[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers from “The Good Doctor” episode, “22 Steps.”]
“The Good Doctor” is a way for viewers who have never met a person with autism to get to know more about the differences in neurology and behaviors that may accompany the disorder. For the show’s central character Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a surgical resident with autism and savant syndrome, he hasn’t met anyone with autism either, at least not until Monday’s episode.
When a young man named Liam (Coby Bird) is wheeled in on a gurney, Shaun immediately understands why the boy is struggling with the nurses. Far from needing to be restrained, it turns out he has autism and doesn’t like to be touched. Shaun proves to be instrumental in understanding Liam’s needs and relaying them to the hospital staff. IndieWire spoke with series creator David Shore to get his take on the insightful episode.
“I just thought we’d see how everybody else deals with someone with autism, and it might be interesting to see how Shaun deals with somebody with autism,” he said. “It’s always interesting to turn things back in on your own characters.”
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While Liam’s parents are grateful to have Shaun on staff because of his innate understanding and ability to work with their son, they don’t want him in the operating room when it turns out that Liam needs surgery. In a way, this reveals their own feelings about their son’s limitations and how they too can paint everyone with the same brush.
“Frankly, the more people with autism we see on TV the more diverse the reactions can be because there are many diverse reactions,” said Shore. “We wanted to explore very different parents than [Shaun] had, who approached it very differently but who made their own mistakes as well.”
The message or inclusion is not just for what plays out on the screen but behind the cameras as well. “The Good Doctor” had originally cast a wide net that included actors with autism along with neurotypical actors to play Shaun.
“We were looking for people with autism, people without autism,” said Shore. “We were auditioning right across the board, but then Freddie Highmore became available and he’s such an excellent choice. There aren’t too many people with autism among the acting ranks. There are obviously some but there aren’t too many, just as frankly, there’s a high unemployment rate for people with autism right across the board. That applies in Hollywood as well. But we brought in a number of people, and I was incredibly impressed. We had a whole bunch that I would’ve loved to have cast and there were a few of them that we earmarked to hopefully use in another role later down the road.”
For the role of Liam, however, Shore was determined to find the right actor with the disorder. Coby Bird is an actor with autism who has appeared on the hilarious Oscar Party episode of “Speechless,” which also airs on ABC, and in Syfy’s campy monster movie “Mega Python vs. Gatoroid.”
“He performed and he committed and he moved me,” Shore said. “He responded to notes well. The people you like, you give them adjustments, see how they react to the adjustments, see if they do it in a subtle, but effective way, and he did all that.”
Casting a person with autism for the role was of vital importance for the show, which has become fall’s breakout hit.
“We’re a show that has the message first and foremost that people with autism are capable of great things and should be given a chance,” Shore said. “We didn’t have anybody with autism in our cast, so any chance we have to cast somebody with autism — I think it is incumbent upon us to do everything we possibly can to do so, both in front of and behind the camera throughout to deliver the message we are preaching.”
In the future, the show would ideally hire a person with autism without making that specific to the role.
“Obviously they’d wind up playing somebody with autism I think, but I am very open to roles in which we are not specific about that,” said Shore. “When we write characters we always have that first call with our casting people where they ask us, ‘What’s the age of this character? The gender? What’s the racial, ethnic background? Is there any?’ And quite often, most often, we’re neutral on that. I think we should do the same thing with regard to so-called disabilities.”
“The Good Doctor” airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.