Characters with autism lead shows 'Good Doctor' and 'Atypical,' but are they realistic?
"These shows provide a starting point ... and whether people agree or they disagree with the content, it's still an opportunity to start having a discussion about autism."
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TORONTO — Characters with autism are increasingly finding prominence in film and television, most recently in the new TV network offering "The Good Doctor" and "Atypical," which debuted in August on the streaming service Netflix.
Such series may provide viewers with a glimpse into the world of those with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, but just how accurate and representative are these characters?
And, more importantly, how has the autism community reacted to such portrayals?
"It's been an interesting mix," concedes Esther Rhee, national program director at Autism Speaks Canada, an advocacy organization that funds research into neurological conditions.
"We've had feedback from individuals on the spectrum, from family members who say 'I completely relate to some of these story lines,' and we have others that feel that they're not accurate reflections," Rhee says.
"So there's no one response to it."
While the shows' creators may have imbued their characters with some features of autism, Rhee says their main purpose is to be entertaining, not educational.
"And so we can't have the expectations that people who don't know a lot about autism are going to view each episode and then all of a sudden have an understanding of what's happening in the autism community."
Still, Rhee sees the inclusion of characters with ASD in film, television and on stage as generally positive: "These shows provide a starting point ... and whether people agree or they disagree with the content, it's still an opportunity to start having a discussion about autism."
"The Good Doctor" has created some buzz on blogs and social media. Lead character Shaun Murphy (played by Freddie Highmore) is a newly minted pediatric surgeon with autism who's hired by a big-city hospital over the objections of many of its senior medical staff.
Murphy is socially awkward but brilliant, described by the show's producers as a savant, though that term and "high-functioning" have fallen out of favour with many within the ASD community. He's uneasy making eye contact and can be conversationally stilted — stereotypical hallmarks of the condition, but ones not universally shared by all those on the spectrum.
"Atypical" focuses on Sam Gardner (played by Keir Gilchrist), an 18-year-old with ASD obsessed with all things Antarctica and subject to sensory overload from excessive noise and light, who's intent on having a "normal" teenaged life.
"The difficult thing is that a lot of these characters, they're kind of like checklist characters," says Michael McCreary, who was diagnosed at age five with Asperger's syndrome, a condition that once had its own classification but was absorbed into the overall ASD category in the DSM-5, the latest edition of psychiatry's diagnostic bible.
"Someone says 'Oh, what does autism look like?' and you go, 'OK, here are 20 or so talking points, make sure you hit all of them,'" says the 21-year-old stand-up comic from Orangeville, Ont.
"And now you're no longer writing a character, you're trying to meet a quota."
Dr. Melanie Penner, a developmental pediatrician in the Autism Research Centre at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, concurs that reactions from individuals with ASD and their families to shows like "The Good Doctor" have been somewhat mixed, though generally positive.
"I think what the autism community are often looking for ... (is) they do care that the representation is accurate — and it's accurate not just in what it's like to live with autism, but also how the world reacts to someone with autism."
For instance, more than 80 per cent of adults with autism are unemployed, and among those with jobs, only six per cent have competitive wages and competitive positions compared to their peers, notes Rhee.
While Penner thinks it's appropriate to highlight some of the strengths that autism may confer in some individuals — Murphy in "The Good Doctor" has almost super-human diagnostic skills, for instance — the entertainment industry is "not there yet" when it comes to representing the breadth of people on the spectrum, or showing what it's like to live with ASD on a day-to-day basis.
"And so no one representation of autism is going to satisfy that diversity. To help that problem, when people are developing these shows, it's so important to consult with the autism community, both families and people with autism themselves," she says.
That was the case with the PBS children's program "Sesame Street," which introduced a character with ASD named Julia in 2015. Earlier this year, the four-year-old with bright orange hair and green eyes was added to the cast as a physical muppet.
Julia's character was created by Leslie Kimmelman, initially for the digital storybook "We're Amazing, 1, 2, 3!" She based Julia's characteristics and story lines on her own experiences as the mother of a child with autism, as well as with input from advisers within the ASD community.
"When that process is there," says Penner, "I think the character and the richness and the accuracy are going to be that much better."
McCreary has not seen "The Good Doctor," even though his particular passion is film and TV. But he cites "Power Rangers" and "The Accountant" as films with autistic characters that don't quite hit the mark.
Billy the Blue Ranger, for instance, is identified as autistic at the beginning of "Power Rangers," and the actor presents a lot of the stereotypical characteristics of ASD, he says.
"You have the aversion to eye contact, stimulatory behaviour like flapping his hands (and) he performs a series of small repetitive tasks to keep himself calm. And then I'd say at around the 30-minute mark, they just kind of forget about all these things.
"It's window dressing."
Even while knocking what some might call cardboard-cutout portrayals of autism — a condition he deems as currently "in" and "bankable" — McCreary is gratified to see that a character like Murphy in "The Good Doctor" is on prime-time TV.
"I think that's a huge leap forward for television, where a character with ASD is not only the lead of a show, but they're empowered to some extent."
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