Photo credit: ABC
ABC's new hit show has taken television by storm with its dynamic character of Shaun Murphy, who is an autistic surgeon. However, many wonder: Does the show paint an accurate picture?
Only one view
While it is great that there are more shows than ever before that have characters on the autism spectrum in prominent roles, it is important to remember that autism is just that - a spectrum. So, while one character may be relatable or realistic to one person with autism, another might have an entirely different opinion and concept of what it means to be autistic.
Lisa Goring is the chief program and marketing officer for Autism Speaks, an advocacy group, and she explains this concept further, "this is one person's view of autism. It may not have anything to do with the way autism manifests itself for someone else."
Incorporating those who know
When creating a television program about a specific group of people, it is usually important to have members of that group to contribute in the project. 'The Good Doctor' does so by incorporating Exceptional Minds, which is both a non-profit digital arts school and computer animation studio for young adults who have autism spectrum disorder. By incorporating Exceptional Minds, the show is given a unique point of view, and is constantly checked for accuracy and inclusivity.
Autism and employment
While there is no doubt that Freddie Highmore is an incredible actor, one fact remains: He is not on the autism spectrum. There are many actors with autism in the country, and many believe that they should be given the chance to tell their own story. Without making this move forward, it may be a show that pushes boundaries, but it isn't quite breaking them yet. With the massive unemployment rate of those with disabilities, some say that it is the responsibility of those making a show about autism to employ them.
In fact, a quote can be taken directly from the script of the show to explain why this is crucial: "Aren't we judged by how we treat people? I don't mean as doctors I mean as people. Especially those who don't have the same advantages that we have. We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are. That they do have a shot. We hire Shaun and we make a better hospital for it."
Another program, Atypical, recently faced the same battle in the attempt to accurately portray a person with autism spectrum disorder without individual experience with it. Many were disappointed that the show did not hire a consultant, at the very least, to give advice on how to offer a realistic depiction.
With that being said, many point out that Freddie has clearly educated himself on certain nuances necessary for the role, as he masters social awkwardness, focusing on playing with his hands when he is stressed or uncomfortable, and does not keep eye contact.
While the main actor may not actually have autism, Coby Bird does. He was able to be a guest star on the show, and he explained the experience.
At first, he was scared. But he was honored and inspired that they wanted someone with autism to play the role.
He explained how supportive the entire cast and crew were: "As I was heading to the town car to go back to the hotel, I was asked to come back on set. I came back on set to a round of applause from all the actors, cast, crew and even the Director, David Straiton. It was so amazing, I didn't know what to do. I just stood there trying to hold my tears in. Being on 'The Good Doctor' was possibly the most amazing thing I have done and I'm so thankful for everyone who's supporting me and my journey on this career path that I have been dreaming and wishing for. This experience has taught me that I really can be the person I was meant to be."
Reception among experts
When experts on autism were asked what they thought about the show, and whether they got it right, they had a variety of answers - but they all had one thing in common. They believed that the awareness the show brings to autism is inspiring and crucial.
Some point out that it is important to have a main character with autism, not just a friend or coworker with a few lines. They're hoping the show will inspire others to involve autistic characters in big roles.
In terms of accuracy, some say that the depiction of autism is a bit too dramatic and is over-generalized. However, some find it to be an accurate portrayal. They point to Shaun's hands being clasped together when he walks, a monotone voice, no filter, and more.
Experts also point out that most shows involving autism revolve around the disorder at a younger age, when characters are going through school, usually. However, depicting how it affects adults is a powerful storyline - and inspires those younger children with autism that they could grow up to be as spectacular as Dr. Murphy.
While there have been some misconceptions, many also point to how much can be learned about those with autism by watching 'The Good Doctor.' The show illuminates that they do have sexual desires, and can be attracted to people romantically, which many are unaware of. Some people also think of those with autism as unfeeling, but the show depicts how deeply feelings can be hurt. Shaun also has many moments of empathy, a trait that is often thought to be entirely absent among those with autism spectrum disorder. It also follows a journey of improving and managing atypical behaviors, which offers hope to those with autism - but also an understanding of how improvement can be made for neurotypical viewers.
Response to criticism
Daniel Dae Kim is an executive producer of 'The Good Doctor,' and he took the time to respond to some of the accusations that the show paints too emotional a view of autism. Instead of disagreeing with this assessment, he took it on completely. He said, "it actually makes me feel prouder of the show to know that we can still aspire, we can still hope, we can still find heroes that are pure. I've read some criticism of 'The Good Doctor' that says it's overly sweet and syrupy. I'll take that criticism, given the world we live in."
A position of hope
Whether or not the show has done a perfect job in the depiction of autism, they have done a lot for the community by raising awareness. In a PSA, Freddie said, "with the proper support, many living with autism have the opportunity to lead functional ... even extraordinary lives."
Not only does this raise awareness for those who are not particularly aware of how those with autism spectrum disorder live their lives, but for those who have it, the show reminds them that they can be capable of amazing things and that their difference may actually be what makes them special.