ABC’s “The Good Doctor” raises questions about the portrayal of autism

With the lack of presence autism has had in the media, “The Good Doctor” makes a splash as the first network series revolving around a character with autism. The series, based on a South Korean drama, follows Dr. Shaun Murphy (played by actor Freddie Highmore), a young surgeon and autistic savant whose condition makes him incredibly intelligent but socially disadvantaged.

Shaun has communication problems that include a lack of eye contact during interactions, a narrow range of facial expressions, and challenges in being able to communicate and establish relationships with the people around him, all common symptoms of people with autism according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Shaun clearly exhibits these symptoms; however, critics have questioned the fact that he clearly displays so many of them. In addition, Shaun’s unique intellectual abilities are largely a result of his savant syndrome, which according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, occurs in 1 of 10 people with autism. In past and more famous depictions of autism (Rain Man, Mozart and the Whale, Mercury Rising, etc.), the main character is hardly ever seen without savant syndrome. These aspects have raised questions of whether the show uses Shaun’s condition as a tool for sentimentality and if this portrayal is truly representative the majority of autistic people.

Special education teacher Colleen O’Donnell explains that these judgements need to take into account that autism is a disorder that exists on a spectrum.

“The thing to remember about people with autism is you’ve met one person with autism means you’ve met one person with autism, because every single person is different…their issues and challenges are all different, their behaviors are different,” O’Donnell said.

This idea has been emphasized by director David Shore and actor Freddie Highmore, who highlight that Shaun is a particularly specific character and not meant to represent autism.

“It would be impossible… and a somewhat rude thing to say that this character will represent [all autistic people]. Hopefully, he will speak to everyone with differences… he’s not solely defined by his autism.” Highmore said.

One needs to look no further than director David Shore’s widely acclaimed House to see that “The Good Doctor” appears to be part of a rising trend in television of a protagonist with extraordinary skills but difficulty communicating and socializing with other people. However, the show’s producers emphasize that its basis relies on portraying a unique perspective from Shaun as an individual who is not defined by the disorder he has been diagnosed with. In showing at least one depiction of autism they hope to dismiss some misconceptions about people with autism.