autism in the spotlight
TV’s Good Doctor, Atypical are entertaining, not educational, say experts – but it’s a start
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.