Rockville, Maryland, May 9 – I watched Lauren struggle at work. She had poor social skills. She talked obsessively about roller coasters and her siblings’ engagements and subsequent weddings. She had trouble understanding other people’s emotions. She didn’t look at you when you spoke to her. She was very sensitive to loud noises; she had to be warned of fire drills and left the area ahead of everyone else. She had trouble expressing what she needed. She flapped her hands when she struggled to articulate what she was trying to say. Her sense of touch was poor; she couldn’t tell when clothes were damp or dry. Most distressing, she rarely received credit for her hard work; only her mistakes were recognized and never forgotten. She was treated unfairly. She was too smart for her own good. She had been a laundry aide for nine years. Lauren has Asperger’s syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She overcame adversity by trying her best and being herself.
I thought that because I have a disability and had family members who have disabilities, that I understood all disabilities. That is not true. I did not understand why Lauren was making inappropriate comments, not listening to understand what I was trying to say and making my day harder than it needed to be sometimes. I did not know why she was behaving the way she did. I would not understand any of her behaviors until I watched ABC’s “The Good Doctor” and I saw Freddie Highmore’s Dr. Shaun Murphy behave in the same manner.
Highmore plays Dr. Murphy, a surgical resident with Asperger’s syndrome and savant syndrome, who works at St. Bonaventure Hospital. In the beginning, Dr. Andrews, chief of surgery, and Dr. Melendez, head surgeon, especially doubt Murphy’s abilities to be a good surgeon because he is diagnosed with autism. Meanwhile, Dr. Aaron Glassman, the hospital’s president who has known Murphy since he was 14, is his only advocate fighting for Murphy’s right to work at the hospital.
“We hire him because he is qualified and because he is different. 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. We hire Shaun and we make the hospital better for it. We hire Shaun and we are better people for it,” Glassman pleads with the board of directors.
Even after seeing him save a young boy’s life in the airport on TV, the staff still doubts his ability to be a good doctor because of his autism. Because of his savant syndrome, Murphy has almost perfect recall and can see things that others cannot. This enables him to navigate through surgeries he stands in on. It also enables him to save a young girl with a heart condition and almost dies because of a lucrative diagnosis that the surgeons miss. Despite the staff’s prejudices against him, Murphy stands strong and proves he will make an excellent doctor, not despite of, but because of his autism.
Like Lauren, Murphy does not make eye contact with anyone, has trouble communicating and is treated unfairly among the hospital staff. Where she did not pay attention, Murphy’s attention to detail is impeccable, so much so that it annoys Melendez so he gives him “scut work” to do, or work that no one else wants to do. Murphy follows directions he is given but he follows his gut instincts when he needs to when it concerns a patient.
One in 59 children are diagnosed with autism every year, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include having difficult in social situations, communication issues, avoiding eye contact and talking obsessively about a subject that interests them.
I have spastic cerebral palsy and watching “The Good Doctor” helped me learn about other disabilities. Like Lauren, I sometimes have trouble communicating. I did not know how to approach Lauren in the best way. I never realized how much I did not know about my own community until I got more into it.
Murphy and Lauren prove that people with autism, and all disabilities, have the ability and motivation to work. Hiring people with disabilities is important because it creates a diverse workplace that not only adds to the morale of the company, but also leads to more opportunities for the employees.