ABC’s “The Good Doctor”


Those who have read my previous writings will know that I have been critical of Autism portrayals in Hollywood. Grey’s Anatomy’s Dr. Virginia Dixon was (in my view) the worst of any Hollywood portrayal I have ever seen. I am convinced the writers based her representation on a list of symptoms from WebMD and an article about Dr. Temple Grandin. I suppose you could say that I was “triggered” by Dr. Dixon’s evident inability to recognize when the parents of a brain-dead patient might not want to be overwhelmed with all of the details as to why their beloved daughter’s life has been cut short.

Multiple publications have praised a new ABC drama titled “The Good Doctor” as a program which sheds light on Autism. The show’s protagonist is Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore.) He is a surgeon who lives with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Some articles have indicated that he also has Savant syndrome. The first five episodes of the series have made it abundantly clear that Shaun lived a troubled childhood. His father was an abusive alcoholic. His brother was tragically killed in a fall from the roof of a train car, which he and his friends were playing on. 

It is encouraging to see a positive depiction of someone who lives with a neurological condition which affects no two people in exactly the same way. I am not at all denying that people are becoming more educated and aware that Autism is real. I am genuinely grateful for the many folks who continue to fight the good fight. I am also thankful for the writer’s attempt to convey a message that it is possible for someone who is on the Autism Spectrum to pursue a successful career in a field they are passionate about. 

That being said, I can see why some people take issue with Hollywood portrayals of Autism. It all goes back to the clear difference between fantasy and reality. Hollywood loves to misrepresent neurological disorders. A high paying job like one held by Freddie Highmore’s character is merely a fantasy for many people who have an ASD. I’ve read horror stories about employers who were far from willing to make accommodations based on the person’s needs. 

Hollywood’s continued support Autism Speaks is another primary reason why some take issue with the film and television industry’s representations of the disorder. The fact is, this organization does little to nothing with regards to providing real support for individuals and their families. Their primary focus is on the highly controversial search for a cure. They primarily cater towards families with children and provide little to no support for adults. ASD does not end after high school. It is a lifelong struggle with its own set of challenges in every phase of the individual’s life. 

As stated in an earlier paragraph, there are some high points to the character that is Dr. Shaun Murphy. However, my biggest complaint thus far would be the scenes where they portray Shaun as someone with apparent social ineptitude. I can partially forgive it because he had a troubled childhood and lacked an adult figure who could teach him proper social boundaries. I am currently willing to trust the writers will not go the route of portraying him as a man who somehow thinks his diagnosis automatically entitles him to a get out of jail free card when people call him out on social behavior which violates necessary boundaries. 

(The episode “Pipes” proves my point. Shaun wakes up his landlord after midnight to give him a list of repairs to be done around his apartment.) 

There are a few things I would like to see in future episodes of “The Good Doctor.” I know several people who work in hospitals. One must have a thick skin and be able to cope with any situation that can cause stress. My question is, how would a character like Shaun respond to a crisis situation in the hospital? An answer to that question would most likely depend on what type of crisis I am referring to. Any kind of situation which disrupts the typical day to day operations of the fictional St. Bonaventure hospital would give us a glimpse into how Shaun reacts to stressful situations which disrupt his routine. 

All in all, I do look forward to seeing more episodes of The Good Doctor. I think Shaun is a likable character with tremendous potential as a surgeon. I hope the writers, and fans of this show, will take my above concerns into account. 

 

Advertisements

The Challenges of Portraying Autistic Spectrum Disorders


If you love television, you may (or may not) like what I am about to say in this post. It’s funny how many of these television shows that depict people with disabilities have this way of making the average viewer think that the things they see on television are accurate and true. When they encounter a person or situation in life which reminds them of a certain television show, they utter some variation of the following phrase.

“Wow! This is just like what I saw on __________!”

For the record, I actually enjoy a lot of those crime and hospital dramas. I have to admit that the actors are good at making it look real to the average person. They also raise awareness about the emotional impact that such devastating circumstances can have on people. However, I watched a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy that I thought were horribly misrepresented of Asperger’s Syndrome. It was the three episodes from Season 5. Mary McDonnell played Dr. Virginia Dixon, a surgeon who happened to be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. From her very first scene in “These Ties That Bind”, I could tell that her character was going to be a walking stereotype. She never looked the other doctors in the eye, then started to name useless facts about the history of a piggy back transplant. She was also a stickler for “scientific” medical terms, which is very childish in and of itself.

Hetero-topic transplant! Piggyback is a colloquial name for the procedure!

Don’t do that!

(whispers) Don’t do that!

It is very common for movies and television shows to portray people on the spectrum as intelligent, but socially inept. The next several scenes made that incredibly clear. Dr. Dixon took unapologetic, blunt and socially inept to a whole new level. I am going to briefly describe several scenes where she did just that! The first example was an interaction with patient Clay Bedonie. Six years prior, he underwent a piggyback transplant. The patient wanted his donor heart back because he felt “haunted” by the new one.

Dr. Dixon:

Clay Bedonie, are you aware that without the donor heart, you will live a short life attached to a machine while dying a sudden and agonizing death?

This particular scene was nothing compared to the others I am going to discuss. Dr. Dixon refused to acknowledge or respect the patient’s religious and spiritual beliefs. (Clay Bedonie was a Navajo!) She stated several times that she only puts faith in science. Please, tell me I am not the only person who believes that this would be a very unprofessional example for anyone who desires to pursue a medical career. Simply put, there is a time and a place where it is acceptable to debate religious or spiritual beliefs. I do not have a medical degree, but I am old enough to know that interacting with a patient in any healthcare profession is not the time or the place!

The next episode featuring Dr. Dixon showed what can happen when a “clueless aspie” fails to show respect and understanding for the patient’s family when they face the devastating news that their loved one has died.

Patient Holly Anderson was involved in a car accident with Emma, her sister. Upon arriving at the hospital, the two bickered because Holly was texting while driving her father’s car. Dr. Alex Karev noticed that her eyes started to turn a strange red color as a result of brain matter leaking through her nose. She was then admitted into an operating room. “Good! Take her away! I hope she dies!” Emma yelled this as they rushed her away. Holly died on the operating table of a carotid dissection. Dr. Dixon made the typical aspie mistake of standing up in front of the family and going into graphic detail about the failed procedure. I transcribed this incredibly awkward scene here.

Dr. Dixon: I’m very sorry for your loss, but tests confirm that although your sister’s bodily functions are fine, her brain is dead. She has no thoughts, no emotions, no senses. I’m Dr. Dixon, I will be harvesting your sister’s organs, if your parents agree.

Mr. Anderson: Please, she’s our baby. We need more time.

Dr. Dixon: I’m very sorry for your loss, but her organs are young and vital. They could save many lives.

(Emma wheels over to Holly and begs for her to wake up.)

Dr. Dixon: I’m very sorry for your loss, but your sister can’t wake up. Her basic functions are gone. Her brain is dead. Her body is alive, but unfortunately, unfortunately, she is dead.

(Emma angrily demands for Dr. Dixon to leave. Meredith then politely asks her to leave the room.)

I cannot imagine what it would feel like to see my loved one dying on a hospital bed after a tragic accident. Combine the shear devastation with the added aggravation of having to deal with a socially inept doctor who is overwhelming me with the details about why my loved one is brain-dead. If I were in this situation, I can only hope that I would not end up smacking her right in the face! Believe it or not, those of us with Asperger’s Syndrome are more than capable of recognizing, understanding and expressing human emotions. It is part of learning these things the neurotypical calls “social skills.” Like riding a bike or playing the piano, it takes practice to master.

I look back on these scenes and I realize one thing. Most intelligent people know that this is not an authentic portrayal of Asperger’s Syndrome! (They know that Autism is a neurological disorder, not a disease like Tuberculosis or AIDS. Amount and severity of symptoms varies in each person.) It shows stereotypical resemblance to classic Autism combined with the physical ability to communicate verbally. I don’t expect others to use the same words and terms that I am accustomed to using. I don’t throw temper tantrums after being hugged by someone who I don’t particularly have the interest sharing such a personal interaction with. I am able to understand when a certain time or place is not appropriate for debate about beliefs and opinions. Furthermore, I do have feelings and emotions. I just communicate them in ways that are only somewhat different from everyone else.

I have yet to see one portrayal that does not put such strong emphasis on stereotypical symptoms and mannerisms, and that does allow the individual to reach their full potential. This is just one thing that will change people’s perceptions about Autistic Spectrum Disorders and about disability in general.