The following is a blog written by Yuval Levental. In previous blogs Yuval has described himself as follows: I am a person on the autism spectrum who critically analyzes autism advocacy. I hold a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Michigan State University and a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering from ESIEE Paris. Other hobbies of mine include recreationally solving complex math puzzles, traveling, eating new foods, and learning about different cultures.
The Good Doctor’s Premise is Unlikely, but Dr. Shaun Murphy is no Mythical Autistic “Superman”
When I watched Atypical, a Netflix series about an autistic high schooler, I was disappointed. The main character easily passed as normal in most cases, did well academically, and could hold a part-time technical support job which requires good social skills (http://autismgadfly.blogspot.com/2017/08/atypical-typical-hollywood-presentation.html). This is in contrast to multiple studies that show that unemployment for autistic individuals on the whole is much higher than average (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/04/21/401243060/young-adults-with-autism-more-likely-to-be-unemployed-isolated). The main character had difficulties with understanding appropriate behavior, but they were comparatively minimal and sparse. Personally, I found that Netflix series to be uninteresting and irrelevant.
Based on what I heard about The Good Doctor, I thought that it was going to simply be about another mythical autistic superman. Episode one of The Good Doctor also seemed to live up to this unrealistic caricature, with Dr. Shaun Murphy, the autistic doctor, being able to solve a complex medical problem in a matter of minutes, and also outsmarting far more experienced doctors in his endeavors. He then gets hired at St. Bonaventure Hospital in San Jose, California, thanks to the efforts of the hospital president, Dr. Aaron Glassman (https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-good-doctor-2017&episode=s01e01). I then showed a couple episodes of this show to my mother, who works as a nurse at a hospital. She said that it is unlikely that Dr. Murphy would be hired by a hospital, because his reaction time at work is too slow, and he doesn’t talk fast enough. Additionally, an autistic medical resident in real life named Dr. Martin Jakubowski was denied residency because his social skills weren’t strong enough (http://autismgadfly.blogspot.com/2017/09/life-didnt-imitate-good-doctors-art-in.html). Based on this perception, it seems that the show’s premise is not realistic.
On a tangential note, Dr. Murphy works on a team with several non-autistic doctors, and significant parts of most episodes are dedicated to their stories. So the main story isn’t always about the hypothetical outcomes of the autistic doctor, which distracts from the show’s intended focus.
However, in the following episodes, Dr. Murphy’s weaknesses are visible and lead to real consequences. In episode two, he overreacts during the medical discharges which he performs, such as giving a perfectly healthy patient an unnecessary MRI, and also failing to tell another healthy patient that he will be fine, telling him that anyone could “drop dead of a heart attack at any time”. As a result, Dr. Murphy gets warned by the Dr. Glassman for both incidents, and is told that this reflects on the performance of the hospital and team leaders as a whole (https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-good-doctor-2017&episode=s01e02). This is a situation that could definitely happen in the real world.
In episode five, Dr. Murphy comes up with an alternative theory that a boy diagnosed with bone cancer may actually have a non-fatal disease. However, the theory only has a 0.3% chance of succeeding, and Dr. Glassman and his supervisor don’t want him to test the theory. Because of his obsessive tendencies, he attempts to test the theory anyway, and is caught by the boy’s parents. The theory turns out to be incorrect, and Dr. Murphy is rightfully not allowed to operate on the boy (https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-good-doctor-2017&episode=s01e05). While Dr. Murphy has not permanently harmed anyone yet, this is most likely because this could end production of the TV series, but this fact could unfortunately be also seen as unrealistic.
Because of Dr. Murphy’s mistakes, his supervisor, Dr. Neil Melendez, initially looks down on him, and says that he doesn’t belong at St. Bonaventure Hospital. However, Dr. Murphy manages to compensate for his deficits using his savant skills during several surgeries, causing Dr. Melendez to warm up to him, and to even learn from him in some aspects. Additionally, Dr. Murphy is initially too afraid to stand up to Dr. Melendez in episode ten, indicating problems with confidence. However, he manages to be more assertive in convincing Dr. Melendez about the best surgical procedure towards the end of the episode (https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-good-doctor-2017&episode=s01e10).
Additionally, Dr. Murphy’s deficits are more significant outside of work. He needs a timer for every task he needs to perform while waking up, and feels a strong need to keep track of certain objects in his apartment. When he misplaces his screwdriver, he gets really angry and calls Dr. Glassman at 2 am, where they find it in his refrigerator. He also calls the maintenance supervisor of the building after-hours a couple times, leading the super to be angry at him (https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-good-doctor-2017&episode=s01e04). The worst incident is in episode 10, where Dr. Murphy becomes overly resistant when Dr. Glassman tries to pressure him to see a therapist, and then Dr. Murphy hits Dr. Glassman’s face in the hospital lobby (https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-good-doctor-2017&episode=s01e10). Nothing else is known about what will happen to Dr. Murphy later on.
In conclusion, what is worthwhile about this show is that in addition to the portrayal of Dr. Murphy’s savant skills, the consequences of his deficits in communication and executive functioning reflect the reality, and are dealt with appropriately. While the situation of Dr. Murphy as an autistic surgical resident might not happen in the real world, the premise at least provides a general view of the significant challenges that many (but not all) high-functioning autistic people may face at work. I have found most television shows of the past decade to be irrelevant and boring, so the producers must have done a very good job to keep me hooked (and have even made it one of my special interests).
*Note: The ‘no Mythical Autistic “Superman”’ part of my title is adapted from the theme song of Scrubs, another medical drama. The theme song is titled “I’m no Superman” (https://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/scrubs-mymusical/scrubsthemesongimnosuperman.htm).