Autism on TV

Autism on TV
by Rev. Jason Forbes
Jericho Road Disability Advocate

In 2017, disabilities received more attention from TV producers with shows such as the sitcom Speechless featuring a main character with cerebral palsy. Late in the same year, two other productions have been released featuring characters who are high functioning on the autistic spectrum – Atypical and The Good Doctor. But it should be asked, how well do these shows reflect the nature of autism, and the experience of living with disability (either as someone with a disability, or someone caring for someone with a disability – perhaps both)? To really appreciate the merits (and demerits – and there are a few), we’ll discuss both shows and compare them to each other.

Atypical is a Netflix production featuring Sam Gardner (played by Keir Gilchrist) from Connecticut who is high functioning on the autistic spectrum, and is 18 years old. Sam works part-time in an electronics retailer and is in senior high school. While Sam is more observant than most people and is obsessive about detail, he has difficulty socialising, is unable to recognise sarcasm, or follow social etiquette. Sam lives with his mother Elsa (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), father Doug (played by Michael Rapaport), and sister Casey (played by Brigette Lundy-Paine), who, as a family unit, are on the brink of dysfunctionality, and could fall apart at any given moment. Hence, the show is categorised under the genres coming-of-age, dark comedy, and dramedy (no, I hadn’t heard of that genre either).

For me, as a form of entertainment, it’s just not grabbing me. The acting is less than convincing, the plot is superficial, shallow and predictable. The presentation of autism is also very stereotypical and, in some ways, disjointed. One wonders if the character Sam was inspired by a medical textbook than any real-life examples. But there was something about Atypical that bugged me, and I didn’t know what until I watched The Good Doctor.

The Good Doctor is a US medical drama centred around the main character Dr. Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore) – a young man who is high functioning on the autistic spectrum and also has savant syndrome. The show features flashbacks to his childhood growing up in a dysfunctional family who were unable to respond constructively to Shaun’s autism and his experience. In his teens he grew up in poverty after running from home being cared for by his brother who dies young. Shaun lives alone in a sparsely furnished flat. His ‘atypical mind’ makes him a brilliant doctor allowing him to diagnose problems and find solutions when no one else can. However, his bedside manner and social interaction is less than desirable creating issues for patients and fellow staff. It’s this complexity that gives the plot depth – real depth. It’s not just Shaun who needs to adjust and make allowances for his autism, but it’s also the people around him. The show captures the different responses people have towards Shaun’s autism from die-hard supporters to outright detractors with all their prejudices and discrimination. Some accept Shaun in some roles while not accepting him in other roles. There is a continual tension between Shaun’s potential and other people’s unwillingness to provide him with opportunities which Shaun must overcome with persistence. This is what makes the show interesting to watch.

This is what also separates The Good Doctor from Atypical. The Good Doctor has an emphasis on the social model of disability. That is, instead of seeing the person with the disability as having something wrong with them that needs to be fixed, attention is given to how well the person gets along in their environment and how others are responding to their differences. Meanwhile, Atypical emphasises a medical approach to disability. Sam is very much presented as someone who needs to be fixed, and whose life needs to be managed to avoid any autistic meltdowns. This is portrayed through regular meetings with a therapist to process and prepare for social interactions, and an overprotective mother concerned about Sam’s alleged limitations. This seems out of place for a character who is otherwise self-sufficient. The fact that his mother would be worried about the bright lighting in a clothes shop affecting Sam would seem inconsistent with his job working for an electronics retailer. The world around Sam is presented as largely hostile towards people with autism. Those who do accept Sam seem to be blissfully ignorant of his autism, or know him to such an extent that his autism is no longer an issue for them. There are no characters other than Sam and his family grappling with autism. To this extent, autism is presented in a burden which the family has had to carry, and has taken a toll. Again, the toll seems exaggerated for someone who is so high functioning. Even the show’s title ‘Atypical’ (which is just a politically correct way of saying ‘abnormal’) draws attention to Sam’s deficit. This is quite a contrast to The Good Doctor which is positive in celebrating Shaun’s ability by title.

Atypical does redeem itself, slightly, with an emphasis on ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. Atypical is very much about a young man discovering who he is in relation to his family, to others, and to himself – discovering his own interests, concerns, and aspirations. These are the areas where relationships form and people can be equally valued, regardless of ability or disability. Which brings me to one of my criticisms of The Good Doctor. Shaun increasingly becomes a valued member of the medical team not because of who he is (‘being’), but because of what he can do. His worth is based on his utility. The difficulty with this is it creates a precedent for accepting people with disabilities when they are able to contribute. The cold, hard reality is, for many people with disabilities, and particularly for many with autism, they are not able to contribute in a constructive way. So, for these people, The Good Doctor does nothing to enhance their value in society. If anything, by valuing those who can make a constructive contribution, it inadvertently devalues those who can’t.

My other criticism of both shows is whether they reflect the reality of autism in most cases. This is not to say that someone with autism can’t be high functioning, or can’t be a surgeon. But it is to say such cases of autism are not typical representations. Hence, for those not acquainted with autism, these shows can give a false impression of life with autism. The limitations and needs of a person with autism are as unique as the individual. Some are high functioning who can self-provide for their needs. Others are low functioning and require their needs to be met by others. Given the presentation of high functionality, this can also cause grief for parents of children with autism knowing that their child will never do the things being portrayed.

These shows present a narrow view of life with autism, and this is a limitation of entertainment media. It’s very difficult to capture the diverse experience of autism or disability in one character. So these shows cannot be viewed as the “be all and end all” for understanding the experience of autism or disability. To some extent, these shows misrepresent the impact autism can have on those around the person. But these are shows great for raising the awareness of autism, starting conversations around autism and disability generally and the experience that comes with them, and providing an opportunity to discuss other aspect of autism.

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