I AM A SURGEON: not the best autism representation

Freddie Parker on 18 May 2023
Edited screenshot of the "I am a surgeon" scene from The Good Doctor

Jokes and memes have been made as a scene from The Good Doctor has resurfaced, but why aren't autistic people happy about the show?

Recently, an old clip from The Good Doctor has resurfaced and caused a stir. For those who don’t know, the show is about an autistic doctor and his journey being accepted by patients and colleagues alike. But many in the autistic community aren’t happy with the representation of the condition. Why you may ask?

For context, the scene that went viral shows the moment Freddie Highmore’s character confronts his boss. Shaun, the protagonist, had been removed from the surgery room after endangering a patient’s life. He then proceeds to scream “I am a surgeon” repeatedly.

Not authentic

There has been lots of discourse about who should be able to play which roles. Some will argue that acting is about inhabiting another person’s character. Others believe that a representation won’t be authentic if the actor doesn’t belong to the community they are depicting.

@austin_oh_geez This has got to be what it sounds like between takes on that set #thegooddoctor #autismawareness #drhan #iamasurgeon ♬ original sound - austin o

The thing is, that claim about acting is just a way of making the inauthenticity palatable. Neither Freddie Highmore nor the writers of the show are autistic. Their knowledge is only observational. As an #actuallyautistic adult, the depiction feels very much based in stereotypes and misunderstandings.

Also, if the role goes to an allistic (non-autistic) actor, that’s denying autistic actors a chance at a role they’d be perfect for.

Not accurate

While there are definitely autistic people who feel represented by Shaun, by no means does the whole community feel this way. This is because the depiction of autism in the show isn’t based on anything other than what people think autism is.

@sagittariasss i’ll have more to add onto this later #thegooddoctor #actuallyautistic #autisticrepresentation ♬ original sound - sagittariasss

For example, Highmore’s strange affectation when he speaks. He puts on an odd cadence, seemingly trying to stress words the exact opposite way someone normally would. Yes, autistic people can talk differently, but this tends to either be in the form of monotone speech, poor volume control, mimicking or the “autism accent”.


One of the long standing issues with autism support is the under-diagnosis in demographics that aren’t white men. It’s only recently that women and people of colour are being recognised as autistic. Many people will even say that someone “doesn’t look autistic” because that person doesn’t fit the image of a young autistic boy they have in mind.

Is one white male autistic character an issue? No. But when all the Hollywood depictions of the condition are rooted in these demographics, it reinforces those stereotypes.

Another stereotype the show enforces is viewing the communication issues as rude, childish or both. So many social rules are arbitrary and unspoken, it’s cruel to view people as rude for not conforming to them. Also, autistic people are often infantilised, and framing communication difficulties this way doesn’t help. Treating autistic people like children also only helps to remove their agency.


In addition to the previously mentioned harm, the show has more to answer for. Firstly, autistic people have a hard enough time being heard that allistic actors and writers talking over us doesn’t help.

The reliance on stereotypes also means that the public will form prejudices and misconceptions about those who don’t fit the archetype. 

@theturtlewhoflew Reposting cause hashtags #autism #actuallyautistic #thegooddoctor #audhd ♬ original sound - theturtlewhoflew

Connection to Autism Speaks

There’s not enough space here to go into the myriad reasons Autism Speaks is a bad organisation, but I’ll name a few. Little to no autistic representation in their leadership team. Treating autism as a disease to be cured. Spreading misinformation. Framing autism as something to be feared. Shady budgeting.

The cast and writers of The Good Doctor have released several promos in partnership with Autism Speaks and the show is partly funded by them. No, not everyone knows about the issues with Autism Speaks. But the producers/researchers for the show should have done due diligence and looked into the organisation.

Prospective student? We want to hear from you! Join the Student Hut Forum and earn £s by taking surveys.

Freddie Parker
Freddie Parker on 18 May 2023