I asked my husband if he wanted to watch The Good Doctor, ABC’s new show about Dr. Shaun Murphy, who has autism and savant syndrome. According to the ABC website, though he is “unable to personally connect with those around him, Shaun uses his extraordinary medical gifts to save lives and challenge the skepticism of his colleagues.” My husband’s response: “Not a chance in Hell.”

Autism on TV: A Parent's Perspective

See, we have a 10-year old son, Christopher, with severe autism. He is mostly nonverbal. Toileting is inconsistent. He has occasional meltdowns that can be violent. He has no awareness of safety or danger. While there are many joys and we love our child dearly, life with autism can be very difficult.

We are certainly not alone in our situation. With autism currently affecting 1 in 68 US children, over a million children in this country are living with autism. So it is only natural that major networks start portraying autism on TV. We don’t have an issue with that. Our issue is with the way it is portrayed.

Autism on TV

While autism manifests in many different ways (there is a saying that ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met … one person with autism’), the more severe side of life with autism is rarely if ever shown. NBC’s Parenthood included a child with autism, but he had high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome. Fox’s Touch featured a child with more severe autism – he was nonverbal, an escape artist, and had an aversion to being touched – but he was also marked as “The Special One” and was able to see a magical number sequence.  If you have no direct experience with autism other than mainstream television, you may think that having autism means being a little quirky and socially awkward or having extraordinary gifts (or both).  Our children with autism are superheroes to us, but it is mostly for how hard they work just to cope in the world.

ABC’s The Good Doctor

I decided to watch The Good Doctor and tried to do so with an open mind. I was expecting sort of a Rain Man meets Doogie Howser. Dr. Shaun Murphy, who has autism and savant syndrome, is a new surgeon at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. While the hospital president is busy defending his choice to hire Shaun to the medical board, Shaun is addressing medical emergencies in a way no one else can and flashing back to his tragic childhood. And along the way, some common ideas meant to minimize your concern about autism arise…

ABC's The Good Doctor

Autism Is A Gift

Shaun is obviously very high functioning. I mean, he’s a doctor after all. But, he is also verbal and lives on his own. And he is surprisingly insightful. When he is, he speaks like a child, which is meant to minimize this insight. But, he is able to reflect on the past and verbalize feelings better than most people I know with autism. And as you know, he is has very special gifts. Savant syndrome, which is extremely rare, is a genius ability linked to massive memory. Shaun is able to see and recall every minute detail from his medical texts, enabling him to identify medical exceptions that other doctors cannot.

Different But Equal

One of the arguments to keep Shaun on staff is a reminder that there was once a time when black doctors and women doctors wouldn’t be hired. I am all for advocating for people with disabilities and treating everyone kindly and with respect. But making it a discrimination issue changes autism from a severe medical crisis into a social issue. Through parent networking and advocacy, I literally know hundreds of children with autism. Exactly zero of them are doctors. I do know some kids with savant qualities (like knowing what day of the week any date in history falls on). But, with no disrespect to these children and their gifts, these qualities have thus far been used more as entertaining party tricks than to save lives or enhance their careers.

I do, on the other hand, know many, many children with autism who exhibit seizures, self-injurious behaviors, incontinence, life-threatening allergies, mitochondrial disease and a host of other serious conditions. Of course, people with autism have talents and hopefully bright futures and should be treated fairly and equally. But, when autism is portrayed as simply different but equal, the concern for its causes and co-morbid medical conditions and sometimes-treatable deficits goes away (and also makes one who calls these things to attention guilty of discrimination).

Blame The Parents

Don’t get me started on the parents – the abusive father and the “loving” mother who accepts that her children are better off raising themselves in an abandoned bus?! I’m not saying children with autism are never abused by their parents. We’ve all seen horrific stories in the news. And of course autism parents sometimes get overwhelmed and frustrated with their children. But I take issue with the notion that children with autism would thrive were they simply provided with a loving, nurturing environment. That is exactly the kind of environment most autism parents are doing their best to provide despite a huge lack of resources and support. The autism parents I know are loving, kind, and downright AMAZING. I’m tired of the parent shaming. It is just another way to take the onus away from environmental and other factors contributing to the declining health of this generation of children.

One Person’s Autism

The show was pretty good, if not overly dramatic and not particularly realistic. But it reminded me more of watching House (unorthodox doctor who is difficult to deal with but is a medical genius who solves the most complex medical mysteries and pisses everyone off) than watching a doctor with autism, though I’m not sure what that would look like. Mom walks him to work? He bangs his head when other doctors make incorrect diagnoses? I’m being glib but you get the idea.

While creator David Shore consulted with autism experts and people on the spectrum to create the character, he acknowledges that Shaun is a “very specific character.” Shore says Shaun is not meant to “represent autism.” The problem is, that with so few characters with autism on TV, that’s probably what he’ll end up doing.

The Bottom Line

I’m not saying that there should be a show depicting severe autism. I’m not sure if anyone would watch it (Episode 1: Mom fights doctor for diagnosis. Followed by Episode 2: Mom fights county for services. Be sure to catch Episode 3: Mom fights with insurance company for reimbursement. Then Episode 4: Mom fights with school district for placement. Don’t miss Episode 5: Mom drinks wine in the shower. Note: Mom never lets kids go off and live alone in a school bus!).  I do understand that the viewing public needs to come away feeling good.

I guess my main point is that the current portrayal of autism on TV doesn’t do much to bring awareness to the realities of life with autism. And this show (at least so far) doesn’t do anything groundbreaking to change that. So if you watch it, watch it for the fictional doctor drama that it is – not for the autism.

I like Shaun’s character and I’m rooting for him. And I’m rooting for Christopher too – every minute of every day – but not to become a doctor.

Please comment

What are your thoughts on The Good Doctor and on autism on TV? I’m very interested to hear the perspective of those who have autism, those who have loved ones with autism, and those who have no experience with it at all.


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