On Wednesday, actor Freddie Highmore, who is not autistic but plays autistic surgeon Shaun Murphy in the hit ABC series “The Good Doctor” addressed a common myth about individuals with autism not feeling emotions during an interview with Peter Travers in the segment “Popcorn with Peter Travers.”
The interview began with a conversation about how Highmore’s character has grown and developed during the two seasons of the show as well as what it’s like to play an autistic character.
During the interview, Highmore describes how his character wanted to become a surgeon to help people after the death of his brother. Following that statement, Travers says, “And you have to feel it, you have to feel that emotion and yet you are playing somebody who can’t express that emotion.”
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It takes Highmore a moment to answer the question. “Not that you are in any way suggesting this,” he starts, “but I think one of the misconceptions sometimes about people who have autism is that they somehow are devoid of emotion or emotionless, or that because they can’t always express their emotions that there’s nothing going on inside, and of course that’s not true.”
This myth is exactly that, a myth, Maxine Share, an autistic autism consultant for a non-profit agency in Canada, explained. “Because [autistic people] may have naturally a flat facial expression and flat tone of voice, assumptions are made that their responses indicate a lack of empathy,” Share told The Mighty. Autistic children don’t know what they are communicating with their body language, tone of voice or facial expressions and may not correctly interpret what others are communicating, she said, adding:
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Autistic people feel emotion deeply—emotional empathy exists by the bucketful. Cognitive empathy? Knowing what to do with what you are feeling or knowing how to respond to the feeling of others? That is another story entirely.
Those with an autistic identification might struggle to understand what is expected of them when others are in distress, or grieving, or are overwhelmed with joy or other emotions. The good news is that autistic children, teens, and adults can learn, but others must take the time to teach to any gaps in understanding.
Carlyle King, who is autistic and the founder of the “Boise Autistic Adults and Allies” group told The Mighty, “Aside from being false, I think the myth that we are devoid of emotions is one of the most damaging myths about autistic people, since it means that our feelings never need to be considered at all.”
It’s important that, like Highmore, we callout myths like these when we see them. “What we don’t want to do is shame people for being autistic,” Share said. “Or shame them for not knowing how to respond because they were not taught directly what others might pick up intuitively.”