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Why I'm Giving 'The Good Doctor' a Shot as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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Full disclosure: After only one episode, I have no idea what the future is for “The Good Doctor,” which will premiere September 25 at 10/9C on ABC. What I can tell you; this show has all the makings of an ABC smash-hit.

Let’s begin with the cast. Freddie Highmore (“Bates Motel,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) stars as Dr. Shaun Murphy, an up-and-coming surgeon who also happens to have autism and savant syndrome. This is a very difficult role for anyone to play given how broad the autism spectrum truly is. Some criticism has occurred as many TV productions and films try to address autism issues.  There is no “one size fits all” in attempting to define characters on the spectrum. This list in recent years has included characters such as Walter Hill in “Joyful Noise,” Billy in the new “Power Rangers” Jane in “Jane Wants a Boyfriend,” and most recently Sam Gardener, a teen with autism in Netflix’s “Atypical.”

There seems to be an obsession with autism political correctness in some autism-related projects. Producers strive for realism in portraying these autistic characters, with the danger of not clearly understanding the individuality of each person on the spectrum. It’s a razor’s edge, trying to avoid producing “inspiration porn” but also making the programming meaningful to those in the autism community. “Atypical,” which received mostly positive reviews (77 percent rating from critics and 97 percent rating from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes) also received some criticism for not hiring an autism consultant who was on the spectrum to help bring a realistic portrayal of the role. To be fair, “Atypical” had a full-time consultant in the fabulous Michelle Dean along with help from Exceptional Minds, a computer animation studio and non-profit digital arts school for young adults on the autism spectrum. Exceptional Minds worked on some shots for “The Good Doctor” team as well.

I feel “The Good Doctor” does a fine job of navigating this razor’s edge. Freddie does well in his debut, showing several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis. These characteristics include things such as social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, playing with his hands during stressful situations, etc. That last one is still something I do to this day as an adult who is on the autism spectrum. I believe Freddie’s take will resonate with many in the community. It will be interesting to see
how his character evolves moving forward into the season.

What really stood out to me, though, was the discussion during one scene where they are deciding Dr. Murphy’s fate and someone says people with autism lack empathy, so how can they be sympathetic to patients and their families? It was refreshing to see Dr. Murphy disprove that harmful myth and have the opportunity to show his ability to care for others. When asked point blank “Why do you want to be a surgeon?” he shared a traumatic event in his history. I had to pause the show because I was sobbing like a baby.

As for the script, there are several plot lines I believe will intrigue audiences, and the direction from Seth Gordon couldn’t be crisper, along with the writing by David Shore, creator and Director of “House.”

While many in the autism community may tune in for Dr. Murphy, autism is only one component of the show that will draw viewers. Based on statistics from the Department of Labor, a majority of those with disabilities in the U.S. today are unemployed. Discussing the hiring of someone with a disability highlights its importance. Other important topics include relationships in the workplace, safety and different types of ways people learn. For example, Dr. Murphy thinks in pictures, as can be seen on screen when he’s visualizing the human body or trying to remember a definition of a specific word.

I believe this show has staying power, and I can only hope the creators of the show, along with Sony and ABC, will continue to include voices of those on the spectrum as the show continues. I’d love to help in a consultant role.

When I travel the country speaking, I tell audiences “Autism can’t define me. I define autism.” Shaun and I are not defined by our diagnosis. Dr. Glassman, who first met Dr. Murphy at 14, said it best during a Board of Directors meeting in the episode:

“Aren’t we judged by how we treat people? I don’t mean as doctors, I mean as people. Especially those who don’t have the same advantages we have. We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are. That they do have a shot. We hire Shaun and we make this hospital better for it.”

I hope we as a community can give this show a shot, and if we do, I believe we will be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Kerry Magro is an international speaker on the autism spectrum. A version of this article originally appeared here.

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Originally published: September 14, 2017
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