TV characters with mental illness have had a long dearth, other than a few cases of showcasing issues like OCD or depression. Even the latter two didn’t pop up significantly on TV until the 21st century began. Despite mainstream familiarity with autism (thanks to 1988’s Rain Man), TV didn’t touch the subject, likely due to Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning performance.
We all saw TV finally take the plunge with The Good Doctor. No doubt the wait was also due to finding the right actor to portray autism realistically. There was initial skepticism about Freddie Highmore’s Dr. Shaun Murphy character, but now it’s being celebrated.
What did Highmore do to make the performance seem so real? The acting research was truly amazing.
It started by breaking down stereotypes
While we all remember Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt fondly, it more or less set a specific aura for people with autism that was a little too general. As autism increases in our culture, we see how it manifests in various subtle ways.
Playing someone with autism may mean exhibiting similar vocal cadences demonstrated by Hoffman. Yet, there’s so much more there to understand. TV audiences should be fortunate Highmore took extra research time to understand autistic people to the core.
Highmore and the producer TGD (David Shore) began their research by working directly with an autism consultant.
Researching autism became a huge undertaking
Highmore and Shore found out a lot more about autism than they probably planned. They discovered so much information, they exchanged notes with one another to make sure both were on the same page.
Their plan was to show Dr. Murphy’s innocence in the first season and then expand the character over time into more interesting territory. Perhaps this is why some criticized the show at first. Understandably, people expected a fuller picture of autistic nuance from the get-go.
Those who’ve stuck with The Good Doctor have seen the character develop and reveal more complexities about how autism manifests. In addition, Highmore and Shore made sure to remove numerous misconceptions about the general personalities of autistic people.
Removing the myth of autistic people being devoid of emotions
During the GMA interview, Highmore noted one important misconception about autism. Even though we all automatically equate them with being emotionless, it doesn’t mean they don’t have tremendous emotion under the surface.
This is obviously an important aspect to autism we all need to remember when we so often read people first by what’s on their faces.
Science shows us those with autism have abilities to read people and sense their emotions. As a result, it brings them a more acute ability to bring empathy to others. The Good Doctor is beginning to show us this each season while reminding real doctors empathy is the key to working successfully with patients.
Fortunately, ‘The Good Doctor’ isn’t ending anytime soon
News recently broke about The Good Doctor being renewed for a third season on ABC. Ratings keep improving each year, so it’s clear people are enjoying the portrayal and learning a lot about autism in each ensuing episode.
We even get to see the funny side of autistic people, something only briefly touched upon in Rain Man. TGD went into one interesting direction last season with Dr. Murphy getting high on a cannabis edible and how it affected his brain. Of course, this led to a million obvious jokes about the name Highmore.
With this being only one part of a bigger picture, we can’t wait to see what more Highmore brings to the role of Dr. Murphy. Let’s wish for more shows about complex mental illness, especially conditions we’ve hardly begun to understand or diagnose.