Discussions of ‘The Good Doctor’ and ‘Atypical’ have cropped up all over autism communities and social media. Having watched Season 1 of ‘Atypical’ (although I neglected to review it and will have to go back to fix this oversight) and at Episode 2 of ‘The Good Doctor’, one thing that has struck me is a particular criticism that keeps cropping up about both main characters.
This idea that they are “low functioning” or “severely to moderately” autistic.
There are other criticisms of the shows which make more sense – such as the fact that both characters seem to lack a backstory or history which makes their characters stilted, or the lazy cliches of the supporting characters – but I must admit I am baffled by the comments around “functioning”.
Now I am not a big fan of functioning labels but will be using them throughout this piece because it is the entire purpose of the piece to demonstrate how even members of the autistic community don’t seem to have a clue what they’re talking about when it comes to autism.
I have seen Sam from Atypical described, multiple times as severely or moderately autistic. I was genuinely stunned when I read those words, more than once. There was a general consensus that Sam was far “lower functioning” than anyone on the particular social media site in question and – as someone who sat through Atypical feeling very strange at how familiar it all was – I could not understand how they had reached this conclusion.
Then ‘The Good Doctor’ aired and protests of a similar vein appeared: “there’s no way he could be a doctor, he’s far too low functioning”. In a way it’s a bitter contrast with the dramatic Hollywood speech from the opening episode: “We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are. That they do have a shot.”, because even within the autistic community, people are predeciding capabilities based on presentation and imposing limits. Admittedly this does not seem like a big deal, after all these are just two characters in television shows, but on closer examination it betrays a bigger problem. Shaun and Sam are considered low functioning by some people in the autistic community; from personal experience, I know those same attitudes and the dismissal that goes with it feature in real life.
I can present with some quite obvious autistic traits. Repetitive movements and lack of eye contact, as well as quite obvious sensory difficulties that have to be regulated in ways more obvious that ear plugs and a fidget often cause me to be isolated from other autistic people when I attend groups. Even as a relatively introverted autistic person who genuinely does not seek out much in the way of social involvement, I have to say it does bother me when people at autism groups move away from me. It feels like they’re uncomfortable with my behaviour. They certainly don’t bother to find the same to even try to get to know me.
Which is why, seeing this mirrored in the discussions around these two characters reminds me that at times parts of the autistic community are no more welcoming, accepting and understanding of a diverse range of autistic people than parts of the non-autistic community.