This morning I saw a really clear indication of how small autistic people look from down on Mount Olympus where the normal people live.
For me, the significance of The Good Doctor is that spreads stereotypes that increase my chances of dying alone. For Todd VanDerWerff, the significance is that “Its success suggests antihero TV’s time has come and gone.” Sigh…
Somewhat out of nowhere, the runaway sensation of the 2017 fall TV season is The Good Doctor, an ABC medical drama that has become the most-watched show on television, completely surprising just about everybody (up to and including people who work at ABC).
Granted, most TV observers expected the show to pull solid numbers, but for a variety of reasons, nobody expected it to top CBS’s The Big Bang Theory — once viewers on DVR and streaming services like Hulu are taken into account — or to come within a few tenths of a ratings point of topping Big Bang among younger viewers. For starters, it airs in the 10 pm Eastern hour, which is less watched in general. And it has little lead-in support, with the aging Dancing with the Stars airing right before it. What’s more, ABC has struggled in recent years to launch new shows, over-relying on older series like Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family.
The popularity means that the show does real harm, to the extent that it defines autism for the general public that I’ll be dealing with.
This was the passage that really struck me, though:
The more we understand about how the human brain works, the more the relationship between the neurotypical and those who perceive things differently becomes of interest to TV viewers, both casual and fervent. What’s more, this sort of relationship is exactly the sort of thing that tends to work on TV — where it can be examined and teased out over time — but is harder to portray on film, which has only a couple of hours in which to tell its story.
Highmore’s performance as Shaun Murphy has attracted some criticism, especially from autism advocates. And there are certainly times when it seems as if it’s one or two degrees removed from Dustin Hoffman’s over-the-top work in the 1988 movie Rain Man (still perhaps the most famous portrayal of autism onscreen).
But to some degree, The Good Doctor has a built-in defense against these criticisms, in that it is very, very slowly unveiling both Murphy’s autism and how it affects his view of the world and other people in his orbit. And in some ways, Murphy’s more rigid way of understanding the world drives much of what makes The Good Doctor stand out, about which more in a bit.
It’s just a minor detail that people with a personal connection to autism have problems with the show. We’re just props in other people’s stories.
I included the links from the original article. The first is by a disability blogger, about how the show infantilizes autistic people. The link that’s attributed to “autism advocates” (especially!) says the exact opposite:
Personally: I live with autism every day. My moderately verbal 4-almost-5 year old exhibits profound deficits in certain areas (expressive language, social/emotional skills, following directions, independent play, parallel play, imaginative play, etc).
He also exhibits profound successes – mainly in his memory, his recall, his ability to learn and generalize 3-D shapes (I still struggle with the difference between a square prism and a tetrahedron – but he knows and can point them out).
He also has an exceptional ear for music, cadence, phenomenal pitch, and can/will sing on key (and all this since before 2 years old). Like that ABBA song – he could sing long before he could talk.
Does that mean he has Savant Syndrome? Eh, I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe he’s just skilled at those things. Maybe he gets his musical abilities from me (I play by ear and hear harmonies in most music).
I think we won’t know the depth of his skills until he gets older.
But, while it’s a fun parlor trick to show off Jackson’s ability to point out a cylinder at a Starbucks, or proudly pronounce the 20-sided dice in the store is called an icosahedron – WHERE this ability will serve him, in the future, is really up in the air.
Her complaint is that the character on the show is too high-functioning. She works as an actor, which, from my experience of humanities types, means it’s socially acceptable to be innumerate and proud of that fact.
She can’t see how being amazing at 3D geometry could be useful in life! Every single thing related to computer graphics. Engineering…
I’m going to go there and say that’s a parenting failure. As an adult, it’s her job to know how the world works and relate that knowledge to her child’s interests and talents, to provide wise guidance. How can someone with her attitude cultivate a talent like that (“parlor trick”)?
Why is this lady’s ignorant fretting about her son’s future given more weight than autistic adults describing their life problems?
At the bottom of her article, she says:
I definitely see the irony in being the mother of a boy with autism and the voice who tells his/our story. My hope is that I never ascribe feelings to my son or attribute definitive intentions that he has not expressly verbalized. My goal is to describe my experience and what I observe. I would never claim to understand what it is like inside the head or heart of a person with autism – just as I would hope a mother of a neurotypical child would never claim to understand the experiences I have as a mother with a child on the spectrum
The top of her article said she was “liv[ing] with autism every day.” The ambiguity is intentional.
It could be that the TV critic wished to link criticism of The Good Doctor from “both sides.” More likely, the critic is only interested in autism as a somewhat-novel TV trope. I’d bet that he typed “the good doctor autism reviews” into Google and didn’t notice the difference. Otherwise, why would he refer to autism moms as the “autism advocates” in the same sentence that links to an actual autistic person. It’s a subtle but real endorsement of the autism moms over the autistic. The autistic person in question has an MA in disability studies, but their opinion is at best equivalent to an actress who can’t think of what geometry has to do with anything. That also makes the autistic person more similar to the character than the young child, so the opinion that the show is infantilizing should be given higher weight.
It’s very telling that the TV critic read what an autistic person had to say and wasn’t moved.
It’s implicit, but I can see very well that I’m a nonperson. I don’t think normal people have any concept of using the media and being reminded of their nothingness every single day.