We provide an audio version (linked below) as well as the transcript.
The following TRIGGER WARNINGS apply to this episode: discussion of medical issues, medical surgeries, medical terminology, animal cruelty, trauma references including abuse, bullying, and the death of loved ones, as well as stereotyping and generalization of Autism Spectrum Disorder. We do ask that if any of these things are triggering for you, do not continue to listen to this episode, and instead, check out some of the links that we provided in the bio of this recording
Okay, hello, and welcome to the month of April. It is Autism Awareness Month and we like to reframe that and say Autism Acceptance Month and we are going all to be reviewing The Good Doctor.
So this is a TV series about a person on the spectrum that is in a residency program. So the first thing I want to say is that the main character, Shaun Murphy, is played by Freddie Highmore. Now Freddie Highmore is not on the spectrum, however, we’re not going to be unpacking any controversy or anything surrounding that in this series, just because that’s not really our focus with this special piece for April. We want to look more at how the show is portraying Autism in general. What stigmas are they perpetuating? What are they doing good? What seems a little bit off and not so great? We’re just really going to lay those down.
I want to also add, keep in mind this is a medical drama so we’re not going to be discussing the millions of tropes that are throughout the series. We must say that episode 1 definitely had a lot of those. So without further ado, we’re going to go ahead and go into the pilot episode of The Good Doctor.
I will go ahead and add a TRIGGER WARNING for this: we will be discussing the elements in the first episode that deal with abuse and violence and animal cruelty, so if those things are triggering for you, we recommend not reading or listening past this point because we will be discussing those.
So in the opening scenes, he is getting ready to go to his interview to get into this residency program. The first thing that we noticed is he has everything laid out in a very particular way. He is super organized. He has a ritual that he’s going through getting ready, he’s doing his hair, he’s getting his clothes ready, everything’s folded super neatly.
Now even though that can be a stereotypical thing to think that if you are on the spectrum, you’re super organized and things are a certain way, they weren’t off in the sense that routine creates stability, but everybody’s routine looks different.
So for us, we have very specific things that we do for organizing our day. Another person on the spectrum might not do that at all, or they might have a completely different method. So that wasn’t something they did wrong in this opening sequence, it really just is one variation of many people on the spectrum.
So as they’re going through the scene, there are a lot of flashbacks. So through this episode, they do a lot of different flashback scenes to his life when he was a child, and this opening scene, he’s walking across a soccer field, and a ball lands by his feet that a kid had kicked towards him and he has a flashback to being beaten up while he was in school and being bullied and how his brother was protecting him during that time.
This is something that really resonated with us because being bullied seems to be very common for people on the spectrum because you’re seen as odd, you’re seen as different, you’re seen as weird. And that really puts a target on your head. We were homeschooled primarily, most of our childhood, and one of those reasons is when we did try public school one year, we were horrendously bullied to the point where we even had to have a year of physical therapy due to a dislocated shoulder that happened from being attacked at school and the one thing that, we didn’t have a sibling to protect us or anything like that, but there was another bully, a really scary person that was at our school, and when we were getting excessively bullied by so many people, he actually started protecting us from the other bullies. It was really kind of an odd dynamic to be protected by the bully from the other kids that were beating us up, and so that was really relatable that experience.
So we’re going to go ahead and skip ahead and he goes into riding a bus. Now, this really stood out for us because we’ve been on those big greyhound buses before. It is a nightmare, oh my gosh. Between the crowded compactness, managing the bus station. It’s really a difficult thing for us being Autistic, it was just such a struggle, and just to see them show that, even though his character wasn’t having a problem with it at the time, it just set up that idea of the sensory overload and the overload and the difficulties that can happen in different situations.
As soon as he walked into the airport, they did this echo-type overlay of the noise and all of the noise: the chaos, the people walking, things falling. That is a very good portrayal of what it’s like when you’re actually in it.
For us, because we’re not going to speak for everyone that’s Autistic, that’s exactly what it’s like. You walk into a room and every single noise you hear it in detail and it’s so overwhelming, which is one of the reasons why we use noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, everything. We try to drown out noise as much as possible because it’s so hard for us to maintain in a chaotic environment.
At this point, he’s in the airport and there’s this sudden accident that occurs. Let’s just be real for a minute. The medical tropes that they use, of course, you know what’s going to happen. He’s going to save the kid that gets in this accident at the airport. We’re not really going to discuss that in too much detail right now. We might talk about that later on in this series, just different things with the tropes that they apply, but we really just want to focus on this specific piece of them viewing Autism and how he’s reacting in this first episode.
They go to this board meeting and there’s a lot to unpack here, so the first thing they say: Autism is a mental condition and they start talking about how he’s going to have difficulty communicating, how it’s not going to work for him to do his residency there because he’s on the Autism spectrum and they use the term “high-functioning” as a defense like “He’s high-functioning.” High-functioning is really an insulting thing to say to somebody. We don’t like it, and we find it really offensive if somebody tells us, “Oh you’re so high-functioning,” because what that implies is that you are less than the majority of people in how they operate, but you’re doing great for what you have.
It brought to mind an instance that we had at work in the past, where a coworker walked up to us and said, “Oh my gosh, I want to hear more about you. How do you do all of this? I’m so blessed that I don’t have a disability like you.” First of all, the intention behind that statement was ignorance and the same goes when you say high-functioning.
Immediately you know this board of directors is going to be completely pushing back and not wanting him at their hospital because they view Autism as what they said, a mental condition which actually important to note, because we’ve had experiences where people actually think Autism Spectrum Disorder is a mental health condition. So we want to clarify something: it is a developmental disability. Now, I’m not going to comment on the neurodiversity piece of it and if it should be normalized. That’s really not something that we’re going to get into in this. We might share our opinion on that later on, but for the purposes of evaluating this show, we’re going to use the medical diagnosis, DSM terminology, just for the sake of consistency.
They are just misframing Autism. Now, this is not a problem with the show whatsoever, the way that they’re portraying this is very realistic. We’ve been in these situations before where we have worked places and heard these conversations that people have about other people’s disability status and sadly, regardless of if it’s okay or not, this happens. If you share and disclose your diagnosis, it becomes a topic of discussion in the leadership and it can impact whether you get hired and that’s exactly what’s happening here.
And the one thing that they go into that kind of really perpetuates the stigma that every person on the spectrum is a savant. So they said that he had savant syndrome and Autism. Again, very much stereotyping Autism. People will often assume that if you’re Autistic, you’re super smart, you are smarter than everyone, and you’re good at math and you’re good at numbers, and you’re good at all these analytical things. That’s stereotyping, generalizing. That’s not the case. Every person is different. Just like any person that is neurotypical is good at certain things, the same applies with people on the spectrum. So again, it’s a medical drama. It makes sense that they would add that in there, but I would say that is one thing that stood out as harmful because it perpetuates that stigma and it keeps barriers going.
[If you hear clicking it’s because I have notes on our laptop, so I’m scrolling as I talk because I want to make sure I hit every point]
Now we’re going to fast forward and he’s working on that accident in the airport, they’re going back, he’s helping this boy, and then they did kind of —if you’ve ever watched the show, Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and he has this mind palace and they portray that as a screen that comes up and there are all these pieces, they did that same kind of effect when Shawn is helping the boy.
I don’t have a problem with that, because it shows how some people may look at things. You might visualize it like that. I don’t necessarily feel that’s attributed only to people on the spectrum. I think that’s with anybody. You have a different way of processing information and you see it. So for us, with our cognitive delay, we’re not a visual person. We are very written. Write it down. Let us read it. And understanding those instructions. We really don’t do well with visualizing things.
And it did show how he cross-connected and referenced in different places in his mind as he was going through and I think, again, that’s just for TV and everyone’s different with how they would react in that situation. Again, it’s unrealistic for him to be helping this boy in the airport randomly, getting a knife, and opening his airway. It was interesting, though, because he goes up to this boy and he has to open the kid’s airway and he’s looking for a knife because there’s something wrong with his lung, and he goes up to one of the airport security, and he’s like, “I need a knife,” and he looks and there are all these confiscated knives on the side. First of all, I highly doubt in an airport, they’re going to just have them sitting out like that. If they’re confiscated, they’re not going to be reachable, but Shawn is trying to communicate that he needs it and the guard is like, “No.” The security officer is like, “No, you can’t have it.” So Shaun takes it and just darts and takes off. That is completely unrealistic, but the situation with the communication was really interesting because he knows what he needs, but he’s not telling the guard why, he’s just communicating like, “Here’s what I need.” And sometimes on the spectrum, we do this, too. We can communicate what we need but we can’t always explain why and it just depends on how you process information and for us with our cognitive delay, we process it slower so we will not always be able to articulate that in the moment, so that’s super relatable.
And then I’m going to go ahead and put a TRIGGER WARNING here because we’re going to be talking about the flashbacks of the abuses in his past. So I’m going to go ahead and put a trigger warning here and pause for a minute so that you guys can click off if you don’t want to hear this piece of it.
So now we get to a more intense piece of it where we see that his father was abusive and his father didn’t accept his Autism and there’s a scene that happens where his father is screaming at him and he actually kills his rabbit. He throws his rabbit against the wall and kills the rabbit. And Shaun is stimming and he’s really upset with everything going on. It’s really a sad reality that, growing up Autistic, sometimes your family won’t accept that. For us, in our experience, it’s a lot of, You have to be “normal” to society’s standards. You need to change this. No, don’t stim in public. No, you have to do this social nicety. No, you can’t say the first thing that comes into your head. No, You can’t ask that question. There’s a lot of masking that happens and that is so damaging and in Shawn’s case, it was clearly an abusive household.
So he and his brother end up leaving and they don’t go back home after the rabbit is killed by his father. And they put this scene right before they go back to the board and they’re talking about how Autism is an issue. He won’t have empathy. He won’t have sympathy. He won’t be able to communicate. And again that is a stigma. In this episode, I appreciated that they did not discuss it as fact. They showed a realistic portrayal of the conversations that happen when leadership is hiring and it’s good to bring that to the light. It’s important.
So going back to the trauma in his past, we see that he had the bully and his family and then to add on top of that, his father abusing him, to add on top of that, his brother who was his support dies at a very young age.
Moving down towards the end, there are 2 things that I want to end this on. Number one: he’s eating at the lunchroom waiting for his friend that is the one that is pushing for him to get this residency. One of the doctors that was rude to him before comes over and starts being nice to him. So we wrote this down. He asks her, “Why were you rude to me, and why are you nice now? Which time were you pretending?”
This is such a relatable conversation because we’ve been in this situation. We will just ask, “Okay so this happened, so which is the truth and which is not?” And it’s a perfect illustration of that social deciphering that a lot of Autistics don’t have. We don’t have that. We will just ask. We might not understand your reaction to us and we will ask and we’ve been in that circumstance where we’ll say, “Okay, why are you attacking right now?” or “Why did you say this last week and now you’re saying this?” Reading between the lines just doesn’t happen for us so we just really related to him asking that question just because we’ve been in that situation before. And he didn’t get an answer, by the way, so I’m hoping later on in the next few episodes, he’ll get an answer from her because we’re really curious what she’s going to say.
Now, it’s the end of the episode and he’s going in front of the board and they are like, “So why do you want to become a surgeon?’ The first thing: he does flashback to when his brother died and he witnessed that death and this is the part of it that really actually made us quite emotional and we’ll see if we can get through this without crying.
He said, “The day the rain smelled like ice cream. My bunny went to heaven right in front of my eyes. When the air smelled like copper and burnt food, my brother went to heaven right in front of my eyes. I couldn’t save them, and it’s sad because they should’ve become adults and they never were able to,” and he says that he wants to help people because everyone deserves to have that chance that his brother and his bunny didn’t have.
So the thing about it is, attributing smells to events, that was just a really good detail they added. We do that where certain smells will trigger memories of certain things, whether those are negative or positive and so that was what he said to the board. And then it got really funny at the end because all of that is so emotional then he ends with, “And I want to make a lot of money so I can buy a television.” That is really a great example of something like we do. We could be in the middle of a completely emotional conversation, something super upsetting, and then something will just pop into our head and we’re like, “Oh yeah and by the way, we want to buy this,” or “Oh, and we want to go here.” It might be completely unrelated to what we just said before, but just the portrayal of that, we just really loved that.
Okay, so we’ve kind of broken down some of the elements of the episode that we wanted to talk about and now we’re going to do a little summary at the end. Firstly, the one thing we want to point out is Shaun not only is on the spectrum, but he also has significant trauma. As we watch the series, we’re going to break down some of that and talk about the comorbidity of trauma with Autism. This is something we experience ourself, so we’re really going to focus on different elements of that through this series that we’re doing. So again, we will trigger warn everything and please, if anything in this episode was triggering, please don’t continue to watch this series, listen to this series. We don’t want to trigger anyone, but we really thought this was just an important thing to break down this month.
So the other thing of it, too, is we didn’t hate it. We were really worried that we weren’t going to like it and that’s because with all of these controversial things going on with people in film portraying Autism on screen and it just being atrocious, we were super concerned about this, but we were pleasantly surprised.
Overall, our feelings of the first episode: we liked certain elements of it, we’re curious about what they’re going to do better next time, and we really enjoyed it. We’d like to hear your thoughts if you’ve seen The Good Doctor, leave some comments, and as always, we are always interested in hearing your thoughts, and have a wonderful rest of your week and we will see you on the next episode of We Review The Good Doctor, Ep. 2.