Is Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory Autistic? Amy’s Vision of Neurodiversity May Bring Tears to Your Eyes
Posted on April 27, 2019 by All In
“I often misintepret how others are feeling. Like, I can’t always tell if someone is only joking or laughing at me, you know, like, if they are mad it’s something I’ve done or just in a bad mood. It’s incredibly stressful […] and if I could read people’s minds, life would be so much simpler.”
Sheldon Cooper, The Big Bang Theory
One question that often came up amongst fans of The Big Bang Theory is:
Does the main character Sheldon Cooper have autism?
Although this question was never answered in the show and the creators have denied it, it remains so widespread that a Youtube channel that compiled examples of how Sheldon exhibited some of the symptoms has been viewed more than 1.8 million times!
The issue also came up during StarTalk! Big Brains at BAM, a talk show that combines science with pop culture.
During the show, the host Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out that The Big Bang Theory has been criticised for its caricature of stereotypes. He said to Mayim Bialik, the actress who plays Amy, Sheldon’s wife.
“I think your love interest who is Sheldon […] comes closest to what anyone might describe as having Asperger’s* or some other kind of non-social behaviour.”
Amy (Mayim)’s Response
Mayim, who has Ph.D in neuroscience, gave a moving response.
This response caused Neil to stutter, the audience to break out into applause, and me to break into tears:
“All of our characters are, you know, in theory on the neuropsychiatric spectrum, I would say. Sheldon often gets talked about in terms of Asperger’s or OCD. He has a thing with germs, he has a thing with numbers, he’s got a lot of sort of that precision that we see in OCD, and there’s a lot of interesting features to all of our characters that make them technically unconventional socially.
“And I think what’s interesting and kind of sweet and what should not be lost on people is that we don’t pathologise our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them.
“And I think that’s what’s interesting for those of us who are unconventional people or who know and love people who are on any sort of spectrum, we often find ways to work around that. It doesn’t always need to be solved and medicated and labelled.
“And what we’re trying to show with our show is that this is a group of people who likely were teased, mocked, told that they will never be appreciated or loved, and we have a group of people who have careers, successful careers, active social lives that involve things like Dungeons and Dragons and video games, but they also have relationships, and that’s a fulfilling and satisfying life.”
What she said seems very close to the neurodiversity movement, which argues that neurological differences (such as autism, Tourette Syndrome, dyslexia) should be recognised and respected as human variation rather than pathologies. Rather than forcing people with neurological differences to adapt to “normal society” or medicating them, supporters of neurodiversity advocates support systems that allow these people to live authentically as they are.
Love It or Hate It?
This being the Internet, there is a whole spectrum of different views about the show’s approach.
There are some who thinks that this is one way the show escape social responsibility and perpetuate autism stereotypes:
One mother, Lydia Netzer even wrote in her article “The Problem with Sheldon Cooper and the ‘Cute Autism’” that:
Without the label, the writers can have their autism jokes and avoid being accused of stereotyping. They can be on trend while skipping the “very special episode” a diagnosis might have necessitated. Put a word to it, and it gets awkward. People might get mad.
As the mother of a child who has gotten through his teen years watching and idolizing Sheldon Cooper, I am actually already mad.
On the other hand, it is interesting to note that many of those who spoke up in defense of the show are people who said they have been diagnosed with autism themselves!
Lydia Netzer’s son, Benny Netzer, actually wrote in response to his mother’s article in his own article “I Am Not Sheldon Cooper“:
[…] I believe that Dr. Cooper’s diminutive autism and personal growth is a good starting point for discussion of this condition.
I even heard this from a local boy with autism several weeks ago in a school that I visited. The boy wanted to grow up to be just like Sheldon!
No matter why you watch the show, after talking to many individuals in our community, the biggest reason why people seem to be drawn to him is that he’s absolutely genuine. He is who he is and doesn’t pretend to be someone he isn’t. He’s just his own unique self.
Personally, the way I think about my child has lightened up after I watched Mayim’s response. For most of my daughter’s life, I was anxious and worried about her. I keep wanting to change her, to make her better, to ready her for the world that is not going to be nice to her. In short, as much as I love her, I have been seeing her as a problem to be solved.
Once I realise that, I stop trying to change her and begin to appreciate her for being herself. I find myself hoping that she can live as fearlessly as Sheldon does.
If you have watched The Big Bang Theory, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know what you think!
* Editor’s note: Asperger’s Syndrome was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and was included within the umbrella of the autism spectrum disorder in 2013.
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