An examination of the portrayal of Autism Spectrum Disorder on Channel Seven’s hit The Good Doctor by Oliver Hetherington-Page who is also on the Spectrum.
Speaking like a trained bird reciting a script English Actor Freddie Highmore parrots “Hello I’m doctor Shaun Murphy I’m a surgical resident at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital”. Viewers of the Emmy nominated smash hit medical drama The Good Doctor which has recently wrapped up it’s second season on the Seven Network will become very familiar with this robotic response. The titular character Shaun Murphy has High Functioning autism and this is how autism “looks” on television in 2019.
The Good Doctoris far from the first screen portrayal of a character with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Since Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar for his work playing a character on the spectrum content creators have toyed with telling the stories of people living with the disorder. While all these attempts on paper seem to be incredibly diverse take The Big Bang Theory’sSheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist, or Bone’s Temperance Brennan who is a forensic anthropologist both vastly different but look a little deeper and it becomes clear that all these characters are remarkably cookie-cutter when it comes to their portrayal of the disability.
The American Broadcasting Company’s hit showThe Good Doctor now airing in Australia onChannel Seven is not exempt from the autism factory production line feel but it has shown more of an understanding of what living with ASD looks like than some of it’s clumsy predecessors. For starters The Good Doctor actually acknowledges that their lead character has ASD. Surprisingly this is a departure from the mold we have seen in the past. The first word uttered after the opening credits in The Good Doctorpilot is autism. No one could accuse this program from shying away from its diagnosis.
Compare that with The Big Bang Theory, which in over 250 episodes has never once even said the word autism. Indeed the creators when challenged by The Star-Ledger’s Alan Spinal in 2009 said “Our feeling is that Sheldon’s mother never got a diagnosis, so we don’t have one”. The Creators had the opportunity to revisit the issue in the spin off show Yong Sheldon, which ironically premiered on the same day in the US as The Good Doctor, but once again chose to ignore the issue. By doing this they as entertainment journalist and father of an autistic son Rick Ellis say “renforces the notion that children like Sheldon are socially tone deaf and emotionally blunt because they are just self-centered jerks”.
Bones was a little more forth coming when it came to the disability and while they never acknowledged it on air when the creator Hart Hansenwas questioned he admitted that the elements were there but “we decided not to label a main character, for good or for bad.” The Good Doctor takes one Giant leap in taking ASD out of the shadows by actually putting a name too it.
For people on the spectrum and those who advocate for them this recognition is incredibly important naming the disorder is not the same as accurately portraying the disorder. In fact for some advocates it makes it worse. By naming the disability there is a danger that the characters experience of ASD will be misconstrued as the universal experience of ASD. Just as epilepsy (another neurological condition) can present in many different ways so can ASD.
WhileThe Good Doctor can and should be congratulated for this stance it still suffers from some of the same pitfalls as its predecessors. Language is undoubtedly the most obvious of the stereotypes. That trained parrot stilted monotone voice Highmore brings to the role of Shaun Murphy could be straight out of the ASD stereotype playbook. Like every stereotype there is a layer of truth. People on the autism spectrum can have unusual voice patterns. The autism society says “Speech patterns may be unusual, lack inflection or have a rhythmic nature, or may be formal, but too loud or high-pitched.” However they may be none of those things but viewers of The Good Doctor would never know this.
On the upside however The Good Doctor breaks new ground in capturing the discrimination and social isolation faced by people on the Autism spectrum. Previously there has been what autism support networks dismiss as “cute” autism. The disability is portrayed as mostly endearing and the sufferer always wins out in the end. While in The Good Doctor every day is a battle for Doctor Murphy to be respected personally and professionally, one that he looses as often as he wins. Take the second episode when his boss relegates him to scutwork. His medical knowledge may be second to none but his inability to read social cues and the corresponding lack of a bedside manner are considered a massive liability. Even those who should know better disrespect him. For example in episode seven parents of an autistic child refuse to let Shaun operate on their son. In short he is being told to fix his disability.
The show also highlights the effect that the black and white thinking and the inability to see nuance has on his social interaction. In other shows this lack of understanding was the puchline to the joke. Take Sheldon Cooper and his unique way of getting neighbor Penny to answer the door “Knock, Knock, Knock, Penny, Knock, Knock, Knock, Penny, Knock, Knock, Knock, Penny”. On The Good Doctor we see it as the social isolating trait that it truly is. In episode 3 Dr. Murphy’s neighbor asks to “borrow” some AAA batteries. He agrees but the end of the episode he asks for the batteries back. The difference in what was said and what was meant for people not on the autism spectrum may seem obvious but it would escape the literal thinking people like Shaun tend to possess.
There is a reason why The Good Doctorroutinely won in the ratings for its timeslot. It’s a good show. When it comes to its portrayal of ASD it may not be perfect but it is a great leap forward on what has come before. It may still leave uneducated viewers buying into stereotypes of ASD, which will continue to frustrate those on the spectrum including myself. That being said however at least it starts the conversation which has otherwise been silenced before it began.