By: Anuj Vaid, Board Certified Autism Technician
ABC’s new hit TV show The Good Doctor which premiered Sept. 25th, 2017 has everyone thrilled to experience Dr. Shawn Murphy’s (played by Freddie Highmore) experience as an autistic surgical resident. Aside from the remarkable medical case presentations and ethical dilemmas the show presents, it’s exciting to see an accurate portrayal of autism spectrum disorder in popular media. Seeing first hand the challenges an individual with ASD experiences as well as the advantages their disorder brings to them brings more awareness about the disorder and creates great dialogue about social and behavioral confrontations individual with ASD face.
A recent study evaluated characters with ASD in media ranging from movies to TV shows to see if there was an accurate portrayal of the symptoms typically seen according to DSM-5 descriptions (the book doctors use to diagnose ASD). It was concluded that the representations evaluated aligned well with DSM-5 criteria . The larger concern brought up by the researchers and stand true for Dr. Shawn Murphy is that the portrayal is too stereotypical. It’s important to understand that the way no two people are alike in their personality or behavior, no two individuals with ASD are alike either. Symptoms range so widely, that the disorders name includes the term “spectrum” to emphasis the range of behaviors seen in autistic individuals. Next time you see Dr. Murphy pacing back and forth and ruffling his hair, remember it’s not true for all individuals with ASD.
Aside from Autism, Dr. Murphy also has savant syndrome which allows him to have far greater intellectual ability as compared to his fellow residents. ASD is tagged with savant syndrome around 50% in media, even though actual incidence of savant syndrome and ASD in an individual is closer to 10% . This means that not everyone with ASD is likely to possess extraordinary intellectual abilities, but those that do, provide an enrichment in their profession that’s unmatched. It’s no wonder we see many characters in the show get jealous of Dr. Murphy’s intelligence.
At the end of season one we see just how narrowly focused and strict for rules Dr. Murphy is. For example, Dr. Murphy was determined to find Dr. Glassman’s brain tumor treatment, even after multiple images and consultations with other neurosurgeons. He drew multiple scenarios all over the walls, going over all possibilities no matter how unlikely it was. Of course, as television drama’s go, Dr. Murphy was correct in his assumptions, but his obsession for Dr. Glassman’s care can be attributed to ASD symptoms. Even the last mins of the season, where Dr. Murphy is ready to report himself for his mistake, we observe that he experiences no grey areas for the predicament he’s in. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that makes Dr. Murphy such a great resident. When it comes to moral judgment, he’s very decisive, even when it means he could lose the career he’s worked so hard for.
With the shows renewal confirmed, Dr. Murphy’s future lies waiting to be uncovered with season two’s release. With the production team’s accurate portrayal of autism, we’re excited to see how well Dr. Murphy reacts to other situations he’ll face, and if other TV shows and movies will follow in displaying mental disorders in their story line bringing more awareness and discussion in the population.
 Nordahl-Hansen, A., Tøndevold, M., & Fletcher-Watson, S. (2018). Mental health on screen: A DSM-5 dissection of portrayals of autism spectrum disorders in film and TV. Psychiatry Research, 262, 351-353. Retrieved April 13, 2018.