by Noire Lin
Warning: This article contains spoilers for “The Good Doctor” through season one.
Have you ever thought about what it feels like to meet someone who was exactly like you?
On November 13, 2017, ABC’s “The Good Doctor” protagonist, Dr. Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore), was faced with his very first autistic patient — and, incidentally, the first autistic person he’d ever encountered: Liam West.
West (Coby Bird) was the victim of a bus accident. He arrived at St. Bonaventure in distress, overwhelmed by the multitude of doctors and EMTs physically restraining him. Murphy was the first to note West’s hypersensitivity, revealing that West was autistic.
The autism spectrum, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a broad range of developmental disorders and conditions. Some canon portrayals in the media of the autism spectrum include Raymond Babbitt (“Rain Man”), Sam Gardner (“Atypical”), and Dr. Virginia Dixon (“Grey’s Anatomy”). The most common autistic condition to be represented in the media is Asperger’s, or Asperger Syndrome.
In “The Good Doctor,” Dr. Shaun Murphy is described as high-functioning autistic while also having Savant Syndrome — a condition where a person demonstrates a prodigal mindset and set of skills. He is shown to stim — self-stimulatory behavior that involves repeating physical movements — and be socially awkward throughout the show, both common characteristics of the autism spectrum.
At first, many members of the autistic community showed concern for how Highmore would portray Murphy. The autism spectrum is broad and individual, and it has always been dangerous for producers to navigate the rough waters of providing realism with their ideas of autism.
Highmore, however, does an excellent job of presenting a refreshing image of autism in “The Good Doctor.” Through Murphy, Highmore challenges the misconceptions about autism that are often found in today’s society.
Many assume that those with autism lack empathy, compassion, and overall romantic / sexual attraction to others. In the very first episode, Murphy is asked to explain why he wants to be a doctor, and he answers by describing two traumatic events in his childhood, showing care and empathy.
Overall, “The Good Doctor” draws viewers in with not only the realistic representation of the autism spectrum, but also the open discussion of employment for those with differences — whether it means disabilities, race, or gender.
For the cast of surgeons and their residents at St. Bonaventure, how they tackle prejudice within their workspace will determine how representation resonates with the viewers at home.