By EMILY WEIKL
The Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not one size fits all.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition) has four criteria for diagnosis. This includes “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across contexts, not accounted for by general developmental delays, and manifest by 3 of 3 symptoms” and “deficits in nonverbal behaviors used for social interaction.”
A person only has to meet the criteria to be diagnosed. The characteristics and severity of the disorder can vary from person to person. Despite this diversity, autism is portrayed in media through four distinct lenses.
“As the DSM-5 criteria shows, ASD can manifest in countless ways, through certain characteristics and behaviors; however, media tends to consolidate autistic characters into just four specific and mostly unrealistic categories, as aforementioned—magical/ savant, “different”/quirky, undiagnosed/unlabeled, and realistic portrayals,” according to Alexandra Prochnow.
A well-known depiction of ASD was the 1988 lm “Rain Man”, with Dustin Hoffman portraying a character who falls neatly into the “magical/savant” category.
A newer depiction of ASD can be seen in ABC’s “The Good Doctor.” The basic premise is that Shaun Murphy (portrayed by Freddie Highmore), who has ASD, relocates to California to work at Saint Bonaventure Hospital as a surgical resident. Shaun has savant syndrome along with having ASD. There is intense debate in the first episode whether to allow him to work there because of his disorder. It is only through Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff)’s intervention that Shaun is given a chance.
How Shaun is treated by fellow doctors Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas) and Neil Melendez (Nicolas Gonzalez) differs greatly. At first, Claire was frustrated when it came to communicating with Shaun. She then learns that he prefers not be asked questions in “Oliver.” “Claire, if you want to connect with him,” Aaron later says, “you’re gonna have to figure out your own way in.”
Neil, however, views Shaun with a lot of doubt. He does not allow him to fully participate in surgeries as his superior and assigns him to scut work, which is largely delegated to interns. Neil also finds extra tests that requires as unnecessary. In “Mount Rushmore”, there is notable exchange between Neil and Aaron. Aaron tells Neil to teach Shaun when he does something wrong, to which Neil says that he is teaching him (Aaron) that Shaun “doesn’t belong.”
It is through these two relationships that the audience can see what it is like to live with ASD. Shaun is treated differently, either by misunderstanding or prejudice, but he rises above that.
“As viewers, it’s easy to get caught up in that feeling of frustration or anger when Shaun’s boss makes him do scut work or second-guesses his diagnosis,” according to Indiewire.com. “It’s damn satisfying to watch him save a life, think of an innovative treatment, or be right. He is the show’s hero after all, and that’s as it should be.”
Shaun is not always right though, as seen in “Point Three Percent.” He can make mistakes just like any other person, in television or real life. He is like his fellow doctors in that regard. He isn’t in that he has ASD.
“The Good Doctor” goes beyond common stereotypes of ASD. Shaun does not lack empathy, for one. He was inspired to become a surgeon after losing a pet rabbit and his brother. He is also not stuck in his behaviors. The more input he gets, the better he gets at navigating the world around him.
Along with “The Good Doctor,” TV shows like Net ix’s “Atypical” portray individuals with ASD with the same complexity as those who would be neurotypical. The awareness and understanding of ASD is better than it was in the past. Depictions in the media were not as nuanced as they were today, and there were little to no depictions of people with ASD in media prior to that time.
“One big reason why not many ASD kids (or adults) made it into the movies pre- Rain Man was that the public awareness of the disorder was limited, and medical science’s explanations for autism were fairly crude,” according to PBS. “People on the spectrum were sometimes misdiagnosed as mentally retarded or mentally ill — with the blame for the latter falling on parents who were accused of being too emotionally cold.”
“The Good Doctor” is on the right path by showing a realistic depiction of what it is like to live with ASD. Showrunners have ample time to craft their vision further since a full season order of 18 episodes was recently given.
ASD is not a monolithic condition, and it is not something that can be put into categories. There are males with ASD and females with ASD. It is more than likely that there are people who identify as neither with ASD.
Shaun has the dual hurdle of trying to save lives and being treated differently because of his condition. How he is able to handle both, along with more mundane concerns, is at the heart of the show.
“The Good Doctor” returns with the episode “22 Steps” on Nov. 13. Previous episodes can be streamed OnDemand, ABC.com or Amazon Prime.