[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers about “The Good Doctor” Episode 4 titled “Pipes.”]
Although autistic characters have been seen many times on the big screen, they’ve been seen less on TV. ABC’s freshman drama “The Good Doctor” is taking its time addressing some of the misconceptions about the autism spectrum, and in doing so has made headway in trying to foster greater understanding of how autistic people may not process the world the same way as neurotypical people.
Maintaining stories about autistic characters is a challenge that can go very wrong if done without the proper understanding, and the usual caveats should apply in discussing “The Good Doctor’s” autistic surgeon, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore). Each autistic individual is different, and Shaun has savant syndrome as well, which adds another layer to his portrayal. Nevertheless, he does exhibit some of the typical behaviors consistent with autism. Below are a few of the ways that “The Good Doctor” has addressed or upended certain misconceptions about those on the spectrum:
On Monday’s episode titled “Pipes,” it’s revealed that Shaun has watched pornography. He comments that “some” porn have stories and plots, and later, it’s clear that he’s aware of some of the scantily clad women in the advertising around him. He’s in such a haze while recalling his first experiences viewing porn that he even misses his bus stop. Shaun appears to be aware of his attractive neighbor Lea (Paige Spara), so it will be interesting to see if he will attempt to learn how to have a non-platonic relationship with her or perhaps another woman. Netflix’s “Atypical” also tackles this subject head-on with a teenage boy.
Shaun knows when he’s being mocked, and even if he won’t necessarily show it, that doesn’t mean he lacks emotion. The prank that was played on him in childhood by a girl who tried to get him to expose himself clearly left him wary of the opposite sex today. But his feelings are hurt because human connections are important to him, as much as he may seem like a loner.
Autistic people are not doomed to have the same exact behaviors they’ve had since childhood. The more input and interactions are involved, the more that person can learn to navigate the world. Shaun’s savant syndrome gives him a leg up in the knowledge department, but he needs other people to give him cues and clues so that he understands behavior that’s not straightforward. Thus far, he’s been shown to acquire new understanding of sarcasm. No doubt he’s also been learning to grasp the finer points of other humor as well.
On the flip side, Dr. Browne (Antonia Thomas) is also learning how to see things from his point of view and to communicate with him. Their exchanges have improved because she’s had more interactions with him.
While it’s true that Shaun has had moments where he cannot understand someone, and therefore either acts inappropriately or has to ask what something means, that does not make him without empathy. In the first episode it’s shown that he’s inspired to be a doctor because of losing a beloved pet and then later his brother. He knows that saving lives won’t bring his brother back, but he wants to stop others from dying and suffering in the same way. He has a generosity of spirit that drives him in his calling.
It’s been shown in most portrayals of autistic people that the use of headphones can help to cut down on the auditory overload in the environment around them. That is also why many may also put their hands over their ears when headphones aren’t available. While Shaun is seen doing this while approaching a helicopter, he’s only does it when he’s directly under its rotor blades. Beforehand, he informs his colleague Dr. Browne (Antonia Thomas) that he doesn’t actually mind the noise. In fact, he seems to welcome it because he’s fascinated with how helicopters work. His interest in the machinery makes the accompanying noise just part of the package.
In flashbacks Shaun is seen rocking when he’s under great distress. We haven’t seen him do this in adulthood, but sometimes when he’s anxious, the character fiddles with his hands or the toy scalpel he had as a boy. Other times he sits absolutely still. No behaviors are pervasive but are situational. Even when he fixates on trying to find his screwdriver to the point that he wakes up his mentor to help him look, he’s able to stop the frenzied search cold when told to take a break. If anything, this inconsistency shows that obsessive, blinkered behavior isn’t an absolute. Nothing is.
Hopefully “The Good Doctor” has allowed audiences to learn new ways of thinking about people who have autism. The show is an early ratings hit; check back with IndieWire to see how someone in the autism community assesses the show.
“The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.