As most people know, the US churns out hospital-based TV shows by the bucketload. This year I heard about a new one, and it obviously interested me. It centres around Dr. Shaun Murphy, a young surgical resident starting his first placement in a leading-edge hospital. The twist is that he has autism spectrum disorder and savant syndrome, which means he’s brilliant at what he does but sometimes has difficulty communicating with his colleagues.
It’s an intriguing concept, and certainly a brave one. ASD is already pretty poorly understood by the general public, and as it’s such a wide spectrum, there was a great risk that an unsympathetic performance might simply reinforce the stereotypes.
Thankfully, Dr. Murphy is being played by a brilliant young actor, Freddie Highmore. Like all the best actors in US TV procedurals, he’s British putting on an accent. So a British neurotypical actor is playing an ASD/savant American doctor. And it works.
It’s made by the same people who created House. However, Dr. Murphy isn’t played like House was: he isn’t arrogant in his superior knowledge, he isn’t deliberately abrasive with his colleagues. He’s flawed, yes, but he’s also funny – sometimes deliberately, other times not so much – and I suspect many of us can relate to what he’s going through.
While most episodes are thought-provoking, the one we watched most recently was even more so. Spoilers follow, so skip the rest of the post if you haven’t seen the episode “22 steps” yet.
In this episode, Shaun treats a patient suffering from ASD. However, his symptoms differ greatly and Shaun struggles at first to relate to this patient (as he’s never met another person with ASD). The situation the patient is in is obviously stressful, and Shaun eventually connects with him using numbers – hence the title – as a way to help him self-calm.
The thought-provoking part of the episode for me was how the patient’s parents coped with the situation. They took all the decisions about his treatment, including trying to get Shaun excluded from the surgical team because they were afraid that his “limitations” would put their son’s life in danger. They were so focused on what their son couldn’t do that they’d stopped seeing what he could do.
It made me wonder. Do I do the same thing with Antony? Do I limit him because there are things I don’t think he’s capable of doing right now? I make sure to hold his hand whenever we walk by a road; should I let him be more independent and walk on his own? Should I allow him to choose his lunch at school even though I don’t think he really gets the concept of it? Should we let him decide what to wear or when it’s time to go to bed?
I don’t want to be that controlling dad who prescribes everything that Antony does. I want more than anything for him to be independent, but I worry that giving him that independence might be the wrong thing to do. What if he runs into the road and I’m not quick enough to catch him? What if he chooses a meal and it’s not what he wanted and melts down when he can’t change it later? What if he chooses to wear just his underpants and melts down when we try to explain how impractical that is? What if he chooses to stay up all night watching the same episodes of Paw Patrol over and over?
Every parent goes through this, I’m sure. There’s no handbook for parenting but I think it’s reasonable to say that there are rough guidelines. I don’t think even that exists for children with ASD as they’re all so different. You get to know your child and their “limitations”, and act accordingly. But what this episode brought into sharp focus for me was that I’m not going to accept that Antony is limited forever. I accept that there are certain things that are problematic right now, for definite, but I’m not going to lead with the assumption that it’ll always be the case. So yes, I’m going to continue holding his hand until I’m sure that he isn’t going to run into the road. But also, I’ll give him the chance to choose his meals and if he melts down we’ll back off and try again later. I don’t think it’s right to insulate him from the things that make him anxious, but I also don’t think it’s right for them to be right there in his face if there’s an alternative.