The ‘Good Doctor’ And Autism: Does ABC Get It Right?
Hollywood has apparently discovered that a growing segment of the population is on the autism spectrum. The 2017 “Power Rangers” movie and new Netflix series “Atypical,” for instance, have main characters with autism.
Perhaps the most high-profile offering is ABC’s new show “The Good Doctor.” The drama stars Freddie Highmore as Dr. Shaun Murphy, a talented young surgeon with autism and savant syndrome. It shows how he navigates daily life and his work at a prestigious hospital’s pediatric surgical unit.
The series, championed by Daniel Dae Kim, has been a mega-hit. It leapfrogged “The Big Bang Theory” to become the most-watched American show after just three episodes.
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What do people who know about autism think of “The Good Doctor”? Experts as well as some parents praise it as a perfect prescription to spur conversation and awareness about autism.
“Before you’d never hear about autism,” says Lisa Basara of Lower Saucon Township, Pa., whose son Dominic was diagnosed with autism at age 3.
“For us it’s really cool to see a main character who is autistic. I have nothing but positive things to say about it.”
Lisa Goring, chief program and marketing officer for the New York City-based advocacy group Autism Speaks, says, “We hope there are more opportunities on these shows for characters with autism.
“We see this show as a great step toward increasing understanding and acceptance.”
The show shares similarities with “House,” a hit medical show that aired for eight seasons on Fox. Both have the same creator, David Shore, and both featured a brilliant and misunderstood main character.
Some critics say the storylines of “The Good Doctor” are over-the-top and that the show paints an overly broad picture of autism. But critics and viewers generally praise Highmore’s depictions of an adult with autism.
“They are unbelievably on point,” Basara says.
She noticed when Murphy walks down a hallway he uses “ready hands” — a way of walking with hands clasped together. It’s a technique used by those on the spectrum to help them stay focused and aware of their behavior.
Murphy speaks in a monotone voice and says exactly what he’s thinking with zero filter. (In one episode, he tells a surgeon that he both admires him and finds him arrogant.)
He avoids direct eye contact, shows little emotion and struggles to deal with people on a personal level. (His neighbor borrowed batteries, and Murphy went the next day to get them back.)
Murphy has savant syndrome, a rare condition in which a person with developmental disabilities (including, but not limited to autism) has spectacular areas of genius.
We see Murphy solve impossibly difficult cases because he sees things differently (dramatized to great effect in the show) and we see Murphy solve medical mysteries that baffle other doctors.
His being “different” is why the board at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital argues in the pilot against hiring Murphy. The board questioned what patients would think of a doctor who would struggle to express empathy.
Much of the national emphasis about autism awareness has been on children. “The Good Doctor” is rare in its portrayal of an adult with autism in the workplace.
Noreen Flynn of Coopersburg, Pa., whose son has Asperger’s syndrome, says, “If you’re hiring someone or working with someone with autism, take a minute to talk to them. They are very intelligent and can you learn a lot from them, and they can learn from you.”
Some have expressed concern that the character paints only one picture of autism. Autism spectrum disorder is a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.
“This is one person’s view of autism,” Goring says. “It may not have anything to do with the way autism manifests itself for someone else.”
Executive producer Kim bought the rights to the Korean series “Good Doctor” and pitched it for an American series.
Kim, who starred in the TV series “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-O,” is a leading advocate for more diverse characters on TV shows and movies.
He doesn’t apologize that “The Good Doctor” has been criticized for being overly sentimental. “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 … ,” Kim told The Hollywood Reporter. “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 that we live in.”
Basara says “The Good Doctor” gives the public the chance to learn more about autism. And it shows how people with autism can be functional members of society.
“The more that people understand autism, the better off it will be for my son going forward,” Basara says.
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