autism in the spot­light

TV’s Good Doc­tor, Atyp­i­cal are en­ter­tain­ing, not ed­u­ca­tional, say ex­perts – but it’s a start

Calgary Sun - - LIFE - Sh­EryL UbELackEr The Cana­dian Press

Char­ac­ters with autism are in­creas­ingly find­ing promi­nence in film and tele­vi­sion, most re­cently in the new TV net­work of­fer­ing The Good

Doc­tor and Atyp­i­cal, which de­buted in Au­gust on the stream­ing ser­vice Net­flix.

Such se­ries may pro­vide view­ers with a glimpse into the world of those with autism spec­trum dis­or­der, or ASD, but just how ac­cu­rate and rep­re­sen­ta­tive are th­ese char­ac­ters?

And, more im­por­tantly, how has the autism com­mu­nity re­acted to such por­tray­als?

“It’s been an in­ter­est­ing mix,” con­cedes Es­ther Rhee, na­tional pro­gram di­rec­tor at Autism Speaks Canada, an ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion that funds re­search into neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions.

“We’ve had feed­back from in­di­vid­u­als on the spec­trum, from fam­ily mem­bers who say ‘I com­pletely re­late to some of th­ese story lines,’ and we have oth­ers that feel that they’re not ac­cu­rate re­flec­tions,” Rhee says.

“So there’s no one re­sponse to it.”

While the shows’ cre­ators may have im­bued their char­ac­ters with some fea­tures of autism, Rhee says their main pur­pose is to be en­ter­tain­ing, not ed­u­ca­tional.

“And so we can’t have the ex­pec­ta­tions that peo­ple who don’t know a lot about autism are go­ing to view each episode and then ... have an un­der­stand­ing of what’s hap­pen­ing in the autism com­mu­nity.”

Still, Rhee sees the in­clu­sion of char­ac­ters with ASD in film, tele­vi­sion and on stage as gen­er­ally pos­i­tive: “Th­ese shows pro­vide a start­ing point ... and whether peo­ple agree or they dis­agree with the con­tent, it’s still an op­por­tu­nity to start hav­ing a dis­cus­sion about autism.”

The Good Doc­tor has cre­ated some buzz on blogs and so­cial me­dia. Lead char­ac­ter Shaun Mur­phy (played by Fred­die High­more) is a newly minted pe­di­atric sur­geon with autism who’s hired by a big-city hospi­tal over the ob­jec­tions of many of its se­nior med­i­cal staff.

Mur­phy is so­cially awk­ward but bril­liant, de­scribed by the show’s pro­duc­ers as a sa­vant, though that term and “high­func­tion­ing” have fallen out of favour with many within the ASD com­mu­nity. He’s un­easy mak­ing eye con­tact and can be con­ver­sa­tion­ally stilted — stereo­typ­i­cal hall­marks of the con­di­tion, but ones not uni­ver­sally shared by all those on the spec­trum.

Atyp­i­cal fo­cuses on Sam Gard­ner (played by Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old with ASD ob­sessed with all things Antarc­tica and sub­ject to sen­sory over­load from ex­ces­sive noise and light, who’s in­tent on hav­ing a “nor­mal” teenaged life.

Dr. Me­lanie Pen­ner, a de­vel­op­men­tal pe­di­a­tri­cian in the Autism Re­search Cen­tre at Hol­land Bloorview Kids Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Hospi­tal in Toronto, agrees that re­ac­tions from in­di­vid­u­als with ASD and their fam­i­lies to shows like The

Good Doc­tor have been some­what mixed, though gen­er­ally pos­i­tive.

“I think what the autism com­mu­nity are of­ten look­ing for ... (is) they do care that the rep­re­sen­ta­tion is ac­cu­rate — and it’s ac­cu­rate not just in what it’s like to live with autism, but also how the world re­acts to some­one with autism.”


Fred­die High­more plays a doc­tor with autism in The Good Doc­tor.

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