough) and convinces her to rush to the hospital and preside over the operation. This scene demonstrates some of the new challenges that Shaun faces since he is used to the previously regular routine of having authority figures back him up in difficult hospital situations. However, due to his autistic proclivities, a departure from that routine presents additional stressors which he must learn to overcome in an independent manner.
Another new difficulty that Shaun confronts in the new season is the problem of handling relationships, which presents itself when he unexpectedly finds Lea, his friend and former apartment neighbor from the first season, returned from her sojourn in Hershey, Pennsylvania. During their previous get-togethers, Lea had shown a profound openness and empathy toward Shaun since she found him different and much more honest than most men in her life, and there were inklings of a romantic connection between them. However, Shaun is extremely discomforted by her return since he was deeply hurt by her departure in the last season, and he deliberately avoids Lea in spite of her efforts to communicate with him, finally declaring very belligerently that he wants her to leave before she can hurt him a second time. When he makes his predicament known to different hospital staff members, including Claire (with whom he has established a close professional rapport), Dr. Melendez and Morgan, each person offers him conflicting advice: Claire stresses the importance of dialogue in a relationship (reminding Shaun of their own working relationship) while Dr. Melendez suggests simply walking away. Morgan offers a most severe and hurtful assessment when she tells Shaun that Lea and Claire are not true friends since they do not see him as a person but rather as a pity case by virtue of his autism, saying that the kiss Lea previously gave Shaun was a “kiss of pity” rather than that of affection. Shaun subsequently attempts to engage with Lea by apologizing for telling her to leave, but she angrily rebuffs him for his failure to consider how her feelings may have been hurt, telling him “Friendship is a two-way street, you jackass!” and then walks away.
Shaun’s difficulties in repairing his relationship with Lea illustrate the substantive challenges that people on the autism spectrum have with empathy. One of the common social difficulties associated with autism is that autistic individuals frequently inhabit their own world, oblivious to or unable to connect with the feelings of other people around them. The new challenge of maintaining a relationship brings this aspect of Shaun’s condition to the forefront, and Shaun makes a determined effort to develop empathy in his interactions with Lea in order to retain their friendship. However, his problems with filtering social input still arise during his attempts to connect with her, only angering Lea further. For example, when he buys Lea a donut in an effort to “be nice,” she tells him vigorously that they had a big fight over some serious issues that won’t be fixed simply through this courtesy. On another occasion, while Lea is apartment-hunting, he takes it upon himself to find an affordable apartment without consulting her, prompting Lea to tell him “You’re not being nice; you’re being creepy.” Shaun struggles mightily over what constitutes socially acceptable boundaries and his effort to micro-manage Lea’s housing search clearly feels invasive to her but he is clueless with respect to how she truly receives his well-intentioned but over-weaning intervention as a personal infringement.
Shaun’s admittedly awkward and tenuous efforts at developing empathy are also manifested in his interactions with Dr. Glassman, as he regularly comes by to check in on him during his hospitalization. When Dr. Glassman experiences hallucinations in which he is visited by his deceased teenage daughter Maddie (with whom he had a falling out prior to her death), it is Shaun alone who recognizes his mentor’s predicament while the other doctors attempt to simply coerce Glassman into taking his medication, thereby ignoring the root causes of whatever is triggering his unusual behavior. He observes that this is not merely a matter of a psychotic episode but that it is Glassman’s deceased child who is the source of her father’s veritable distress. Similarly, Shaun makes an effort to empathize with a developmentally challenged patient who is faced with the prospect of separation from his mother and potentially living in a group home by employing the phrase “tough titmouse,” an expression used by Shaun’s foster mother during his own teenage years for coping with difficult situations. There is a famous line in a Theodore Roethke poem “The Waking” which avers: “I learn by going where I have to go.” Similarly, Shaun is learning what behaviors are most appropriate by trial and error with others often having to school him in that which is societally appropriate. For him empathy must be a learned behavior and one that is tortuously slow and full of possible failures and missteps.
A common perception that many people have of autism is that it is a static condition in which individuals on the spectrum are incapable of progressing and developing improved social skills. In this second season of The Good Doctor, Shaun markedly disproves this assumption through his intentional effort to show empathy toward other individuals. While his thinking is still characterized by clinical drawbacks in that he is very factually oriented and often engages in black-and-white thinking, Shaun nonetheless makes significant strides in the evolution of his capacity for empathy. For example, in the climax of the latest episode, he asks Lea what took place in Hershey, and when she inquires whether he really cares, Shaun replies, “I don’t care what happened in Hershey. But I care that you care.” This announcement is a pivotal moment for Sean and an effective denouement in this episode since it also reflects a new interest in how one establishes the narrative of emotional intimacy. This newfound expression of his concern for her feelings triggers a change in Lea’s attitude. She “gets” that he cares (at least as much as he is able) and in a show of responsiveness invites Shaun to finish singing a karaoke song together. In a shared moment of song, he spontaneously shouts out that he has rented an apartment for both of them to inhabit. The episode thus ends with bright prospects for Shaun’s future development of empathy and his chances for a possible romantic relationship with Lea, the outcome of which will be left for the season’s subsequent episodes to reveal. It is often noted that if you know one person with autism, that is only ONE person with autism – meaning that the diagnosis of autism covers a broad spectrum of behaviors. In Sean’s case, he is able to challenge what is so often a set-in-stone diagnosis – we begin to see in the second season of The Good Doctor a plasticity in his behaviors which move him towards a more conforming social norm as he realizes that empathy, although it may not occur naturally in his personality, is assuredly a quality deeply worth having. He is traversing a social continuum, albeit slowly, and the evolution in his character as a high-functioning autistic, is absolutely remarkable and incontrovertible.
*Side note: I recently received my Master’s Degree in American History from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro and hope with that plaudit I can now consider myself to be a bona fide Civil War historian. have been drawn hundreds of Civil War-themed drawings since the age of five and a half. I recently was awarded a book contract with Pocahontas Press in Blacksburg, Virginia for the prospective publication of my artwork. The project is intended to be a children’s/young adult’s Civil War history book and publication is slated for December of this year. My editors have agreed to publish this work as long as I can raise the remaining $750.00 for the costs of publication and distribution. Towards that end I am promoting this GoFundMe campaign, which has raised $130.00 thus far. If you can make a donation or share my campaign with anyone who may be in a position to contribute, your support would be greatly appreciated! Visit my gofundme site here.