How characters with autism got starring roles on TV’s ‘Good Doctor,’ ‘Atypical,’ ‘Claws’
As autism has increased in frequency and recognition in society, TV is welcoming more characters with the condition.
The lead characters of Netflix’s Atypical (now streaming), ABC’s The Good Doctor (due Sept. 25) and a supporting character in TNT’s Claws all have autism, which is characterized by difficulties with social perception and inflexible, repetitive behaviors. The characters are portrayed by actors who don’t have autism.
The series represent a growing trend toward depicting people who traditionally haven’t been seen much on TV, such as the young man with cerebral palsy who is the central character on ABC’s Speechless.
But as TV seeks more representation of people with physical or developmental challenges, it’s important to present accurate and honest portrayals, while not defining characters solely by their condition, says Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel), who plays young surgeon Shaun Murphy on Doctor.
“I appreciate the way in which Shaun is a fully formed character. Often, people with autism on screen have been represented as somewhat emotionless or singularly focused on one thing, and that isn’t true,” he says. “We get to see Shaun in moments of joy, what makes him excited, alongside the very real struggle he’s facing.”
Characters with autism have appeared on TV over the years, but there have been more depictions in the last decade or so, including young Max Braverman of NBC’s Parenthood, Detective Sonya Cross of AMC’s The Bridge and real-life professor Temple Grandin, played by Claire Danes in an Emmy-winning HBO film.
On Doctor, Murphy is a surgeon in training who has savant syndrome, which in his case manifests itself in a photographic medical memory, depicted on screen with anatomical graphics.
Executive producer David Shore (House) says Murphy, who has difficulty with social cues, is fascinated by the ways people interact.
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