Is ‘The Good Doctor’ Realistic? How the Show’s Portrayal of Autism Compares to Real Life

ABC’s The Good Doctor tells the story of a surgeon-in-training who has autism, and the many challenges he faces as a doctor due to his disability.

Every medical drama junkie knows these shows exaggerate for dramatic effect. But how much of the show is fictional — and how much is surprisingly accurate?

Does The Good Doctor get autism right?

The Good Doctor
The Good Doctor | ABC

Kerry Magro, a motivational speaker and author who is also on the autism spectrum, shared her thoughts on the show’s portrayal of the disorder on the Autism Speaks blog after it first premiered.

She wrote: “Freddie does well in his debut, showing several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis. These characteristics include things such as social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, playing with his hands during stressful situations … still something I do to this day.”

Dr. Arshya Vahabzadeh, a psychiatrist and autism specialist, offered a few criticisms of the show — speaking especially to the difficulties of portraying varying degrees of disability through one main character.

“I think it’s great that a program highlights a character with autism in a professional career…[but]…autism is a huge spectrum,” he said. “The overly robotic nature of the character we see in the show doesn’t hold true for many people I know with autism.”

Autism is medically called autism spectrum disorder because it varies from mild to severe. Every individual with autism displays different characteristics, challenges, and abilities.

Put simply, viewers shouldn’t assume Shaun Murphy is an accurate portrayal of all people with autism. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t accurately represent many common characteristics of the disorder.

The Good Doctor: Is savant syndrome real?

The show adds another unique element to put an unexpected spin on the otherwise familiar medical drama format. In addition to portraying an autistic doctor, Freddie Highmore also introduces audiences to an unexpected phenomenon called savant syndrome.

This condition appears alongside Shaun’s disability and gives him a photographic memory — and an almost advantage over his fellow medical residents (though it comes with plenty of disadvantages, too).

Savant syndrome is a real phenomenon that occurs in people on the autism spectrum and sometimes in those with other developmental disabilities, allowing them to gain abnormal intelligence in specific areas such as memory. Dr. Vahabzadeh cautions, however, that this is extremely rare — especially to the extreme degree Shaun experiences it.

It’s possible for someone on the autism spectrum to be exceptionally gifted. It’s very unlikely that someone with autism who is also a talented musician or has memorized unusual amounts of information has savant syndrome. But it does add something to the show, allowing Shaun to make medical predictions and recommend treatments his fellow doctors may not have otherwise considered.

 Can someone with autism really become a doctor?

A team performs surgery.
A team performs surgery. | Jacoblund/iStock/Getty Images

Theoretically, yes. The pilot episode of the show even brings this up as hospital administrators argue about whether or not a person with autism could communicate or empathize well enough with patients to provide adequate care.

But according to Darold A. Treffert, M.D. — who was a consultant on the movie Rain Man, an earlier story of someone with autism and savant syndrome — whether or not someone with autism could become a doctor would depend on where they fell on the spectrum.

Autism can range from severe to mild. Someone high-functioning, such as Shaun Murphy, could successfully complete medical school and a residency program and go on to practice or teach medicine. Something The Good Doctor portrays well are the challenges someone in that position might face — such as behaving appropriately in front of patients and to their superiors.

There are individuals with autism who complete PhDs, write books, run successful businesses, and more. Because every person on the spectrum is different, it’s impossible to generalize the possibilities. But to say it’s impossible simply wouldn’t be fair to anyone determined to try.