Representation of Autism in The Good Doctor (2017 – Present)
By Henry Koch
The Good Doctor shows the story of Doctor Shawn Murphy during his residency at St. Bonaventure hospital in San Jose California. Doctor Murphy is an incredibly gifted surgeon and one of the best residents at the hospital. The only thing that sets Shawn apart from the other residents is that Shawn is diagnosed with ASD or autism. Autism is not usually shown in film or TV. It is even rarer that someone with autism is shown in a successful position like a surgeon. This has resulted in large expectations for the show, with hopes that it would do a good job of representing the struggles that people with ASD deal with on a daily basis. Through watching the show and researching what experts I can say that The Good Doctor does a good job of accurately portraying autism. Not only does the show display the mannerisms of autism correctly, it also shows that people with autism are not one-dimensional and that autism is not what defines them.
Not all people with autism agree with the statement that The Good Doctor is an accurate portrayal of autistic people though. Autistic author Jay Tee Rattray would even go so far as to say that “not only is The Good Doctor not good for autistic people, it is offensive and harmful” (Rattray). She believes that the symptoms of autism displayed by Freddie Highmore are heavily overdramatized. In the show, Shawn has savant skills meaning that he can perfectly visualize the organs and blood vessels in the body. In the show, this is portrayed by displaying diagrams of the human body onto the screen using visual effects. In addition to the visual aids while Shawn is thinking all sounds that were present in the scene are reduced to indistinguishable murmurs. The loss of sound isolates Shawn from the rest of the world and highlights his lack of communication skills. While the ability to visualize the parts of the human body is incredibly useful to Shawn in the show Rattray argues that it reinforces the stereotype that all autistic people have some kind of “gift”.
One common criticism of The Good Doctor is that actor Freddie Highmore, who portrays Doctor Murphy, is not autistic outside of the show. However, award-winning motivational speaker Kerry Magro, who is autistic, has said that “Freddie does well in his debut, showing several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis” (Magro). Some of these characteristics include “social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, [and] playing with his hands during stressful situations” (Magro). This is portrayed in the show mainly using sound, in one episode of the show Shawn is having a breakdown and suddenly loses focus during an operation. The camera zooms in on Shawn’s face and the audio slowly distorts and becomes a high-pitched ringing. This shows how Shawn has blocked out the rest of the world and is entirely in his own head. One value that Magro and I share is the belief that autism does not define a person and The Good Doctor does a good job of showing other aspects of Shawn’s life besides his autism. For instance, a challenge that Shawn faces throughout the show is his lack of communication skills. Instead of just accepting that he will never communicate as well as other doctors Shawn improves his skills showing that he can overcome his autism and be more than just an autistic person.
Another issue with The Good Doctor as well as any media that tries to represent people with autism is that everyone with autism is completely different. No two people have the same symptoms which makes creating a character to represent the entire autistic community impossible. This is the case in The Good Doctor to an extreme degree because Shawn is not only able to live a fairly normal life which is not the case with all people with autism, he also has savant syndrome which is incredibly rare in people with autism. Even though Shawn might not be the most relatable character for everyone with autism, I believe it is important that people with autism see characters with autism in the media. Seeing that it is possible to achieve great things even if you have autism could inspire someone to do great things, possibly to even become a surgeon one day.
The Good Doctor also does a good job of showing how non-autistic people treat autistic people differently. In season 1 episode 7 the parents of an autistic child who needs surgery do not trust Shawn to be involved because he is autistic. This is one of many examples in the show of people distrusting Shawn because of his disability. I chose to bring up this particular example because it shows that even people who are very close to autistic people can have a prejudice against them. In the end, Shawn earns the trust of the parents by using his experience with autism to form a connection with their son. This shows Shawn’s autism can be a tool rather than a hindrance which reinforces the idea that autism is not a person’s defining trait.
Another issue addressed by The Good Doctor is the power dynamic between people with and without autism. A large plot point of the first season of the show is Shawn earning respect from his co-workers and superiors. In the beginning of the show Shawn isn’t trusted by any of the senior surgeons at the hospital and they do not let him help where they would let other residents help. This is sadly an accurate depiction of how most people view those with autism. Due to a lack of education, people don’t realize that those diagnosed with autism can live a life like anyone else.
I chose to write this essay about The Good Doctor because I was one of those people who just didn’t know enough about autism. I have known people with autism my whole life but because I was uneducated didn’t realize that people with autism could live a normal life. Through my research for this project, I have learned lots about autism. Including that there are different severities of autism meaning you cannot think of all autistic people as the same.
In the course of writing this paper, I ended up feeling like some of the other doctors in The Good Doctor. I had to get over my bias towards autistic people and realize that there is so much more to them than their disabilities. This realization has confirmed to me that The Good Doctor is a good show that represents autistic people in a healthy way. I believe that if we get more shows and films featuring autistic characters then more people will come to the same realizations as me. This realization being that people with autism are not defined by their disability and are just as capable as anyone else and can accomplish anything they set their minds to. Maybe if they work hard enough, they could be a surgeon like Doctor Shawn Murphy as well.
Magro, Kerry. “My Review of ‘the Good Doctor’ as an Adult with Autism.” Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org/blog/my-review-good-doctor-adult-autism
Rattray, Jay Tee. “The Good Doctor Doesn’t Look Good for Autistic People.” Medium, Medium, 6 Feb. 2019, medium.com/@MsJayTeeRattray/the-good-doctor-doesnt-look-good-for-autistic-people-e3171890478b