An Autism Mom’s Take on ‘The Good Doctor’

Whew! Looks like ABC’s new drama The Good Doctor is already a hit with ratings.

The Good Doctor is about Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a young surgeon with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Savant syndrome, who is recruited into the pediatric surgical unit of San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital.

The main factor of the pilot episode stays with the hospital’s board discussing whether or not to hire Murphy based on his the social capacity to connect with families as a surgeon because he is autistic. But the hospital’s president, Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff) is determined to bring him aboard.

Marcus Andrews: A surgeon needs to communicate… not just information, but sympathy, empathy. Can Dr. Murphy do that? He can’t even reliably show up for a job interview. Are you gonna sit here and tell us that there were no other equally-qualified young surgeons… surgeons without this one’s… issues?

Aaron Glassman: No. Which is why… exactly why… we should hire Shaun. We should hire him because he is qualified and because he is different.

He goes on to say,

Aaron Glassman: We hire Shaun, and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are, that they do have a shot! We hire Shaun, and we make this hospital better for it. We hire Shaun, and we are better people for it.

From The Good Doctor: Season 1 Episode 1: ‘Burnt Food’ (1×01)

It seems that throughout this season’s beginning, I have seriously been emotionally triggered.

Through Glassman’s determination to persuade the board to give Murphy a chance, I remembered my own advocacy as an autism mom. Last year, I moved heaven and earth to fight for the educational rights of my daughter, Nevaeh. With this scene, I felt I was back in mediation, going at it with the Los Angeles Unified School District for Nevaeh’s Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individual’s with Disabilities Act (IDEA) in the heart of downtown LA. There’s something about the strength in advocacy and the perseverance a person needs to have and maintain in a room that is set against you. I appreciate how thoughtful the writing was and the intensity in delivery that Glassman’s role called for.

But I was not ready for a young Dr. Shaun Murphy being struck down and bullied on a soccer field. I recall a time Nevaeh was enrolled in preschool and I decided to pick her up early. My best friend and I pulled into the driveway that faced the school yard and I almost went nuts at seeing 3 kids surround Nevaeh and mercilessly hit her in her head and her back. Now, I don’t remember this part–my best friend filled me in to the details–apparently I said “get the hell away from my daughter” as I rushed into the school to save her. Kids were beating  Nevaeh’s tail because she was different and the worst part, she did not understand why. And, a tear slipped from my eye as I recall that day and I cried as I watched the scene of a young boy being bullied because like my precious baby girl, he was different.

Interestingly enough, about half way through the episode, Nevaeh got up and said, “mom, they are missing the point here. Am I supposed to be happy that there’s an autistic doctor? Any person being a doctor is lit.  But why do they have to show the doctor looking at forms in his mind. That is not how the mind works.” And she makes an excellent point. The idea of a Savant autistic doctor may not really be a champion for folks on the spectrum, at all. Adding Savant syndrome contributes to the misconception that all people on the spectrum have to be some type of Mensa material. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me “so what’s your daughter’s genius? Is she, like, awesome in math”. The adverse genius implications don’t do justice to autism awareness and acceptance because the takeaway might be, if children on the spectrum do not display splinter skills and have a genius resolve, do they still matter in what seems to be a sensational look into ASD?

Looking at the more realistic social aspects of ASD, I found Dr. Shaun Murphy’s bluntness refreshing. In speaking to anyone on the spectrum, innuendos, fluff social queues and/or nuances generally do not exist because in the wonderful world of ASD, what you see is what you get.  Since the creator of the show is David Shore, the man behind the wildly popular medical hit drama House, I hope the The Good Doctor does not lean on Murphy’s bluntness and lack of filter as it did Gregory House’s rude manner in diagnosing impossible illnesses.

Because Autism Spectrum Disorder is so wide reaching, it is truly difficult for one show to capture all sides.  I appreciate the homework that the writers have done to convey passion as well as show moments in Murphy’s childhood that affected me deeply.

All in all, I am interested to see how this show develops. I hope The Good Doctor irons out its gimmicks and relies more on realistic medical scenarios as well as does justice to the ASD person in exploring the vital aspects one might be able to aspire to becoming a doctor or a similar professions if they are provided the tools necessary to function and succeed socially, academically and independently.

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