Last weekend was Can-Con, the Canadian Conference for Speculative Fiction, and I overheard an interesting conversation about the new TV series, The Good Doctor. The series is by the same team that created House and the show looks at a young doctor with autism and savant syndrome becoming a surgical resident.
Personally, I had mixed feelings about this show to begin. Autism is trendy right now, and this looked like one more jump on the bandwagon attempt. But then I found out it was produced by David Shore, who has been respectful about autism issues in the past and has expressed interest in exploring the challenges that people with autism face. So I decided to give it a try and while I'm still not one hundred percent sold, it's held my attention and respect enough to continue giving it a chance.
So I was surprised when I overheard a conversation talking about how offended some people were that the opening episode had the surgical head telling the doctor with autism that he didn't belong on the surgical team and how the board of directors was upset at the idea of hiring someone with autism. The people I was listening to were offended that the characters were treating this doctor with prejudice.
And yet, that's actually one of the reasons that I respect the show. Because that prejudice is there and people with autism experience it every day. Even those who are much higher functioning than the character, whose autism is "invisible" in most situations will find themselves getting passed over for jobs, promotions and relationships because of an assumption that they would be unable to handle the social aspects of the job. Even better, in the show, the main character's displays of superlative competence are not enough to overcome his social awkwardness in the eyes of his colleagues, certainly not by the end of the first few episodes.
Now, one of my frustrations is that the character who is expressing the most prejudice (the head of surgery) is not getting called on it. He has been very offended when someone accuses him of being prejudiced and the people accusing him have backed off. I am hoping that at some point, someone is going to tell him that deciding in advance that someone is unable to handle a job despite having met all of the listed qualifications is actually a definitive example of prejudice. Because that's going to bring some real awareness if the writers and producers have the guts to go there.
Thus far, the actor playing the title character is doing a good job of balancing the social awkwardness without going into "jerk" shorthand. I certainly find him a much better representation than Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. I also like that the show's description separates "autism" from "savant syndrome" as the two are very separate conditions. Too often, they get lumped together.
There are still a lot of pitfalls for this show to avoid and only time will tell if they can be successful at that and at telling interesting stories. But for now, I'm cautiously optimistic.