‘The Good Doctor’: Does the Show Give People With Autism ‘False Hope’?

Ever since The Good Doctor debuted  in 2017, a variety of people have praised its portrayal of Shaun Murphy, a surgeon with autism played by Freddie Highmore. However, not everyone agrees with that portrayal.

One person on Reddit  who said he or she was on the autistic spectrum gave a host of reasons that the show did a disservice to autistic people. However, other people, including at least one on the spectrum, defended the show for humanizing people with autism. 

The case against ‘The Good Doctor’ 

Freddie Highmore and Paige Spara on The Good Doctor
Freddie Highmore and Paige Spara | David Bukach via Getty Images

One person criticizing the show on Reddit wrote:

“This show gives (false hope) to autistic people. What’s next? Autistic FBI agent? Or autistic spy? That s*it simply wouldn’t fly in the real world. If you’re on the spectrum, you’re lucky if you get a job picking up trash or brooming the streets (which as robots advance, will be taken from you anyway). You will never get any high paying and respectable job.”

This person also criticized The Good Doctor for representing people with autism as hyper-intelligent saintly types.

The Reddit post doesn’t mention it, but there’s probably a portion of the population that hears “autism” and thinks that means Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man — a kindly soul who can’t process the real world but has otherworldly counting skills.

Even a person not well-versed in the condition can probably tell you there’s more to autism than being able to count cards in Las Vegas. 

“Do such people on the spectrum actually exist? Yes, but it’s incredibly rare just like we don’t have Einsteins running everywhere. More common are people who aren’t always truthful and have average intelligence,” one person responded. 

The case for ‘The Good Doctor’ 

Other posters on Reddit leaped to the show’s defense, pointing out that autism is a spectrum, meaning the condition manifests itself in a lot of different ways. Just because the show portrays one kind doesn’t mean all autistic people are that one kind. 

“Is the show realistic? I mean, probably not. But every autistic person is different, and you can’t really make blanket statements about how bleak everything is for all of them,” said one person replying to the thread. 

A person with Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of autism, said that they were high-functioning and work as a district manager for a finance company. The person avoids making eye contact and is terrible at making small talk, “But damn if my memory and problem solving skills don’t come in handy in my line of work.”

How has the show handled concerns?

The show works with autism consultant Dr. Melissa Reiner, who was brought in by the producers to guide Freddie Highmore’s performance so that his portrayal wouldn’t come across as a caricature. She has received numerous emails from people with autism and she says,

“Every email speaks to how important, The Good Doctor, is to them. It shows each of us that we are not alone and that we can overcome obstacles. These are the self-advocates who strive and grow and prevail.”

However, a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter by a trio of doctors, who also considered performances by Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory and Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock, criticized Hollywood for usually portraying characters with autism as “White male geniuses.” 

“By transcending the awkward white male genius trope, Hollywood can begin to more accurately represent all autistic people, showing that’s there’s more than one end to the autism spectrum.” they wrote. 

That’s not to say The Good Doctor doesn’t try to get its portrayals right. The show took care in how it depicted Shaun Murphy’s complicated romantic life when he seemed to be making a play for one romantic partner but made a surprise switch to another. 

Representation matters, although sometimes representation itself is not enough. Just as there a spectrum of autism, there is a spectrum of opinions about how well The Good Doctor handles it.

Wherever one falls on the debate, there is value in the conversation.