Chicago Med is examining Asperger’s Syndrome in some depth through the story of a brilliant surgeon, Dr. Isidore Latham. It’s rare to see a real exploration of what it means to be an adult who has AS and to see how others respond to someone who has it.
For those unaware, Dr. Isidore Latham is an outstanding surgeon who is the ambivalent mentor to a Chicago Med main character, Dr. Rhodes. Dr. Latham’s AS is immediately obvious to those “in the know.” He is brilliant, very detail focused, logical, and completely task oriented. He’s also inflexible and completely impersonal. He shows no facial expressiveness, social understanding or awareness of subjective nuance. His interactions are generally blunt and tactless.
The hospital staff relates to Dr. Latham mostly with hostility in response to his aloofness and what’s perceived as his rudeness and criticisms of their work. This is typical of how AS individuals can be seen. In an environment that functions as a team, Dr. Latham’s not a team player.
Dr. Latham had been aware of being different even during his student years, but he has never been clear about why or how. He approaches the senior psychiatrist in the ER, Dr. Webb, who gives him articles on AS; as a result, Dr. Latham recognizes himself as on the autistic spectrum.
As someone who’s interested in expanding his knowledge base, he asks to try transcranial magnetic stimulation treatments being used for depression in the hospital. After a treatment, he recognizes facial emotional expression and realizes how much he’s been missing. (Note: this is a plot line, not a medical recommendation. Researchers stress that TMS isn’t ready for general use.)
Episodes then focus on Dr. Latham’s efforts to change. He becomes aware of his lack of trust in others. He has to risk placing trust in Dr. Rhodes as he struggles to perform a procedure that is challenging due to his inflexibility. He also steps out of his usual character to defend Dr. Rhodes. He is invited out for drinks and out of habit says no, but in the new spirit of going beyond his comfort zone, he accepts.
Dr. Latham’s vulnerability in social situations due to his lack of social understanding is evident as he is targeted and led into a situation in which his valuables are stolen. Dr. Rhodes helps him, which again challenges Dr. Latham’s longstanding belief that he is completely on his own.
The advantages of Dr. Latham’s AS thinking is highlighted as well. In one episode, the ER is overwhelmed by victims of a massive accident, and there must be life and death decisions about which patients will get the limited number of doctors and resources. While the rest of the staff is fairly overwhelmed by the emotional nature of the situation, Dr. Latham is able to logically select those patients most likely to survive and to benefit from treatment. Dr. Rhodes comments that he admires Dr. Latham’s capacity to make such difficult choices with logical clarity.
We see Dr. Latham exploring himself, some team members exploring their reactions to him, and gradual changes. How is this similar, or different, to actual people I see?
Some find an AS diagnosis a relief, a realization that they are not unique and are in fact part of a larger community. Others resist being diagnosed as having something wrong with them. Dr. Latham seems open and challenged by this insight into himself. He’s not reaching out to a community, but he’s exploring new behavior. I can “buy” this.
Dr. Latham is eager to try something that might change him. This can be attributed to his high standards and desire to master information and experiences he’s missing, but certainly not everyone in the AS community is looking to change. Many are fine with who they are, have a sense of pride in their unique abilities and the desire for others to accept their differences.
What I find less than “true to life” is Dr. Latham’s willingness and immediate ability to go beyond his comfort zone, first acting on some measure of trust, then drinks, then being with a woman, then traveling and even staying in a hotel. The lack of representation of the anxiety this would arouse seems to me to be less genuine. Most AS adults I know experience a high level of anxiety about entering novel or social situations, and would be more hesitant and gradual about diving in. Anxiety is a very strong component of AS, and a genuine portrayal of AS would include this anxiety.
Given these caveats, I think Chicago Med is both creating interest in and educating the public about an AS character, something often called for by those in the AS community. The scripts demonstrate willingness to explore both the unique strengths and challenges of someone with AS. I think both the surgical team and the audience will gain a significant education in AS as this story unfolds.