Freddie Highmore Responds to Criticism Over The Good Doctor’s Portrayal of Autism: ‘A Show Can’t Possibly Represent Everyone’
Since he scrubbed in at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital more than five years ago, there have been a lot of questions over if Freddie Highmore has autism and how accurate his portrayal of Dr. Shaun Murphy on The Good Doctor really is.
The Good Doctor is FOX’s medical drama following Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), a young autistic surgeon with savant syndrome, who relocates from the small city of Casper, Wyoming, to San Jose, California, to take a job at the esteemed San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital. According to the SSM Health Treffert Center, Savant syndrome is a rare condition in which a personal with a developmental condition, including autism, has an amazing ability or talent. The organization notes that the condition can be congenital or acquired later in childhood or adulthood.
Highmore told Variety in 2019 that he felt like it was his “moral responsibility” to play Shaun and also represent a doctor who isn’t a stereotypical television alpha-male. “It’s especially important in today’s world to portray different versions of masculinity, not only the stereotypical ones,” he said. So does Freddie Highmore have autism and how accurate is The Good Doctor? Read on for what Freddie Highmore has said about playing an autistic character on The Good Doctor and his response to accusations the show isn’t medically “authentic.”
Does Freddie Highmore have autism like his Good Doctor character?
Does Freddie Highmore have autism like his Good Doctor character, Dr. Shaun Murphy? The answer is no. Highmore confirmed in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2019 that he does not have autism but researched by talking to people in his personal life with the condition and watching documentaries on autism. The Good Doctor also hired autism consultant Melissa Reiner to make sure that the show’s portrayal of the condition was accurate. Reiner, who has a master’s degree in special education and is a certified consultant in relationship development intervention, is also the founder of AskMelissaNow, an autism and behavioral consulting firm that works with families, individuals and professional organizations. “There are people in my personal life who have autism. It was a condition I was aware of. I [read a lot],” Highmore told The Los Angeles Times. “I saw a brilliant documentary on Netflix called Autism in Love, which is great because it focuses on the most human, deepest emotion that we may feel, which is being in love.”
Highmore also explained how his research on autism informed Shaun’s mannerisms in The Good Doctor. “The way Shaun holds his hands is something that makes him stand out. For me, that came from two places. Kids with autism [used to be] encouraged to clasp their hands together in order not to stim, [a term describing repetitive movements or sounds]. It’s called ‘quiet hands,'” he told The Los Angeles Times. He continued, “Surgeons, in an operating room, consider the front of the body as sterile and often stand in this position [he holds his hands in front of him and above his waist] to keep their hands sterile. So that particular mannerism is sort of half something that’s a trauma, that’s been forced upon him and is also something that’s natural for surgeons to do, so there’s a comfort there too.”
Highmore also told The Los Angeles Times about The Good Doctor creator David Shore’s pitch for the show and how Shaun’s autism would be portrayed from the start. “We spoke mostly about Shaun and the development of his character over time. People who aren’t aware of autism in a personal way or haven’t watched the show sometimes say, ‘How will Shaun change? He’ll always have autism. What’s his arc going to be?'” he said. “So one of the things we discussed early on is, ‘Yes, he’ll always have autism. But he’s going to change continuously as an individual as he adapts to this new world that he finds himself in.’ That was exciting to me: This individual, regardless of whether or not he’s on the spectrum, is going on a journey as a character.”
Highmore also explained how Shaun’s autism doesn’t prevent him from growing as a character in an interview with “Popcorn With Peter Travers” in 2019. “I love how Shaun is changing over time, that’s something that David and I spoke about from the very beginning as being essential with this character,” he said. “In the pilot, there was a naivete to him. And he was in this big city environment having moved from the countryside for the very first time and adjusting to this whole new world.” He continued, “And obviously that innocence that he had of the situation changes over time. And just because Shaun has autism, that doesn’t mean he’s not going to grow and change as a person. And so I guess one of the things I’m most proud of, over these first couple of seasons, is that we’ve managed to show how he is progressing and learning.”
Highmore also responded to criticism The Good Doctor wasn’t “medically accurate” in an interview with Digital Spy in 2019. “I feel like it can’t get the medical thumbs-up,” he said. “It just seems like an impossible task to tell the story of an operation that goes a bit wrong in one-and-a-half minutes, when in reality, it would take 10 hours. But you have to be as authentic as possible, medicine-wise.”
Highmore also confirmed to Digital Spy that he isn’t autistic but considers the role of Shaun an important responsibility. “I guess I feel very fortunate to have been offered the part of Shaun, and I wasn’t, myself, involved in that [casting] process from the other side,” he said. “But it seemed like an incredibly important project, and that’s why I wanted to be a part of it. I’m proud to be a part of it.”
He continied, “I’m constantly learning. Aside from continual research, or working with the consultant that we have, I’m also talking to people who feel that they have a personal connection to the show through autism, and are pleased or thankful that the show is seeking to raise awareness in that way.”
Since The Good Doctor premiered in 2017, the show has been met with mixed reviews by the autism community. In a blog post for Autism Speaks in 2018, motivational speaker Kerry Magro, who’s on the autism spectrum, commended The Good Doctor on its representation of the condition. “There seems to be an obsession with autism political correctness in some autism-related projects. Producers strive for realism in portraying these autistic characters with the danger of not clearly understanding the individuality of each person on the spectrum. It’s a razor’s edge. Trying to avoid producing ‘inspiration porn’ but also making the programming meaningful to those in the autism community,” Magro wrote. He continued, “The Good Doctor does a fine job of navigating this razor’s edge. Freddie does well in his debut, showing several characteristics that can accompany an autism diagnosis. These characteristics include things such as social awkwardness, lack of eye contact, playing with his hands during stressful situations, etc. That last one is still something I do to this day as an adult who is on the autism spectrum. Freddie’s take will resonate with many in the community. It will be interesting to see how his character evolves moving forward into the season.”
David Moloney, a member on the Autism Ontario Board, however, criticized the The Good Doctor‘s portrayal of autism as a “broad concept or a construct” in an article for Autism Ontario in 2021. “All in all, I find that it plays the autism card a little too heavily,” he said. “It doesn’t really portray the positivity exuded by people on the spectrum.” Matthew Lemay, a freelance writer who has also reported on autism, also told Autism Ontario about scenes in The Good Doctor that did not relate to him.
“Rehearsing social situations like this did not ring true to me,” he said. “I could certainly see aspects of Shaun’s behavior as being familiar, but I haven’t ever rehearsed a social situation.” Lemay, however, praised Shaun’s speech to his girlfriend in The Good Doctor, in which he acknowledges that he’s different than anyone she’s dated in the past. ”I think that is representative of how we all want to be treated, how we all want to stand up for ourselves,” he said.
In an interview with Gold Derby in 2017, Highmore explained how Shaun wasn’t meant to “represent” every person with autism. “I knew people personally before this show came along who have autism. But when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. That’s important to remember with Shaun, constructing him as an individual,” he said. “He can’t represent everyone on the spectrum, in the same way your ‘typical’ lead character on a show can’t possibly represent everyone.”
He also described Shaun as “very internal.” “A lot of what he is thinking is not obvious to those he’s interacting with. Sometimes I feel it’s an adjustment for everyone. The actors aren’t exactly getting what they may expect from another scene partner,” he said. “All of us as a group, not just me, will find those new ways of constructing a scene with a central character that is different from something we’ve experienced before. I hope that they feel like they are getting something from me even if Shaun is very much in his head. It must be odd for others to react to.”
For more on medical dramas, check out our photo gallery on the all-time greatest soap opera doctors ranked.