Are Shows Like ‘The Good Doctor’ and ‘Love on the Spectrum’ Helping or Hurting Autism Awareness?

If you’re following Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, you were likely charmed by Abbey and David’s kiss on an African Safari hilltop or beamed as Tanner and a timid Kate shared a broken umbrella in the rain. Early watchers of the show, like Michelle Ivey, said the dating series had the potential to foster genuine empathy with its stars and spur interest in more love-centered stories on the spectrum.

“I really did enjoy seeing an autistic person moving through regular life stuff, moving through dating and trying to find someone but with the element of having different social perspectives,” Ivey, a University of Houston communication sciences and disorders professor, tells Rolling Stone.

One researcher with autism, however, felt the series resembled something quite different. 

“There is this positioning of the autistic people [on the show] as very cute, they’re very sweet, ‘Look at these unusual people,’ it’s like, ‘Look at the meerkats,’” University of Wollongong professor Sandra Thom-Jones tells Rolling Stone.  

TV adaptations depicting people on the spectrum are on the rise — and with it, some viewers support the representation, while others feel uneasy about their portrayals. The seventh and final season of ABC’s The Good Doctor, which follows a gifted surgeon with autism and savant syndrome, premiered Tuesday, while the second season of Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum has spent several weeks on Netflix’s Global Top 10 list. And Netflix’s Heartbreak High, where an unruly class of high schoolers preps for term two, returns in April. Researchers tell Rolling Stone that since shows like The Good Doctor still center on white male protagonists, only a part of the story of neurodivergence is being told. And while Love on the Spectrum has a diverse cast, some experts say the series’ focus on family distress can infantilize the cast. Despite the recent rise in awareness, they’re hoping for a wider array of neurodiverse portrayals down the line. 

Neurodiversity, a term coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s, describes differences in brain functions and behavioral traits. The term often refers to people with autism spectrum disorder or other neurological or developmental conditions, like ADHD or learning disabilities. Many neurodiverse people have higher-than-average abilities, like Freddie Highmore’s Dr. Shaun Murphy in The Good Doctor, a skilled surgeon who uses 3D graphics to visualize his insights.

The medical series was ranked as the top entertainment show last season in the Monday 10 p.m. slot for ages 18 to 49, according to ABC. Around the announcement of the final season, Disney Television Group president Craig Erwich told Variety that the show has “captivated audiences, who have deeply connected with Dr. Shaun Murphy and the staff at San Jose St. Bonaventure Hospital.” University of Wollongong professor Thom-Jones says the series spreads awareness of the varied job roles people on the spectrum can hold beyond the computer programmer and shelf-stacker stereotypes.

“One thing that we’ve seen a big shift in — and it’s about the only career we’ve seen a shift in — is an increase over time in the number of people who think that autistic people can be doctors,” says Thom-Jones, who has authored numerous studies on autism portrayals in entertainment media. “I’m not saying it’s the only factor that contributes, but we strongly believe that that show has been a part of that.”

During the Season Six finale, Shaun becomes a father, and in the show’s farewell season, he navigates the trials of parenthood, procedurally changing diapers and putting his newborn to sleep while also juggling challenges with his surgical team. One of his first obstacles: Two newborns are in need of a life-saving heart transplant when only one heart is available. While the latest season introduces ripe storylines, Thom-Jones notes that since The Good Doctor focuses on the experience of a white male with autism, it excludes other identities within the community. She also points out that the character is also played by a non-autistic person when there are many actors on the spectrum who could’ve played the role. (ABC representatives declined requests for comment.) 

“I can be pretty confident that every female character I see on TV is played by a female actor, if I’m concerned about portrayal of children on television, I can be pretty confident that most of the children characters are played by children actors,” Thom-Jones says. “That’s where some of those controversies are going to remain, where we are always going to feel uncomfortable that we are portrayed in the media and the people portraying us are not us.”

Since 2010, following NBC’s Parenthood and the discovery of Max’s (Max Burkholder) Asperger’s diagnosis, autism portrayals have only become more common, though the characters have not been particularly diverse. Netflix’s Atypical, released in 2017, followed Keir Gilchrist’s Sam, an autistic teen with a fascination for penguins who is eager to start dating. Big Bang Theory was also No. 1 in the U.S. that year, and many believed the sitcom protagonist Sheldon (Jim Parsons) exhibited autism stereotypes. And the show’s spinoff, Young Sheldon, continued the trope of the white male lead. 

“So many portrayals of autistic people are white, adolescent, young-adult males typically from middle-class families,” Thom-Jones says. “Where are the autistic females? Where are the autistic people of color? Where are the autistic people with different presentations? That is starting to change, but very slowly.” 

In the years since, shows like Freeform’s Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Amazon’s As We See It, and Love on the Spectrum attempt to change that by casting people with autism. The Emmy-winning reality series Love on the Spectrum centers on the realities of dating for neurodiverse people from a vast selection of backgrounds. Producers set up first dates and meet with coaches to prepare for the intimate interaction. The show’s co-creators, Cian O’Clery and Karina Holden, tells Rolling Stone they aim to present a myriad of voices within the autism community.

“Representation is important, and we feel that by telling real people’s stories, in their own voices, we are introducing audiences to people who have been under-represented for too long,”  wrote the co-creators in a statement to Rolling Stone. “We are thrilled that millions are watching this show and loving the people who are sharing their stories.” 

The latest season introduces new singles and regulars like Abbey and David, whose nearly two-year romantic partnership and shared passion for wildlife have created a growing fandom on TikTok and other platforms. Ivey, a communication sciences and disorders researcher, said she was a fan of the show’s first season as it highlighted successful neurodiverse singles looking for love. 

“Previously, there was less awareness of the potential for autistic people to succeed, and that was because of the expectation of having language and communication deficits that impeded their ability to understand and do cognitive tasks,” says Ivey, who recently co-authored an article on autistic portrayals in adult and children’s shows in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

Although the series is one of the first to showcase dating on the spectrum, some researchers believe that the show portrays the romance hopefuls as younger than they actually are. For one, the show’s upbeat, bubbly song choice differed from other specialized dating shows like Indian Matchmaking and Love is Blind, Ivey adds.

“This is not the music for an adult dating show, based on the other two,” Ivey says. “A lot of these contestants are looking at first relationships, which is something that more people experienced in their teens — maybe not childlike, but rather adolescents.”

Thom-Jones adds that the cast members being interviewed in their bedrooms felt invasive, and the show’s highlighting of exhausted parents and siblings adds to the infantilization of the subjects. 

“I worry that people watching it are getting a very biased, stereotypical view of what autistic people are like,” Thom-Jones shares. “And there is very much that sense that this show is endearing and entertaining, but it’s more at the expense of autistic people rather than in support of them.”

Ariel Simms, president and CEO of the disability-led nonprofit RespectAbility, says people with disabilities are often stereotyped as charity cases or follow “inspiration porn” storylines, a term coined by the late disability rights activist Stella Young which she defined as “images [that] objectify disabled people for the benefit of nondisabled people.”

“There is often an emphasis on stories that make it about somebody overcoming their disability or succeeding despite their disability, and it really fits into that inspiration, as opposed to just highlighting more authentic lived experience of disability and the ups and downs that actually come with that,” Simms tells Rolling Stone, referring generally to TV depictions.  

Positive portrayals by and for people with learning and physical disabilities exist, Simms adds, like Netflix’s animated series Mech Cadets and Apple TV+’s Best Foot Forward, which both feature a young amputee. And Netflix’s Heartbreak High cast Chloe Hayden, who was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, as Quinni, the autistic Hartley High teen. 


But ultimately, people with disabilities still remain underrepresented on TV, according to a study conducted by Nielsen, making up just 6.6 percent of TV show characters, despite one in four Americans having a disability. Researchers and activists are pushing for portrayals onscreen that include deaf actors, performers with stutters, autistic individuals, and others in the title role. 

“Are we featuring disabled individuals because we think people will think they’re cute and funny, or going back to that trope of charity or pity?” Simms said. “Or, on the other side, is it about them being inspirational? I think motivations are really important in storytelling.”