I am obsessed with medical shows.
I love them. I STUDY them. My artistic joy would be to play a doctor on an ensemble-based TV show about the medical field.
OH. And to be super-ultra clear? Not just any doctor. I want to play a SURGEON.
So it stands to reason that a new TV medical drama by the creators of HOUSE M.D. (one of my all-time favorite shows), with the starring character a boy/surgeon with autism, would live right smack dab inside my personal wheelhouse.
I was immediately excited and intrigued and thrilled to watch the season premiere on ABC.
But I did have a few concerns when I saw the first trailer:
1. This is another story about a white boy with autism (so many of the portrayals are of white boys and it can skew the attention from other races, cultures, and women who also live with it)
2. This is another story of high-functioning autism (more on this later)
3. This is another story featuring Savant Syndrome
Savant syndrome is a condition in which a person demonstrates one or more profound and prodigious capacities or abilities far in excess of what would be considered normal, yet often also has significant deficits in other areas of brain processing
Savant skills are usually found in one or more of five major areas: art, memory, arithmetic, musical abilities, and spatial skills. The most common kind of savants are calendrical savants, "human calendars" who can calculate the day of the week for any given date with speed and accuracy, or recall personal memories from any given date. Advanced memory is the key "superpower" in savant abilities.
Approximately half of savants are autistic; the other half often have some form of central nervous system injury or disease. It is estimated that 10% of those with autism have some form of savant abilities.
So I watched the premiere. And I…liked it. I didn’t LOVE it.
Frankly, there was a lot of it that disappointed me.
Let’s unpack it.
Starting with Savant Syndrome.
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.
Even though the percentage of those with autism plus Savant Syndrome is low (only 10%) it is the “exciting” part of autism. It is the story that “seems” worth telling.
All of the stories you probably know that have been captured in film or television feature a person with autism who also displays Savant Syndrome or savant abilities.
This places the focus on the wrong place when trying to capture the truth about what the majority of people with autism and their families and caregivers experience on a daily basis.
Here are some famous examples you might know:
Raymond Babbit - Rain Man
Dr. Latham – Chicago Med
Christopher Boone – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
Eric Gibb – The Boy Who Could Fly
Sam Gardner - Atypical
High-Functioning Autism and/or Asperger Syndrome.
Honestly – there is a debate about whether there is a difference between Asperger Syndrome (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). Some say those with classic HFA (meaning an IQ above 70) show cognitive and communication delays early on. While those with AS (IQ also above 70) tend to have normal communication/no delays and often don’t see a diagnosis until school age when the social/emotional issues tend to become more obvious.
Either way – HFA / AS is almost ALWAYS the story portrayed in TV/Film.
And if it’s not, it’s almost always the extreme (Low Functioning Autistic/non-verbal BUT with Savant Syndrome. e.g. Rain Man; The Boy Who Could Fly).
Clearly it’s easier to tell a story when the character has a voice and can share in his/her experience first-hand. That’s a huge advantage and HFA gives that chance to the person with autism. It gives the audience the chance to see and experience everything from their POV. That’s important and keeps people with autism from falling victim to powerlessness – i.e. depicted by the experiences of OTHERS.
Quick Note: (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)
Is it really such a stretch to show a family, a caregiver, a person with classic autism who just struggles/excels with experiences and life?
Not autism plus Savant Syndrome.
Not High-Functioning Autism where that person is just a little “off” or “quirky”
Just plain old autism.
Where is that story? (Right. Maybe it’s the one I have to write.)
I am the white mother of a white boy with autism.
With the exception of Dr. Latham on Chicago Med (played by actor Ato Essandoh) there’s little to no popular reflection of other cultures and races dealing with autism.
Even Dr. Latham’s recognition of his diagnosis comes very late in the game – proving he is socially “awkward” but clearly exceptional in his field of medicine (dare I say a SAVANT?). Also – thus far, we’ve not seen or heard what his experiences growing up on the spectrum, (diagnosed or not), were really like in his home life or with his family.
My biggest concern is the socio-economic depiction of autism in these stories.
Most of these stories, (with the exception of The Boy Who Could Fly), are middle-upper class families who live in nice homes. Financial struggles are within the “acceptable” limits of what we mostly assume a well-to-do family, (even with a double income), would deal with.
The financial realities of having a kid on the spectrum, (let alone multiple kids on the spectrum), is almost always ignored and overlooked.
Not to mention that most families do not fall within the parameters of “well-to-do” or financially stable. A remarkable amount of families with a child on the spectrum are from middle to low-income families who can’t afford extra therapies/aides/caregivers. People who struggle with paying the bills and relying on fundraising to get things like diapers, chewies, sensory toys, weighted-blankets, weighted vests, child locks, etc etc etc. Many of these things are not covered by insurance. Even with a formal diagnosis.
We don’t see these struggles within the family stories. We don’t hear about the hours of therapy and the sleepless nights and the moments we as parents and caregivers lose it and the moments we soar. Yes. We see the exhaustion. That part is easy to play. But why don’t we see the reality?
Back to The Good Doctor.
Some might be frustrated that 99% of the actors portraying a person on the spectrum are not diagnosed as being on the spectrum, themselves.
I get that. However, as an actor I also recognize that acting isn’t something just “anyone” can do. Like playing by ear, drawing or painting, or designing and building a house. There are skills, some innate – some learned and practiced – that are necessary to capture connection, nuance, subtlety and emotion.
While I am ALL about people on the spectrum getting the chance to be front and center in the opportunity to tell/share their story – acting doesn’t necessarily have to be that medium (though it certainly can be! And we shouldn’t limit extending that opportunity to anyone who is open about their diagnosis and also an actor.)
My biggest frustration with The Good Doctor mainly comes from the family plot line.
**Spoilers about episode 1 below**
I can absolutely buy that the father was ill prepared to handle Shaun’s diagnosis. I can even buy that he is abusive and full of rage.
What I cannot buy:
1. The mother stays with the father after he hits her sons and kills the rabbit – clearly the one thing that calms her son - (with ZERO explanation)
2. The younger son decides that he and Shaun, his older brother with ASD, are now on their own and they go live in a decked out bus. (Where do they have the electricity for Christmas lights??)
3. No authorities come looking for the boys.
4. The younger son says their mother “knows this is for the best” that they are off on their own. (Which means she has chosen to stay with their abusive father for WHO KNOWS WHAT REASON!? Again, I could buy this better if they explained it. Even if she was AFRAID TO LEAVE – I’d buy that. Just give me SOMETHING.)
5. After his long pause and, finally, a description of what things smelled like on the day of the death of his rabbit and his brother (both dying right in front of him) he shares that he couldn’t save them. And they should have become adults and had children of their own. He wants to “make that possible for other people”. This is the reason the hospital board ultimately decides he is worthy enough to move forward and offer him a spot in the residency program. (I’m assuming because he shows empathy?? Because he obviously already showed skills - Savant Syndrome – and saved a little boy in the airport)
All I can hope for, moving forward in the show, is much of these issues are explained. I get it. It’s a pilot. They can only share so much. More will be revealed as the show continues.
I’m just saying all of these questions put this show into the realm of a bit of an eye-roll. Which really saddens me.
As I mentioned above, I’m the BEST audience for this show!
I truly hope ABC steps it up and allows this show to share the real struggles and triumphs of a person on the spectrum, (not just the quirky parts of HFA and Savant Syndrome), and answers some serious questions about the family and home life.
Will I be watching? Yes.
Will I be watching with a critical eye? You betcha.
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