Yesterday the new ABC drama The Good Doctor premiered. I have had my concerns about the show ever since I first saw the trailer in May. All of my concerns have now been validated.
The show’s portrayal of autism is deeply stereotypical and like so many portrayals of autism centres around an essentially magical autistic white man. It is particularly apt that today Disability Scoop published an article (which does not mention The Good Doctor) about a study which found that Hollywood routinely creates overly stereotyped and unrealistic autistic characters.
The Good Doctor’s Dr Shaun Murphy fits that description to a T. He is basically a walking, talking embodiment of the DSM diagnostic criteria. He like so many of the autistic characters before him has the characteristic Hollywood autism accent. He is sensitive to noise and is socially awkward which is played off as an endearing innocence but serves mainly to reinforce the idea that autistic adults are effectively children.
He is also a savant, because of course he is. Autistic characters cannot take centre stage in mainstream media unless they fit into either an over pitiful role or as in this case an essentially impossible level of exceptionalism.
And let’s be clear, the character is impossible. He isn’t just a savant (and how many times must I repeat that savantism is rare) his skills are inhuman. It’s not just his ability to visualize the entire human vascular system and apply it to the medical realities of different people (though I admit that’s a new one that I haven’t heard before), his awareness is absolute. He misses nothing. He identifies problems that are not only easy to miss but also that will likely be missed. He does this while not even appearing to be paying attention.
Clearly, Hollywood hasn’t gotten the memo that savants are humans and are fallible.
Despite this, Shaun is also perceptive. This is played out as great wisdom. He clocks and calls out his supervisor’s arrogance.
Show creator David Shore makes no secret of the fact that Shaun is explicitly intended as inspiration porn.
“He’s a catalyst for change among the other doctors. His different way of looking at the world will, I think, inspire them.”
Shaun, like so many disabled characters before him, does not exist for himself but rather for other people.
I remarked in my earlier piece on the show’s advertizing that “[t]he most believable part of the trailer is the scene where a room full of people try to justify discrimination”. What was true of the trailer was more or less true of the show. Much of the conflict was contrived and unbelievable.
Early in the episode, Shaun witnesses a child injured by falling glass in an airport and uses his
magical powers, *cough* no I’m sorry I meant “savant” skills. to correctly identify major issues to save the child’s life.
Of course, it arises that Shaun must perform an emergency procedure and requires a knife. But he’s past security in an airport and no one seems to have one. Oddly despite it definitely being several minutes since the falling glass incident (which was spectacular and unlikely to go unnoticed) and a crowd has gathered to watch Shaun work, all airport staff seem completely unaware that it has happened and that there is a medical emergency.
Shaun is somehow able to figure out how to not only MacGyver medical equipment and plot out meticulously where he’s going to get everything but when it comes to asking a TSA agent for a knife, he can’t clearly articulate why he needs it. The TSA agent refuses (again how is literally no one affiliated with the airport aware that a child is dying?), Shaun decides to steal the knife and run. Of course, he’s chased and tackled, luckily within eyesight of the huge crowd–that again no one from the airport staff seems to have noticed–and the child’s distraught parents. Shaun is allowed up–having apparently suffered no particular anxiety from having been tackled–and saves the child.
Well, at least until they get to the hospital and he determines that the child needs an echocardiogram but can’t express why the child needs it so is ignored. He tries to make a run for the operating area and is kicked out of the hospital. He then futilely tries to regain entrance instead of calling the head of the hospital, who he knows and is the person championing the idea of giving him a job.
While it is true that autistic people can struggle with knowing what to do in situations of high stress, it is something we can learn. It is also something that a doctor needs to be able to do to be effective.
Quite frankly between Shaun’s inconsistent ability to basically be either BBC’s Sherlock–capable of complex multistep planning–or to try and run past security staff at the first roadblock (there is no in between) and people constantly ignoring him, I’m utterly shocked the kid didn’t die (I could I suppose have included a spoiler warning but does the outcome really surprise anyone?). That’s the magic of television folks. In real life that kid is dead six times over.
The only part of the character that I did identify with was his tendency to go silent for socially unacceptable amounts of time in response to questions he didn’t immediately know the answers to.
Frankly, that’s not enough of a consolation.
Dr Shaun Murphy is fundamentally the quintessential supercrip. He does not resemble any actual autistic people even if as a result of him being a walking DSM entry, people find tics in common. He entirely reinforces the idea that to be both disabled and acceptable you must also be exceptional.
I fully expect the show to continue in this vein, with Shaun’s coworkers and patients gaining life-changing insights from their very own magical white autistic man.
I’m still waiting for stories with disabled characters who are both more realistic and whose lives exist for themselves and not for the Hallmark card insights that they offer others.
But since this is what people actually seem to think passes as positive portrayal* I fully expect to be waiting a long time.
Here’s hoping for early cancellation and that this doesn’t get eight season’s like David Shore’s previous foray into supercrip doctor drama, House MD.
*I refuse to consider anything that does not actually involve the group being portrayed representation
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