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image of Shaun Murphy in his scrubs

The Good Doctor Tackles Low Expectations

Coby Bird and Freddie Highmore standing and posing on set for the camera

Coby Bird and Freddie Highmore of The Good Doctor

Los Angeles, Nov. 15 – This week’s The Good Doctor tackled several important issues – the lack of high expectations for people with disabilities and the lack of training to know how to best recognize and assist people with disabilities.

In the beginning of the episode Dr. Shaun Murphy recognizes the patient Liam, played by Coby Bird, a teenage actor with autism, has autism and does not like being touched. “You’re scaring him,” he says to the paramedics. “He’s not psychotic. He’s autistic.”

Twitter user @TVAddict617 points out how important it is that he spoke up for the patient, as many medical professionals lack enough training and may mislabel a patient with a disability.

Dr. Murphy had lived a sheltered life and never met another person with autism before. As he treats Liam, though, he is able to help him work through struggles, telling him: “Mistakes are good. You should make more. You are like me.”

Former Prof. Marjorie Hanft called it “the most on-point episode,” which “bravely addressed an elephant in the room – that a person with autism can be uncomfortable with another person with autism and also get over it.”

Yet Dr. Murphy continues a real-life battle: the lack of high expectations, which is a huge issue for children with disabilities.

At one point, the father of the patient tells Dr. Murphy, “it’s amazing how accomplished you are for someone with autism spectrum disorder.”

Later, Liam’s mother says that “in no way will Dr. Murphy be in” her son’s surgery, simply because of the fear that his autism would prevent him from being able to do well in a stressful situation. Low expectations of people with disabilities is so prevalent, even among parents of those with disabilities.

Murphy’s attending Dr. Menendez, who has been challenging him under similar pretense all season, comes to his defense. “After working with Dr. Murphy challenging him more than he deserved,” he said, “I can tell you, he has my complete confidence.”

However, he says this with the caveat that Dr. Murphy also has savant syndrome – which can be harmful for the majority of people who have autism but not also savant syndrome who also are capable of doing more than most may assume.

In the end, with Liam’s insistence, Murphy is permitted in the surgery and successfully assists, proving to himself and his attending that he is more than capable.

And Liam’s father learns an important lesson – to trust that his teenage son may know what is best for him – and asks him for his preference instead of assuming things for him.

Coby Bird, Actor with Autism, Paving the Way for Actors with Disabilities

Bird, playing Liam, showed a different face of Autism, as people on the autism spectrum often are very different from one another.

Bird was diagnosed with autism at the age of five. For the past four years, he has trained with Los Angeles theater company The Miracle Project, an award-winning theater program for children and teens on the autism spectrum.

“Kudos to the show for hiring a person with autism to portray a person with autism,” said Elaine Hall, executive director of The Miracle Project.

Just five percent of characters with disabilities in primetime television are portrayed by actors with disabilities; the rest are played by an actor pretending to have a disability.

“There is an enormous untapped potential of individuals with disabilities who are talented actors to play their own roles as people with disabilities,” Hall said. “We hope that showrunners will continue to collaborate and develop this talent pool through these opportunities.”

And the reviews for Bird have been optimistic.

“Coby Bird, an autistic actor, did an incredible job as Liam,” says TV Fanatic. “Bird only has a few credits to name, but his portrayal was harrowing and unforgettable. I imagine his resume will grow after this wonderful appearance.”

Bird is represented by Gail Ford Williamson of the Kazarian/Measures/Ruskin Diversity Department. Williamson represents more than 300 performers with disabilities.

“Coby is a wonderful young actor on the spectrum who has won the hearts of casting directors and producers,” Williamson said. “He often auditions for roles that casting is looking for adults to play, but once they see Coby’s skills, they have no problem hiring a minor and accepting the extra expense and limited work day.”

Portrayal of Autism on The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor has the opportunity to showcase multiple with autism at different places on the spectrum to show the true diversity. One such possibility would be showing the hospital becoming a Project SEARCH site, which also would be a great way to hire actual actors with autism.

Project SEARCH is a one-year, school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace. This innovative, business-led model features total workplace immersion, which facilitates a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration and work site-based training and support. Unlike other many other transition programs, Project SEARCH boasts a 70 percent success employment rate following the program.

“I am confident that The Good Doctor will continue do much more than merely entertain although it is highly entertaining,” Hall said. “I believe it could change the way the world perceives disability.”

Indeed, there are successful surgeons with autism and other disabilities in the real world and ABC has highlighted this in a 20/20 presentation, including Dr. Tyler Sexton, a pediatrician with cerebral palsy. ABC used the short segment on Sexton, and profiles on other doctors with disabilities, as companion pieces to the show.

It also is important to note that several of the visual effects artists hired for the show are on the autism spectrum.

The series airs on Mondays at 10:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum
Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for and with people with disabilities, and managing editor of The RespectAbility Report, a publication at the intersection of disability and politics. Previously she was a digital researcher with the NBC News political unit. As an individual with an acquired invisible disability - Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy - she writes about the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. Appelbaum currently oversees RespectAbility’s outreach to Hollywood to promote positive, accurate, diverse and inclusive media portrayals on TV and in film. To reach her, email LaurenA@RespectAbility.org.

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