[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Good Doctor” Season 2, Episode 13, “Xin.”]
“The Good Doctor” continues to explore how people with autism may perceive relationships differently, in particular romantic and/or sexual ones. In the episode “Xin” written by Brian Shin, Lana (Vered Blonstein) is admitted as a patient for surgery, while her roommate Javi (Alex Plank) visits to bring her favorite foods and other items from home. He insists they are not boyfriend and girlfriend, even when later Lana reveals that they’ve had sex, but describes it in the most practical and unromantic terms.
IndieWire spoke to Melissa Reiner, who is the autism consultant for “The Good Doctor,” for insight into this storyline as well as a central ongoing relationship on the show.
“There’s so little exploration in the sexual life of someone with a diagnosis,” said Reiner, who also runs Ask Melissa Now. “From the research I’ve done and from the encounters I’ve had with individuals who are adults — who may or may not have had an active sex life — there is often this sort of programmatic approach to sex. There is a detach; they may never want to kiss or really be touched, but may want to have intercourse.
“For most individuals who are neurotypical, especially for women, intimacy is what sort of prepares us emotionally to want to even enjoy an encounter,” she said. “It’s so complex and nuanced and intricate when that piece is missing — the social and emotional, that compassion, the warmth. It doesn’t always mean that it always is with every individual, but with Lana it was, when she wants to have sex with Javi to kind of regulate [her stress], to help her through.”
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Dr. Morgan Reznik (Fiona Gubelmann) doesn’t quite understand how the two can still see themselves as mere roommates, and when Javi’s help is needed for the surgery to be successful, she appeals to his emotions and insists his care for Lana appear to be love. After the successful surgery, Javi confesses to Lana that he thinks he loves her, and reaching for his hands, she says, “I think you do too.” She also asks if he would like to remain in bed with her after sex — the opposite of their usual routine — but he refuses.
“That sequence was crucial, and we worked really hard on that because it’s very important to be specific,” said Reiner. “It can’t be sloppy. It can’t be a broad stroke. It can’t be, ‘He leans over and kisses her and hugs her.’ It has to be really specific. A lot of thought went into when and if Javi would say that he loved her. I wrote in my notes: ‘I hope he says no, because he’s smart and he knows to give her the answer that she needs.’
“I think initially it was written that she says, ‘I love you too,’ and I was like, ‘Nope! There’s no way she would say that. There’s nothing about her personality and her presentation of behaviors that would want her to say, ‘Yeah I love you too.’ I wanted to pull it back to what we refer to as a static system, where we sync. It’s logical. It’s acknowledging what he said, and it’s also not reaching her into this emotional life that she hasn’t had access to likely.”
As the “on the spectrum” phrasing indicates, autism behaviors and traits can range widely from person to person. On “The Good Doctor,” central doctor Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) has had a much slower social and romantic awakening than Lana and Javi. A childhood incident where a girl he was interested in mocked him publicly for wanting to kiss her had made him wary of romance.
“Often with love and relationships, when someone who has a diagnosis is rejected by someone they’re pursuing or is interested in, it can really stop them forever from trying to pursue any other kind of relationship again,” said Reiner. “There’s another end of the spectrum where one might pursue someone so ardently because they don’t pick up on the social cues to stop even if it’s direct and very clear. It can look sometimes predatory.”
On the show, Shaun hadn’t shown much interest in the opposite sex except for his neighbor and now roommate Lea (Paige Spara). Her warm, playful, and understanding nature is a good foil for his cautiousness and curiosity, and she’s introduced him to many experiences — such as driving a car and singing karaoke — that he would have have explored on his own. Apparently, this dynamic isn’t that unusual.
“I don’t really know why this is, but often a male who has a diagnosis will seek out a neurotypical female who’s more outgoing and try to create a balance and offset some of his deficits,” Reiner said. “Often I see when women who are neurotypical and are dating individuals with a diagnosis, they grew up with a brother, a cousin, a nephew, a father — someone in their life who also had a diagnosis. They’re sort of comfortable. It’s familiar; it’s not strange.”
Similarly, Shaun appears to be the closest to his work colleague Dr. Claire Browne (Antonia Thomas), although their relationship isn’t romantic. However, he does turn to her often for advice on how to deal with Lea. Although Claire doesn’t have a male figure with autism in her life, the show created a different backstory to explain her patience with him.
“Her relationship with her [bipolar] mother was suspending her disbelief and that’s enough to understand [him],” said Reiner. “It was dysfunctional, it was distant, it was complicated. I think that that is what binds them so closely and why their relationship is different. She becomes invested in him. She is a caretaker. She always shows up for her mom no matter what, and she always shows up for Shaun and she believes in him as well.”
Unlike Lana, Shaun appears to have a desire for more human interaction, whether it’s romantic or not. Besides his friendship with Claire, he spends time outside of the hospital with Lea. During a road trip, she introduces him to his first kiss, but then right after reveals that she’s leaving town. This created a rift between the two friends even when she eventually returns to town. However, after a fight and many discussions about where to draw the line, the two now share an apartment as roommates.
“We talked a lot about that and about how dangerous that kiss could be for Shaun and how meaningful that would be and how powerful that would be, which is part of what I think they wanted to set up for that when she left, it would make him feel very abandoned and hurt,” said Reiner. “Repairing that [relationship] was the most complicated for me. After their reconciliation, his intense reintroduction [of their friendship] of let’s take this apartment, let’s live together – that kind of tenacity and maybe even compulsion was, I think, the counter to that kiss.”
In the episode “Xin,” Shaun and Lea appear to have fallen into a comfortable roommate relationship, and he even welcomes the man she’s seeing, Jake (Andres Joseph). Shaun buys orange juice for Jake and plans a movie night — for all three of them.
“The motivation that is allowing him to befriend this guy is because Shaun understands the only way that he can spend time with Lea is if he’s also with Jake,” said Reiner. “So instead of feeling affronted or recoiling from their sex noises in the other room, or from his beer bottles being out or whatever, Shaun makes a decision, ‘OK, this is fine. We’re all going to be friends and we will all three will be together.’ It’s an innocent, guileless thought of we’ll all three be together, but Jake didn’t sign on for a threesome and nor did Lea also. It creates that sticky situation where boundaries are being reached.”
Some fans of the show would like to see Shaun and Lea as a couple, perhaps once he’s improved his relationship fluency. Although this outcome isn’t outside the realm of possibility, Reiner points out that their relationship would have to progress even more for Lea to even consider taking such a monumental and serious step.
“Is it possible for a woman to start to fall in love with someone that initially she just thought she wanted to be friends with? Absolutely,” said Reiner. “But a woman like Lea would feel the responsibility and the weight and the gravity of that. You can’t just have sex with this guy or even kiss this guy again, or interact in a more intimate way, and have it then kind of fizzle. This would need to be permanent, forever. Unless you want to marry this guy, there has to be a clear boundary. There are people in this world who don’t have that awareness and don’t have that sense of responsibility, and so it would be devastating.”
As for Shaun, Reiner recalls a man on the spectrum she encountered who had once been burned by a botched interaction with a girl he had liked when he was younger.
“I think he desperately wants to fall in love. I think he has no idea how to do it. He feels like he completely got it wrong and he will never get it right,” she said. “That’s true for many of these individuals. Their soul, their heart, their being, their true selves – it’s all in there; we just can’t always see it. They desire to connect. It’s always there even if they don’t know how to do it.”
”The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.