May is Mental Health Awareness Month and here at 25YL, we want to highlight some of the television shows and characters that spoke to us directly about this sensitive subject. This week, Anna Flaherty looks at the depiction of autism in The Good Doctor.
Mental health awareness month is nearing to a close, and I’m very excited to be able to contribute in some way. For my contribution to the site’s acknowledgment of mental health awareness month, I would like to draw attention to The Good Doctor. It’s a representation of autism on-screen that has I’m sure inspired many people with mental health issues to believe that they can achieve their goals. Whether or not you have watched the series, I would like to bring your attention to its poignancy and authenticity. It provides a thoughtful insight into some of the struggles those with autism might face, and the differences that set them apart. It also goes some way towards explaining the beneficial traits which often come with an autism diagnosis. With more and more people in the public eye speaking out about autism, it’s about time we were given a show like this to help those of us without first-hand experience with autism go some way towards understanding what it is about.
The Good Doctor began in 2017, depicting the life of Doctor Shaun Murphy as he navigates his new position as a surgical resident in a new city. (In the U.S. it is broadcast by ABC, and in the U.K. is currently available through a NowTV subscription.) The series is focused predominantly on Shaun’s autism, and how this makes him different from other doctors in his hospital. It has run for two seasons and there may be a third coming next year (this is unconfirmed, but ABC says it is in the cards). I have done my best to avoid any spoilers in this article and no major events are revealed, however there are some details about characters and plot.
Autism is underrepresented in popular culture, considering it affects over 1 in 100 people worldwide. This show specifically focuses on the main character who is autistic, but we rarely see this in characters of popular shows despite increased discussion surrounding it. I would like to praise The Good Doctor for displaying autism on screen in a way that is both realistic and recognisable, without shying away from the sometimes awkward and other times comedic way it causes Shaun to present himself.
It’s important to note that autism is a spectrum disorder, and not everybody diagnosed with it has the same experience. This means that, although seeing somebody with autistic traits in a mainstream television show is good for representation, it leaves some people still feeling like they are not seen, and can therefore only go some way towards giving people with mental health issues the representation they deserve. With this in mind, we can clearly see why it’s so important to make conditions like autism more visible—having just one show that aims to do this is great, but it doesn’t give all people with the condition the representation they need.
This series shows us the ways in which Shaun is a better doctor for his autism, and also displays the ways in which it makes his life more difficult. I enjoy that it doesn’t present autism as a negative, but also isn’t afraid to suggest that it does create some shortcomings. It is through this boldness that the show addresses some questions about autism that people might be afraid to ask, providing education to those unfamiliar with the condition. For example, we see that Shaun is able to recall more and more accurate information than many of the other doctors, but is also much less inclined to change his speech patterns depending on who he is talking to.
Aside from the focus this show brings to autism, there are many things about The Good Doctor that make it difficult to stop watching. The animation on the show is medically accurate and actually very interesting. Each time Shaun is thinking about a patient’s condition we see an animated diagram on the screen displaying the possible problems with the patient, alongside all the medical information. Aside from anything else this helps the viewers to understand the medical information in the show, and also to learn things. The characters are mostly well-developed, the storylines are often unpredictable, and there is enough storyline outside of the hospital setting to ensure the episodes do not feel dry or forced. All of these things keep a viewer interested and enable you to fully relax into the show. I applaud The Good Doctor for not only keeping me interested, but also keeping me learning.
Using graphics on-screen to show the way Shaun processes information is one of my favourite parts of the show. It also tells us that the way Shaun can visualise information in this way means that he has a better grasp than some of the other doctors in terms of the recall of intricate information and being able to recognise things other people miss. However, this way of thinking—photographic recall, mathematical processing and focus on information—does leave him with a slight deficit in other areas.
Shaun is portrayed as having difficulty communicating with not only the other doctors, but sometimes his patients. He can find it difficult to understand the appropriate tone for relaying information, as well as often becoming confused about why patients require empathy. Many people with autism find it difficult to communicate effectively all the time; indeed this is one of autism’s characteristics. However, The Good Doctor displays this in such a way that we can understand why Shaun is confused, and why he does speak so bluntly. In fact, in certain situations his factual brain does serve to provide clarity and balance to medical quandaries.
Throughout the show, Shaun is helped by his mentor, a fellow doctor and someone he met when he was very young and having problems at home. When Shaun becomes good friends with Claire, another doctor at his hospital, his mentor tells her she must find her own way to communicate with Shaun, and that there isn’t some magic formula. I found this particular scene resonated strongly with me. It stayed with me long after I watched the episode. The scene wasn’t particularly long, nor was it particularly colourful or action-filled. I remembered it simply because the idea rang true. For anybody, not just somebody with a condition like autism, you need to figure out their way of communicating, and create a connection that suits the two of you. Many of us don’t take the time to consider the thoughts of others when we are busy or at work. To really take a moment to think about this scene made me realise that this sentiment applies to us all.
I believe The Good Doctor should be praised for its representation of autism in this way. It demonstrates both the good and the bad aspects of Shaun’s diagnosis, showing that—just like the rest of the doctors on the team—Shaun is plagued by his strengths and weaknesses. If you have not yet seen it, I would recommend giving it a go. The first episode is high in drama and introduces Shaun’s painful past. It’s certainly enough to get you gripped!
Looking towards the future, not only do I hope for more seasons of this wonderful show, but I hope to see a wider and broader portrayal of characters with diagnoses such as autism in the mainstream media. I also hope to see this in shows where it is not the main focus, but simply one aspect of a multidimensional character.