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ABC’s ‘The Good Doctor’ Shines a Light on Autism

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ABC’s new drama “The Good Doctor” had a strong series premiere last Monday with 11.8 million viewers. The series, from “House” creators David Shore and Daniel Dae Kim experienced the highest viewership of any ABC Monday night drama in 21 years.

In some ways, the show resembles many other medical dramas. There are tensions between co-workers, secret hook-ups, and life-and-death suspense. What sets it apart, of course, is that the protagonist, a brilliant young resident surgeon, is autistic.

His disability is also an advantage, giving him savant-like abilities in the field of medicine. Freddie Highmore (from “Bates Motel,” “August Rush,” and “Finding Neverland”) delivers a wonderfully believable performance as Dr. Shaun Murphy. He immediately gains the audience’s sympathies, for he is being treated as a nuisance when he is in fact an asset, and is kind, intelligent, charming, and capable.

The main concern surrounding the series was that it is difficult to “get it right” when portraying something as complex as autism. In this case, the character is high functioning and perfectly capable of living independently. Despite his genius, Shaun is also childlike in some ways and struggles to gain the respect of his colleagues. He has difficulty communicating with others or accurately expressing his emotions.  

He also finds it difficult to read the subtle emotions and social cues of others. He asks off-limit questions and blurts out taboo topics without a filter. It isn’t to be cruel, but rather because he lacks the skills to control aspects of his communication skills. The first episode presented a solid opening; the scenes flash between the hospital’s president convincing a board of officials to hire Shaun while Shaun himself utilizes his skills to save a young boy’s life.

A heartbreaking backstory is given too—Shaun’s family poorly addressed his disability as a child, which manifested in abuse as a teenager.

He eventually runs away with his younger brother after his father kills his pet bunny in an angry outburst. This escalates further when Shaun’s younger brother is accidentally killed. This all comes into play when Shaun (now Dr. Murphy) has to make his case before the hiring board of San Jose’s Saint Bonaventure Hospital.

So simply, he states that witnessing these deaths made him want to help people and that being a surgeon would mean that he could make enough money to buy his own television. This simplicity coming from the heart of such a complicated individual tugs on the heartstrings of both the audience and other characters.

Still, it is evident that Shaun will face an uphill battle in the episodes to come. He gets hired, but it is made evident that his colleagues will let him do little more than observe procedures. The next several episodes will most likely involve Shaun “proving himself” in the hospital, which should prove to be interesting to watch.

The most important question is what does this mean for autism?

This year, Netflix also tackled this issue with its new series “Atypical. Autism is on a spectrum and can present itself in a variety of ways. Some individuals are low-functioning, meaning that they are incapable of ever being independent. Others are high-functioning, like Shaun Murphy, and can in some ways lead normal lives.

Autistic individuals may be unaware of others’ emotions or social cues, have limited yet intense interests, sensitivity to sound, speech issues, and limited attention spans. In addition, people with autism can have learning disabilities and social difficulties. A person with autism can have any combination of these symptoms to varying degrees from mild to extreme. The subjectivity of the syndrome is part of what makes it so difficult to portray.

Knowing someone with autism does not make any person an expert on it. That being said, in “The Good Doctor,” the character of Shaun Murphy can easily be identified as a realistically autistic person. Only time will tell if this portrayal continues to be just.

So, what will this do for the autism community as a whole? Hopefully, if the series becomes successful, it will shine a light on what autism really can be.

It is very easy to make assumptions and negative connotations just upon hearing the term, but seeing it portrayed in mainstream media may cause people to try to educate themselves on the syndrome. “The Good Doctor” will be a small step towards a more informed population and may prevent “autism” from being thrown around carelessly in conversation without really understanding what it means.

The show has ways to go still though. Supporting characters and storylines still need to be explored further in future episodes. Most importantly, Shaun helps to portray autism with respect and compassion. Hopefully, this will continue through the season

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