It is estimated that 1 in 100 people have autism. To make the number easier to grasp, look at your Facebook friends list. If you have about 1,000 friends that means you know at least 10 people who are on the autism spectrum—even if they are unaware of it themselves.
As prevalent as the condition is, the notoriety of autism continues. Ignorance becomes fear, which in turn, could lead to some very bad things. Unfamiliarity about autism often leads to discrimination and cruelty toward people on the spectrum.
Fortunately, autism is now “in”—it’s trending, and we’ve seen shades of the condition in The Big Bang Theory, Community, and even on Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy. Now, three popular TV shows—The Good Doctor, Atypical, and The A Word—get real and focus on the subject itself. Hopefully, this would lead to more awareness and more acceptance for people on the spectrum.
The Good Doctor is an American TV series developed by David Shore of House fame. In many ways, it’s your typical medical drama: every week, there’s a medical problem that a group of good-looking doctors need to solve, interspersed with interpersonal issues that miraculously gets solved in an hour. It’s a tried-and-tested formula, as the 14 seasons (and going) of Grey’s Anatomy can attest. The difference lies in The Good Doctor’s main character: Dr. Shaun Murphy, a surgical intern who is not only autistic, but also has savant syndrome.
There are people who criticize the show because only a very small percentage of people on the autism spectrum exhibit spectacular areas of genius. They fear that this portrayal might reinforce the misconception that autists should have savant syndrome. Putting aside the merits of the argument, it makes sense for the character of Dr. Murphy to have an astonishing grasp of human physiology—the plot demands it and it’s the key in making him a valuable doctor.
On the other hand, the show is also getting praise for its depiction of an autist’s behavior: speaking in monotone, talking without filters, walking with your hands clasped, inability to read social cues, difficulty with direct eye contact, repetitive behavior, tendency to obsess about certain things… they’re all superbly portrayed by actor Freddie Highmore. His interpretation feels authentic without going overboard.
In contrast to this is the show’s heightened sentimentality. Like most American shows, the drama is overt, upfront, and highly effective—undoubtedly one of the reasons why the show was able to secure the “most viewed primetime show” achievement with only a few episodes.
Netflix’s Atypical is a coming-of-age dramedy that focuses on Sam Gardner, a teenager on the autism spectrum who has decided what he wants: a sexual/romantic relationship (in that order of priority) with a girl. Like Dr. Murphy, Sam is high-functioning (he has a job) but without the savant syndrome. He also exhibits autism behavior markers such as being rude because he doesn’t know how to behave properly, tendency to self-harm, obsession about a particular subject, taking things literally, difficulty in reading social cues, and intolerance for being touched.
While The Good Doctor shines on exploring how someone with autism could struggle in finding acceptance in the workplace (in spite of his exceptional abilities), Atypical centers on the struggles of an autist in creating meaningful relationships. Right from the start, the show gives us an important and distressing fact: only nine percent of people of autism end up getting married.
Sam’s quest to get a girl gets the comedic treatment, complete with wildly absurd dating tips from a clueless friend and funny mishaps in his attempts. The laughs and the touching moments are delivered in standard American TV practice: on point and a tad predictable. A particular strength of the show is Sam’s relationship with his sister, Casey, who is equally annoyed and fiercely protective/loving of her brother. The dynamic between the siblings show a truth in families with autists: it’s complex. Casey could be laughing at Sam’s literal interpretations and in the next minute, punch anyone who could be making fun of her brother. Sadly, this isn’t explored as extensively as it could have been—just as most of the show fails in delivering some real impact. The show is funny and touching, but it isn’t funny enough or touching enough.
If The Good Doctor and Atypical benefit from conventional American show precision storytelling and production, The A Word distinguishes itself with its starkness and subtlety. The A Word from BBC One is not a disability drama; rather, it’s a family drama featuring a main character with disability. This makes a nuanced difference in how it presents Joe Hughes, a five-year-old with autism.
Every episode starts with Joe walking alone along a deserted highway in the lovely but desolate England Lake District. He is charming and immediately arresting but he is clearly too young to be left alone. He sings at the top of his lungs, lost in the music blared by his ever-present headphones, and you fear that a vehicle would come from a blind corner and he won’t be able to hear. He walks happily, twirling a different toy in his hands every time, and all the worry falls on you—what if this time, a stranger chances upon him instead of the town people who look after him?
Compared to the other two shows, The A Word feels far rawer and more real. We hate how Joe’s mother ends up bullying and alienating people around her in her quest to protect Joe, but a part of us understands her desperation. We expect better from Joe’s family—willing them to drop their drama in order to help the child, but of course, their lives go on, with adultery, business failure, family troubles, and maturity issues occupying their attention.
In the middle of all of this is Joe—who mostly speaks in lyrics and by spouting off information about the songs he listens to. Joe gets isolated even in his own birthday party, is unable to connect with his classmates, doesn’t get invited in the activities of other kids, can’t converse meaningfully even with his family, and oh so alone. He doesn’t really speak so we don’t know what he thinks and how he feels. Instead, we can only guess what’s going on inside him by how much he enjoys his solitary walks, how he uses music as a survival tool in pushing the world away, and how he retreats or lashes out when he can’t satisfy the demands of the situation.
As hard as it is to believe that TV shows can show truth, there are nuggets here and there that it gets right. People can and often do alienate people on the spectrum. Loving family members can have a hard time accepting an autist. Despite best intentions, even those who are willing to be patient and accommodating might not know how to act around a person who doesn’t respond to usual social cues. And there’s the obvious: every person on the autism spectrum is different—if you know one person with autism, you know ONE person with autism.
We neuro-typical folks often find it difficult to engage with a person on the autism spectrum. The Good Doctor, Atypical, and The A Word show us that this difficulty is nothing compared to the struggle that autists face in trying to join us. We can make our collective worlds richer if we choose to slow down a little so they could catch up, be a little more patient so they don’t get overwhelmed, and be a little more inclusive so they could share themselves to us.