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'The Good Doctor' Star Freddie Highmore Opens up About Playing Someone With Autism on TV

Heather Finn
Photo credit: Jack Rowand - ABC

From Good Housekeeping

Since ABC's hit show The Good Doctor first premiered in September 2017, 27-year-old British actor Freddie Highmore has played Dr. Shaun Murphy, a surgical resident with autism, on the medical drama.

Playing a character with autism on a wildly popular network TV show is a role that Freddie (who does not have autism himself) takes very seriously — and one that he's been applauded for doing exceptionally well on many occasions. Here, we take a look back at what the Good Doctor actor has said about his time playing Shaun.

On doing research for the role:

Before playing Shaun, Freddie has said he was "aware" of autism because he knows people in his personal life with the condition. But in order to properly portray a person with autism himself, Freddie and The Good Doctor showrunner David Shore did a ton of research before even filming their first episode. They also hired autism consultant Melissa Reiner to help them get the character just right.

Photo credit: Jack Rowand - ABC

"David Shore, our wonderful main writer and showrunner, and I sat down before the pilot — and also between the pilot and making the show — with the consultant that we still have on-board," Freddie said on ABC podcast Popcorn With Peter Travers. "And [we] also just traded back and forth books and pieces of literature and documentaries that we thought were useful or gave us some sort of insight into building this one, very particular character."

Freddie's research hasn't stopped since, even now that he's three seasons into playing his character: "I'm constantly learning," he told Digital Spy earlier this year. "Aside from continual research, or working with the consultant that we have, I'm also talking to people who feel that they have a personal connection to the show through autism, and are pleased or thankful that the show is seeking to raise awareness in that way."

On Shaun's mannerisms:

Fans of The Good Doctor know that Shaun can often be seen holding his hands clasped together in front of him throughout the show. This is very intentional, according to Freddie, and the result of two main factors.

Photo credit: David Bukach - ABC

"The way that Shaun holds his hands is something that makes him stand out," he told the Los Angeles Times. "For me, that came from two places. Kids with autism [used to be] encouraged to clasp their hands together in order not to stim, [a term describing repetitive movements or sounds]. It's called 'quiet hands.' Surgeons, in an operating room, consider the front of the body as sterile and often stand in this position to keep their hands sterile. So that particular mannerism is sort of half something that's a trauma, that's been forced upon him, and is also something that's natural for surgeons to do, so there's a comfort there too."

On Shaun's evolution as a character:

"[David Shore and I] spoke mostly about Shaun and the development of his character over time," Freddie told the LA Times. "People who aren't aware of autism in a personal way or haven't watched the show sometimes say, 'How will Shaun change? He'll always have autism. What's his arc going to be?' So one of the things we discussed early on is, 'Yes, he'll always have autism. But he's going to change continuously as an individual as he adapts to this new world that he finds himself in.' That was exciting to me: This individual, regardless of whether or not he's on the spectrum, is going on a journey as a character."

Specifically, as Freddie said on Popcorn With Peter Travers, he's enjoyed watching Shaun evolve from the naive young man he was when he first arrived in the "big city" for his residency after growing up in the countryside: "Just because Shaun has autism, that doesn't mean he's not going to grow and change as a person," he said.

On representing autism on TV:

While Freddie was creating his character on The Good Doctor, it was incredibly important to him that Shaun wasn't just a one-dimensional "person with autism" but rather a complete individual with his own complexities, just like any other character on your favorite TV shows.

Photo credit: David Bukach - ABC

"I appreciate the way in which Shaun is a fully formed character," Freddie told USA Today. "Often, people with autism on screen have been represented as somewhat emotionless or singularly focused on one thing, and that isn't true. We get to see Shaun in moments of joy, what makes him excited, alongside the very real struggle he's facing."

On why he loves playing Shaun:

"I feel very fortunate to have been offered the part of Shaun," he told Digital Spy. "It seemed like an incredibly important project, and that's why I wanted to be a part of it. I'm proud to be a part of it."

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