Our Friends Whom We Struggle to Understand
We have all seen it. From Julia, the new Sesame Street character with autism, to Shaun Murphy on The Good Doctor, maybe another student in your class seemed off. Autism is all around us. Many high-functioning people with autism are mainstreamed into educational settings, and they can walk the world without assistance, making them harder to spot. Over my Thanksgiving break, I started watching The Good Doctor, a show about a surgeon with autism and his struggled in the medical field and in life. In a hospital, communication is key. Autism, although different from person to person, is characterized by difficulty communicating thoughts and feelings (“Autism”). An operating room can grow very overwhelming; there’s loud sounds and many people very close, looking at many screens and also what is on the table. Someone with autism can easily become overstimulated and grow anxious. This show is so interesting to me, it caused me to ask, is The Good Doctor a good representation of autism? Warning: the following will contain spoilers for the show, The Good Doctor.
The pilot episode is focused on a hospital board meeting discussing the hiring of Shaun Murphy, due to his autism. Because it is a hospital show, it breaks up the monotony of a board meeting with hospital drama, where Dr. Murphy saves a boy’s life with his immeasurable medical knowledge. The biggest reasons people vote against hiring Shaun is his struggle with communication and inability to feel empathy for patients. They also worry that he will become overwhelmed when he realizes he is the one controlling whether someone lives or dies. The woman in charge of the board decides to hire him without voting when Shaun says he wants to be a surgeon because,
“The day that the rain smelled like ice cream, my bunny went to heaven in front of my eyes. The day that the copper pipes in the old building smelled like burnt food, my brother… went to heaven in front of my eyes. I couldn’t save them. It’s sad. Neither one had the chance to become an adult. They should have become adults. They should have had children of their own and loved those children. And I want to make that possible for other people. And I want to make a lot of money so that I can have a television” (“Burnt Food”).
Shaun has shown that he has dealt with death and recognizes that it’s sad and others may go through the same sadness if someone else dies, proving the doctors who voted against him wrong.
One of my favorite parts about the representation of Shaun’s autism is the background of him and his personality. He seemed to have been abused as a child and suffered a lot of trauma. Even after being diagnosed with autism, this trauma may have affected him. For example, when Shaun was a child, there is a scene where his dad harasses him with questions, then hits him, and kills his pet rabbit (“Burnt Food”). In adulthood, there is an entire episode based around his coworker confused as to why he doesn’t answer questions (“Oliver”).
Shaun also exhibits hyperfixation. When his brother gifts him a toy toolset as children (“Burnt Food”), Shaun immediately grabs the scalpel, which he carries even in adulthood. Upon his brother’s death, he grows hyperfixated on a medical book (“Oliver”). It’s as if medicine is his coping mechanism. Seeing that he is drawn to it even before his brother died, it may just be his interest, but even so, he used these ideas as ways to get through stressful situations, including breakfast with a stranger (“Oliver”), a job interview (“Burnt Food”), and every stressful medical situation faced in the hospital. Shaun is able to keep his cool by working out complex biopsies and textbook problems in his head.
This does not mean Shaun always behaves like everyone else. In the most recent episode, Shaun is the reason a shooting took place. He wasn’t sure how to behave, and grew anxious, causing the criminal, who was unaware of his condition, to accidentally shoot another in the store. The whole reason Shaun was even in that place at that time was because his neighbor took a bite out if his apple, which he had been planning to eat for breakfast. He was standing in the store, trying to find the perfect apple, and all throughout the day, he is found searching for an apple, unable to let that go and move one. When approached by others regarding the trauma that watching a shooting could cause, Shaun responded by claiming to need to attend to his patient: further proving his hyperfixation on medicine (“Apple”).
Not everyone with autism is the same. Just like everyone has their own likes and dislikes, so do people with autism. Someone with autism may not like to be touched, while another may love to give hugs! Someone with autism may like to study medicine, while another may hate STEM topics and prefer art. Everyone is different. Autism is a spectrum, where someone may be placed very low on the spectrum and still be autistic (“Autism Spectrum Disorder”).
All in all, I certainly believe The Good Doctor is a good representation of autism. Although everyone with autism is different and can exhibit different symptoms, this show backs up most of Shaun’s unique tendencies and really explores his childhood and how he ended up who he is now. It also shows that not every family with a child with autism is happy and grateful and loving. It shows that raising a child with autism is hard. The Good Doctor also represents someone with autism in a successful position with a large amount of time in school under his belt. Although there is no average or stereotype for autism, it is a wonderful doing to make the effort to include those with autism in the media.