The new ABC series “The Good Doctor” centers on a young surgeon with autism — and the character is already controversial.
“It’s like ‘Green Mile.’ He’s a magical creature that comes into everyone’s lives and changes things by being so simple but so wise,” said Forrest Pitt, a Salt Laker who was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome when he was 11.
Pitt was among those in a small group at Westminster — including people diagnosed with autism; a parent of a child with autism; and an expert in the field — who watched the “Good Doctor” pilot with the Tribune TV critic. “The Good Doctor” (Mondays, 9 p.m., ABC/Ch. 4) is the first network show that revolves around a character with autism, but it‘s part of a growing trend in television.
In the first episode of “The Good Doctor,” which premiered Sept. 25, Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) is just out of medical school and on his way to join the staff of a San Jose hospital.
There’s an accident in the airport and he ends up saving a life. But there’s still a huge debate at the hospital about whether someone with autism can be a surgeon, which struck our viewing group as rather offensive.
“They only listened once they saw he was useful,” said Lane Twitchell, 35, whose 6-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism. “Otherwise, he would just be no different from a homeless person on the street.”
The show’s executive producer, David Shore (“House”), insists he and the writing staff did enormous amounts of research.
“We saw a lot of documentaries. We consulted with people,” he said. “We’ve got people on the spectrum who we’re working with. We did a lot of consultation.”
Maybe too much research? Shamby Polychronis, an assistant professor in the special-education program at Westminster College who specializes in teaching teachers how to work with students on the autism spectrum, didn’t find the character particularly believable.
“In any characterization of somebody with autism, I think they overdo it and they use a checklist,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Yup, social aloofness. Yup, sensory processing issues. Yup, a childlike demeanor.’”
And on down the list, including when Shaun perceives something differently. Like when he talks about rain smelling like ice cream or copper pipes smelling like burnt food.
That is “very uncommon” for people with autism, “so he got the motherlode of uncommon characteristics,” Polychronis said with a laugh. “Most people that I know on the spectrum have one, two, maybe three of the characteristics. Not all.”
She pointed to Pitt, who “has some checks in his boxes, but they’re not all checked.”
“No,” Pitt replied. “Rain does not smell like ice cream. Although that would be cool.”
It’s not exactly realistic that Shaun is both aloof and incredibly perceptive.
“In my experience, I haven’t met a lot of people who are both,” Polychronis said.
Shaun, however, is far from the worst character with autism on television.
“Usually when I see autistic people portrayed in the media, their personalities are exaggerated,” said Michael Rupert, a 21-year-old from Salt Lake who was diagnosed with autism when he was in elementary school. “This was better, but not perfect.”
The group gave the show’s writers credit for attempting to portray the character’s different ways of perceiving the world. They also related to a scene in which Shaun was in the room with hospital board members and they ignored him.
“The treated him like a piece of furniture,” said Pitt, who added that happened to him when he was younger and teachers, principals or therapists “were talking to my parents about me, and I’d just sort of become invisible in the room.”
They also feel there are opportunities lost in “The Good Doctor.” In one scene, Dr. Aaron Glassman (Richard Schiff, “The West Wing”) makes an impassioned speech about how people with autism have much to contribute and are being denied opportunities — just as African Americans and women were once denied opportunities. And one doctor takes great offense, saying, “Are you comparing me being African American and her being a woman to him being autistic?”
“What they could have done with that!” Polychronis said. “It is the same.”
“They tossed the ball and no one ever caught it,” Pitt said.
Polychronis was also somewhat distressed that there was so much emphasis on Shaun’s limitations and so little on his gifts.
“Why the hell do you even have to explain to a board of directors your hire, just because he’s on the spectrum,” she said. “I fully anticipate a lot of specialists, the higher up they go, are more likely to be on the spectrum. So celebrate it.”
While Shaun Murphy has every trait known to autism, he’s also been through the wringer, including being bullied by other kids, as depicted in flashback scenes.
“Unfortunately, that is something that is accurately portrayed,” Polychronis said.
“The reality is that people on the spectrum are probably harassed, bullied and violently attacked at 10 times the rate everyone else is,” Polychronis said.
Daniel Dae Kim (“Hawaii Five-0”), an executive producer who obtained the rights to the Korean show on which “The Good Doctor” is based, pointed out that there hasn’t been “an autistic character on a network broadcast show as the lead, and autism affects 1 in 68 Americans.”
He argued that it is “important … to be able to start this dialogue.”
But that’s a double-edged sword.
“That’s tough,” Twitchell said. “Is it better to have too much of this idea of what autism is as opposed to no idea at all?”
“Even if it’s a good stereotype, you’ve created a new stereotype,” Pitt said. “It’s like if you went and saw some crappy, 1970s portrayal of Harlem, and you just assume every black guy I’m ever going to see is going to be exactly like that.”
There have been other characters with autism on TV — on “St. Elsewhere,” “Boston Legal,” “Community” and “Parenthood,” just to name a few — although generally in supporting roles. The exception is the Netflix series “Atypical,” which began streaming in August. It centers on Sam (Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old high school senior with autism who is determined to find a girlfriend.
A large majority of TV characters with autism are male, but that reflects reality because “the male-female ratio is statististically significant,” according to Polychronis.
The “Good Doctor” producers and cast went out of their way to emphasize that the title character “can never … represent everyone who is living with autism,” Highmore said.
But as one of the few autistic characters on TV, that’s almost inevitable. The same was true 29 years ago with “Rain Man” — many moviegoers were left with the impression that everyone on the spectrum is a savant like Dustin Hoffman’s character.
That was a “downside” to the film, said Polychronis; moviegoers assumed everyone with autism was a savant, and it‘s actually about 10 percent.
As with many television pilots, characters are drawn in broad strokes to introduce them and the show’s premise to viewers. Whether there are more subtlety and more reality in future episodes remains to be seen.
“My hope is that they use [the pilot] to kind of just grab them, and then they work at addressing it on a much more universal and complete level,” said Twitchell.
“If they don’t use it to be a better platform to talk about issues relating to autism, all they’re doing is a disservice,” Pitt said.
The “Good Doctor” pilot left them unconvinced.
“It’s sympathy porn,” Pitt said. “You feel bad, and then you feel good because you felt bad.”