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My Thoughts on 'The Good Doctor' as an Autistic Person

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People sometimes ask me whether I like the show “The Good Doctor.” If you haven’t heard of it, it is a show about a young autistic man who becomes a surgical resident at a hospital. I have been watching it since the first episode came out last year.

Whenever there is a show or movie featuring an autistic character, everyone always debates whether the show portrays autism realistically or not. My answer to that is, it is impossible to say for sure, because autism is so different for everyone who experiences it.

Some people who are familiar with autism have criticized “The Good Doctor” because he is not only autistic but has savant skills. He can perfectly visualize the organs of the body and how they work together, and often comes up with unexpected solutions that save the day. Critics complain that it will make people assume all autistic people have savant skills, like how the original famous autistic character, Rain Man, made people assume all autistic people can instantly tell you how many toothpicks you spilled on the floor. On the other hand, when shows or movies portray autistic people as having severe disabilities, people get mad that it will cause viewers to assume that everyone with autism is nonverbal or needs full time assistance.

The truth is always far more complicated than it appears on TV. Medical dramas always exaggerate. Otherwise nobody would watch them. Every hospital in every medical drama just happens to get the weirdest and most difficult medical cases, and someone in every medical drama has to have an uncanny ability to solve all of the cases by thinking of something that has never been done before. The uncanny person usually has to go up against some sort of hospital authorities who argue that it cannot be done, and then they either give in, or the person goes against their wishes and does it anyway, and everyone learns a valuable lesson they will forget by the next episode. “The Good Doctor” is really just a typical medical drama with a twist: the magical doctor’s uncanny ability is due to his being autistic and having savant skills.

That being said, I do identify with a lot of the things Shaun Murphy goes through.

Shaun’s autism serves as a sort of screen that blocks people from seeing his abilities. In the beginning, his father figure and mentor, who was then the head of the hospital, had to work hard to convince the other top people at the hospital to give Shaun a chance. They were like, “Yes, he’s a genius. But he’s autistic, so he’ll probably mess up at some point, right?” Every resident in every medical drama does mess up at some point, but Shaun has autism, so he has a metaphorical red flag attached to him. The head of surgery was originally so much against Shaun being there that he said Shaun would never get to participate in a surgery. There were people who seemed to be hoping for Shaun to do poorly, just so that they could be rid of him.

But Shaun, like many autistic adults, is very talented and extremely dedicated to what he does.  He has difficulty not thinking about a case he’s working on, and will often jump up in the middle of unrelated conversations because something new has just occurred to him and he needs to go follow through with his thought right away. Over and over, Shaun proves himself to be a great surgeon.

Shaun also has a kind heart. He truly cares about people. He sometimes says things that seem insensitive or does things that seem rude because he doesn’t realize they will offend or upset people. But when someone needs help, Shaun will go out of his way to help them. One by one, everyone around him realizes this. He ends up with a group of loyal friends and supporters who appreciate him and stick up for him. Whenever someone new joins the crew, it takes that person a while to see the full picture of Shaun, but they eventually grow to feel the same way about him. Basically, either you love Shaun Murphy, or you are sort of an asshole.

In episodes 15 and 16 of season 2, a new chief of surgery joins. He is critical of all of the residents, but particularly notices Shaun’s shortcomings. He complains that Shaun does not communicate well, and that his “meltdowns,” though very infrequent, are a liability. He decides that Shaun should transfer to Pathology, where he will study illnesses and help diagnose people, but have no contact with patients or with surgical residents. Shaun’s heart is set on being a surgeon. But when he appeals to the new chief of surgery, he is told he will never be able to be a surgeon. The chief explains, “Your talents are immense. Your challenges are just as significant.”

I relate to that last part especially well. I have been told this same thing by principals at several different schools where I’ve worked. Their messages can always be summed up as, “You’re an excellent teacher. Your ability to connect with the children is amazing. You are kind and patient. But your challenges are just as significant.” In my case, they cite communication as being one of my problems just like it is one of Shaun Murphy’s problems — although if they would let me communicate important things in writing, rather than on the phone or in person, they would see that I am actually excellent at communication. My major shortcoming, though, seems to be more vague and more difficult for them to put into words. They, who find communicating so terribly important, cannot find a polite way to tell me, “You just don’t fit into the jigsaw puzzle of our school.”

People don’t expect a surgeon to be autistic. They don’t expect a teacher to be autistic. We are expected to fill supporting roles rather than be major characters.

The truth is, most autistic people don’t have savant skills. (I definitely don’t.) Yet Shaun Murphy does represent many autistic people, whether those people are able to live fully independently or whether their challenges cause them to need round the clock care in a group home setting. Many (I’m not saying all, but many) autistic people have kind hearts and a lot of empathy. Many have strong interests and passions that occupy a lot of their time and thoughts. Many are stopped from pursuing their passion because either their interest is considered abnormal or they don’t fit in well with others who have the same passion. Many want to feel like they are important, accepted and contributing members of their setting, be it a workplace, their family, or society as a whole.

So I will continue to watch “The Good Doctor,” hoping he gets to go back to being a surgeon… because if Shaun Murphy can find a place to belong, maybe someday we all will.

Originally published: March 4, 2019
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