ABC has a TV series that I think will be a force for good in autism advocacy: The Good Doctor. Based on the Korean TV series of the same name, its main character is Dr. Shaun Murphy, played by Freddie Highmore. Dr. Shaun Murphy is an autistic doctor who is working at St. Bonaventure Hospital.
Now I want to stress a few things. First, I have no knowledge of the Korean version of this show. Second, medial dramas are not something I normally watch. I tend to watch science fiction, superhero, action, and fantasy programs.
I’ve heard this show has been accused of being “inspiration porn”, or at least a borderline example of it. I’m not sure if I agree. When I think of “inspiration porn”, I think of something that presents a disability as an obstacle, as if to say “If only the main character was normal, his/her life would be better.” Or “Look how cool this person is because of his special disability!” I don’t see either of these.
Dr. Murphy got his position because of Dr. Glassman, the president of St. Bonaventure Hospital. Dr. Glassman has been a mentor for Shaun since his teen years. Shaun did not have an easy childhood. He was often bullied or ridiculed by both his peers and adults. Glassman, however, saw potential and nurtured that potential into the man Dr. Murphy is today. In the pilot, the other staff members are unsure if they should let him work there, but Glassman reminds them that there was a time when black people and women also had difficulty getting medical careers. To him, Shaun is no different.
While Shaun doesn’t lack any intelligence as a doctor, it’s his sociability that is his biggest flaw. He’s not used to having to deal with a pecking order, having to defer to others to get what he wants. He doesn’t realize that sometimes while a procedure may be risky and seem like it could work, it’s not worth instilling false hope in the patient. This is where Claire Browne, played by Antonia Thomas, comes in. Browne is a resident nurse who sees the potential Shaun has, but also the problems he has interacting with others. She is his liaison, helping him learn how to behave in a way that will make it easier to be accepted by his peers.
Others have objected to the fact that Highmore himself is not an autistic person. I’ve heard that this is akin to white people in blackface. I think that’s a bit harsh. Yes, it would be ideal for an autistic actor to portray an autistic character. But I’m looking at how the person is treated rather than who is playing the person. I think we need to pick our battles.
However I do have a few problems. To me, Highmore’s portrayal is not right. He seems childish at times and has a very flat voice, almost void of emotion. Autistic adults are not children trapped in adult bodies. We can, with help, learn to make mature decisions. While we may seem cold or emotionless, we do still have emotions. I wish the writers realized this.
For now, I’m enjoying the show for what it is. Dr. Murphy is not portrayed as a perfect character. He is allowed to fail as well as succeed. People both hinder and assist him. As of now, the series has been ordered for at least a full season, possibly two. I think it has potential to help in understanding autism, even if Highmore himself isn’t an autistic. person. In fact, they actually have hired an autistic actor to play a supporting character! So some progress is already being made.