The Good Doctor Renews Debate About TV’s Portrayal of Autistic Characters

Spoilers

The Good Doctor has never shied away from complex subjects during its run.

The show’s premise is that autistic doctor Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore) struggles to gain acceptance from his peers. Yet, he perseveres by proving he can become a surgeon.

From the beginning, most viewers have agreed that it is excellent for shows to highlight more autistic characters. The debate is concerning how those characters should be portrayed.

When The Good Doctor premiered on September 25, 2017, it immediately struck a chord among viewers who were glad to see an autistic main character on a television series. It is now airing its seventh and final season, and viewer reactions to it have varied widely as the series has progressed.

The autistic community has been particularly vocal regarding both positive moments and apparent missteps by the show’s writers.

Shaun's Isolating Bus Ride - The Good Doctor Season 1 Episode 1

The Good Doctor’s Initial Impact

Even the series’ initial impact was split. By the time The Good Doctor Season 1 Episode 3 aired, it had usurped The Big Bang Theory as the most-watched series in the United States. Its official Facebook page also had 650,000 likes by that time.

On the other hand, critics lambasted it from the start. Some didn’t like it for its portrayal of autism, while others didn’t like it because they felt it too closely resembled other medical dramas.

The vast split between the show’s initial critical reception and how viewers received it was so unusual that it made headlines at the time. Viewer opinions prevailed because the show has remained popular for seven seasons.

Yet, the controversy over the portrayal of Doctor Shaun Murphy as an autistic character has continued.

Shaun Shuts the Emergency Room Out - The Good Doctor Season 7 Episode 6

The Difficulty Associated With Portraying Autism on TV

The Good Doctor’s continued renewal of debates regarding the portrayal of autistic characters seems to boil down to the fact that it is impossible to represent everyone using a single character.

Shaun’s interactions with patients and co-workers or friends like Doctor Aaron Glassman do not represent the interactions between all people on the autism spectrum and their peers.

According to experts like those at AutismSpeaks.org, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is so named because it can manifest in a wide variety of ways.

Throughout the show’s first six seasons, the argument has been that variations in autism symptoms have not been well represented. Some also believed Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of Shaun was good, but an autistic actor should have played the character.

Glassman Offers Up Advice About Charlie - The Good Doctor Season 7 Episode 3

The Addition of a Second Autistic Doctor

The final season seeks to appease fans by adding an autistic doctor named Charlotte “Charlie” Lukaitis, played by Kayla Cromer.

Adding Charlie to the mix certainly changes the dynamics of the show. It creates a role reversal for Shaun, who now gets to see how it is to try to train an autistic doctor.

Shaun has struggled mightily with Charlie throughout the first several episodes of the season. The Good Doctor Season 7 Episode 6 finally shows Shaun beginning to accept her, but is it too little, too late?

Introducing a second autistic character is excellent, but many fans feel it shouldn’t have been done in the last season. There may not be enough time for Charlie Lukaitis as a character or her professional relationship with Shaun to be fully explored.

Charlie and Glassman in the Middle of an Emergency - The Good Doctor Season 7 Episode 6

Allowing an Autistic Actor to Play an Autistic Character

A critical point about Kayla Cromer playing Charlie is that Kayla is on the autism spectrum in real life.

Her autistic status places Kayla in the unique position of being the first female with autism to have a lead role as an autistic character on an American television show.

Most fans of The Good Doctor love having a second autistic character on the show, especially since an autistic actor plays her. They particularly love that the character in question is female.

While there is agreement that Charlie probably should have been added to the series sooner, many fans are thrilled that an autistic person is playing an autistic character, giving the series more authenticity.

Charile Hates Being Lectured - The Good Doctor Season 7 Episode 3

The Biggest Charlie Controversy

Charlie appears to use her autism as an excuse more often than not. She doesn’t seem to try to grow or change in the way Shaun has.

According to anti-Charlie fans of the show, the problem is that Charlie comes off as thinking she knows it all already. She doesn’t take a student-like stance most of the time.

Shaun has had plenty of run-ins with superiors like Audrey Lim throughout six seasons and change. Yet, he has always understood that there’s a hierarchy and a process for getting from point A to point B.

Shaun Has Not Helped Charlie or His Image Thus Far

Shaun's Frustration Regarding Charlie Increases - The Good Doctor Season 7 Episode 3

You’re nothing like me, and I don’t think you should ever be a surgeon.

Shaun Murphy

Many fans feel Shaun is well within his rights to say he is uncomfortable teaching Charlie.

Despite that, there is a clear sentiment that Shaun crosses a line in The Good Doctor Season 7 when he tells Charlie he doesn’t think she should be a surgeon.

That is a hypocritical, unsympathetic, and premature statement coming from a character in a similar position who struggled for years to be accepted as a surgeon.

Shaun finally begins to change his mind, but not until the end of “M.C.E.” Six episodes are six too many for some fans.

We can only hope the working relationship between the two has time to show real growth before the season and series end.

Jessica Kosinski is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on X.

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