By Kayhan Parsi
The Good Doctor recently debuted on ABC. Billed as an unconventional medical drama, it features an autistic surgical resident, Dr. Shaun Murphy, played by Freddie Highmore. As a parent of an autistic adolescent, I welcome more varied depictions of autistic individuals in popular culture. Unfortunately, the trailer for the show concerned me, as it played up some now familiar tropes in depicting individuals with autism. Dr. Murphy is not only autistic but is a savant as well. The autistic savant is an irresistible cliché for creators of film and television programs. For example, Dustin Hoffman’s depiction of Raymond in Rain Man is the granddaddy of savants in popular culture. Raymond was able to count cards at an incredible level, something his estranged brother (played by Tom Cruise) tried to exploit to his own advantage. The savant trope also reared its head in the recently released Netflix series Atypical featuring an adolescent male with autism (played by Keir Gilchrist). Although he doesn’t exhibit the kind of genius-level savant characteristics that Dr. Murphy displays, Sam in Atypical goes to a mainstream school, holds down a part-time job, and is struggling with dating…
Like Sam in Atypical, Dr. Murphy in The Good Doctor is a savant but even more so. He has a photographic memory (we literally see the images that flash in Dr. Murphy’s mind, recalling how Temple Grandin has explained how she thinks in pictures). He intervenes in situations where his neurotypical colleagues see nothing medically amiss. In the pilot episode, we see Dr. Murphy flying to San Jose to become a surgical resident at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. A major conflict has ensued between the president of the hospital Dr. Aaron Glassman (who befriended Dr. Murphy when he was a child) and everyone else at a leadership level. His biggest clash is with Dr. Marcus Andrews, who is chief of surgery at the hospital. Andrews is concerned about having an autistic resident at the hospital. What strains credulity is that presumably Dr. Murphy went through the match process and yet the leadership of the hospital is still arguing on his first day over whether Dr. Murphy should be able to work at Bonaventure. Dr. Glassman provides some stirring words about how people with autism face the same kind of discrimination as women and people of color. He also emphasizes the great gifts that Dr. Murphy brings.
One of the emotional highlights of the show are the flashbacks of Dr. Murphy that take him to his childhood. Rather than a parent being his staunchest advocate, we see his loving younger brother Steve protect him from bullying but also recognizes the many gifts that Shaun has. His brother also provides social lessons to Shaun that shape his ability to connect with other people, especially his patients.
On the one hand, I was thrilled to see a person with autism who is not only gifted but has great emotional understanding. For instance, in the pilot, Dr. Murphy calls out his attending Dr. Melendez for being arrogant. On the other hand, I cringed that many viewers will think that an individual with autism inevitably has savant-like powers or might not find an individual with autism to be interesting if he does not. My autistic son is highly verbal, sociable and funny and can recite every stop on the Chicago Transit Authority, but he is not a savant. In showing us individuals on the spectrum, creators of shows such as Atypical and The Good Doctor should strive to show more nuance and range. The risk of developing only characters with autism who are savants will further stereotype people on the spectrum while diluting the concept of a spectrum altogether. The reality is that many kinds of individuals have autism. Although 10% of autistic individuals has some kind of savantism (compared to 1% of the general population), 90% of autistic individuals are not savants. I hope that creators of television shows such as The Good Doctor can move past this one representation and show us many other people who have autism. That would truly be good.
Kayhan Parsi, JD, PhD, is Professor of Bioethics and the Graduate Program Director at the Loyola University Chicago Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy. His son Gabe attends Giant Steps, a day school for individuals with autism.