Hi, I want to be clear – we don’t really do reviews on this blog. We help writers write autistic characters more accurately. But! That doesn’t mean there aren’t some useful lessons on writing autistic characters from the show. In the future, a more useful question to ask is, “What mistakes or benefits does this show have in the way they’ve portrayed their autistic character(s)?” The more specific you can make your question, the easier answering it becomes. Let’s get into it.
The Good Doctor and its accuracy in portraying an autistic character:
I have seen all of season 1, and this show is paced well. If you plan on writing any shows, there’s something to be learned about making sure the pacing of the show is enjoyable. It has a nice balance of drama and resolution, and while there’s a couple of medical cases per episode, the characters’ personal plot arcs last much longer than an episode which keeps it from being stressful.
This is a TV show though, and as usual story elements are exaggerated to enhance the viewer’s emotional responses… so the show is not without its drama. The Good Doctor has character arcs which last for several episodes at a time, and allow you to get to know a character. Most importantly, it allows us to see Shaun in a variety of contexts.
This show also has a deluge of very subtle messages about autistic people. There are a few intentional scripted explanations about Shaun being autistic yet competent, but the show is good at showing the messages about Shaun rather than clumsily preaching them. The show’s script uses a mix of person-first and identity-first language. People who like Shaun and dislike him have said he’s autistic, and similarly with saying he has autism. It seems like the show is written in a way that using both has a purpose, but I’m not exactly sure what that purpose is – perhaps to try to satisfy anyone who prefers either description?
Many people have problems with an allistic actor portraying an autistic character, and I won’t be getting into that argument or state my personal opinion, but the portrayal of accuracy in autistic characterization is very high. This is one of those rare shows which shows an autistic adult being competent in a job as well as navigating friendships and attraction to people. He is also shown as an autistic adult; he doesn’t think or act like a child.
Shaun’s strengths and struggles:
My main contention with the show’s accuracy is the Savant Syndrome super powers Shaun (the main character) has, but I think that was in part a relic from the show being loosely adapted from a Korean drama of the same name. This could have a deleterious effect on the way the audience sees autistics’ skills and smarts – as something separate from autism. A more accurate way to describe Shaun’s skills would be his special interest has been in medical sciences and physiology for years, and he is a visual learner and can extrapolate spacial information from what he has learned about the layout of the body to understand medical problems on a deeper level. This is a set of skills and intelligence very related to autism instead of a separate thing stacked on top of it; he can hyperfocus and not get bored, makes abstract links between disparate pieces of information in order to reach a conclusion, can learn a system well based on visual patterns, etc. For him, these are very autistic traits. For another character, based on their learning style/preferences/personality the autistic traits can vary. Essentially, autism touches every way an autistic person experiences the world. The show makes this a clear message, at least.
While Shaun is excellent surgeon and very intelligent, he struggles with other things. This is very accurate for autistics; there may be some things autistics are very good at and/or have fun doing, but other activities can be difficult and distressing. For example, Shaun cannot drive because there is too much sensory information associated with driving. This is a very common experience, though not necessarily true to all autistics, and it doesn’t correlate with someone’s level of verbal communication. I know a non-verbal person who drives to her work every day, and a very verbal autistic who finds driving absolutely horrendous. At the end of the day, Shaun is very skilled but makes mistakes like anyone else, though his resolutions to problems are often unique, meaning he thinks “outside of the box,” or abstractly the way many autistics tend to. He follows rules yet is creative, something often unappreciated or overlooked in autistics’ portrayals.
Portrayal of sensory experience: Shaun dislikes eye contact and seems to pay attention to people by listening or looking at what they are talking about. His mannerisms and body postures seem to be geared around rhythmic gross motor movements and precise fine motor movements, navigating and interacting with his sensory environment. He also has a myriad of sensory problems, and the degree with which he struggles with them may vary on the situation. For example, he couldn’t deal with certain noises during the day, but he couldn’t sleep when the faucet wasn’t dripping because he wanted to have the familiarity of the dripping faucet. Autistic people have sensory preferences, meaning some people love certain sensory experiences others hate and vice versa. He also is visually very sensory-seeking and bought himself a high resolution flatscreen TV so he could watch it up close. This is something consistent with his character, since he thinks very visually.
Shaun has a comfort item – a toy scalpel his younger brother got him and he carries it with him everywhere. This is similar to myself and a lot of other autistics, and it’s related to a loved one and a special interest.
He also struggled with being asked direct questions when he interacted with a character – Claire – up close and couldn’t answer them, but he had prepared for his interview and could respond to questions asked directly by strangers in that context earlier in front of a room full of people. Later, he can respond to Claire’s questions more easily, likely because he got to know her better. While it might seem counter-intuitive or poorly written for Shaun to have an inconsistent ability to answer questions, but the contexts in which he was asked certain questions were different, and he had different levels of preparation to be asked questions.
Emotions: In one episode he had an ‘atypical’ (at least by allistic standards) reaction to seeing someone get shot in a store – he compartmentalized his distress and feelings of guilt to help the person and go about his job, then later lashed out after he had packed his emotions down. He also didn’t want people to know his emotions. Yet some allistics are like this as well.The show writers leave him room to be similar or dissimilar to allistics, depending on his preferences and personality.
His facial expressions are so subtle, other characters may not catch them and be able to read his emotions. This contributes to the stereotype he is ‘robotic,’ but Shaun certainly does NOT emote flatly. His facial expression system is merely different from those around him. He is in pain/guilt a lot of the time and has been abused and bullied, so he learned to suppress his emotions rather than trying to deal with them because they can often be too much to handle. This is consistent with his character, yet doesn’t contribute to the idea that he doesn’t feel. Instead, he is portrayed as feeling a LOT: becoming attached to certain people quickly, feeling distressed if they are removed from his life either by dying or moving or cutting off contact. He often gets watery eyes but turns away to prevent people from seeing. It’s a choice of his to keep his emotions to himself; they’re his, as he asserts at one point.
Portrayal of Shaun’s history of abuse and bullying: Unfortunately, this portrayal is very accurate. Without spoiling too much of he plot, I will describe the types of abuse Shaun experiences. He was abused by his father verbally and likely physically, though the latter can be inferred. There is at least one scene showing this. His memories shown are mostly traumatic in nature – being kicked by classmates in the schoolyard, seeing death, and being pressured into take his pants off (though he didn’t, this is sexual harassment and humiliation) then surrounded by classmates and mocked. Autistic people are often targets for abuse of all kinds, and Shaun’s lack of obvious emotional reaction to his memories of these instances shows how acclimated to his memories of these kinds of violations he has become. Yet when he realized someone pretending to be his “friend” and manipulating him for his money, he was stung.
Portrayal of sexuality and romance: Shaun is shown as straight in this show, and becomes very attached to someone who also is interested in him. He seems intimidated by sexual experiences, but not disinterested in them – a very different portrayal of autistic sexuality than usual, as most autistics are portrayed as asexual. It is made clear he is interested in romantic experiences, and is shown as attractive.
Interactions with another autistic: There is an episode in which Shaun has an autistic patient (portrayed by an up-and-coming autistic actor). There was a little bit of weird ‘autistic whisperer’ feeling shown when Shaun translated the patient’s distress and the reasoning behind it, which may happen if autistic people know each other well or have similar sensory problems, but one autistic person may or may not be able to simply understand and explain another autistic person’s experiences.
Yet there was something interesting about this other autistic character which is not often addressed in media: he had different struggles and strengths than Shaun, different ways of communicating, and different responses to stress. Shaun internalizes his stress until he explodes, but this character seemed very communicative of stress and pain.
Something else interesting was Shaun’s initial almost-dislike of this character. Something gooshy to do on the writers’ parts would be to have them instantly become best friends, but to Shaun, he was just another patient, and Shaun had never met another autistic person. This was another way to show Shaun’s dislike of himself on some level (I would say self-hatred but I’m not too quick to point to evidence of this because the audience sees into his emotions only through memories and seeing him in private moments). Shaun has been taught by those around him there is something wrong with him, and he expected to find this patient difficult based on others’ historical communication to him that he is annoying or difficult to be around. Unfortunately, this kind of internalization of negative self-perceptions is very common for autistic people.
By the end of that episode, Shaun had seemed to get over his ambivalent feelings toward this patient and chided the patients’ parents for giving the patient a kava root supplement, as it was the cause of the patients’ presenting health problems. Allistic parents of autistic kids are often quick to jump to any supposed ‘cure’ or ‘support’ for their kids to change their autistic-ness, and this episode was wonderful at showing how dangerous this is, as the patient was in a severe amount of pain and distress. The parents were also very quick to decide both their child and Shaun were incompetent because of autism, but Shaun’s surgical team members were very quick to advocate for him despite their distrust of his skills in the beginning of the show. This gets at the show’s core message, I think: Autistic people are capable and one should assume competence.
This show is also not inspiration porn, since the narrative focuses on Shaun as the main character and doesn’t objectify him – a big plus in narratives featuring autistics.
Overall message about autism: In one episode, a physically disabled patient considering surgery to try to walk again tells Shaun, “You understand; you’d jump at a cure for autism, wouldn’t you?” And Shaun avoids the question by saying, “There is no cure for autism.” Shaun then prompts the patient to realize his best attributes – patience, willing to help others, etc. were learned because he went through physical therapy, and the patient says the difference between his ‘cure’ to walk again – surgery – and Shaun’s autism is the lessons he learned from being in a wheelchair wouldn’t go away if he can walk again. Also within this conversation, the patient told Shaun his wife married him because she accepted him for who he was, and that someone who accepted Shaun could marry him. Shaun pointed out some of his own personal qualities which are there because he is autistic. I winced at the initial question but the following conversation relieved me. This show, so far, communicates autism is a part of Shaun, not something he carries around which keeps the real him locked up.
Hope this helps with writing autistic characters in the future, especially in the medium of a show, movie, or play wherein there is a visual element for the audience in acting.
– Mod Siena