Embodying autism on the small screen. Part 1: Sheldon Cooper

Film editor Joe Holloran examines the ways in which Autism Spectrum Disorder is portrayed on the small screen.

Joe Holloran
8th December 2019
When it comes to more diverse representation on TV, producers and creators have become more attuned to the representational needs of the wider public over the last decade or so. Sadly, there are some groups for whom this revolution bypassed. One of those is people on the autism spectrum (or atypicals for short).

Author's note: You can read part 2 of this series by clicking this link.

I was diagnosed as having Asperger's Syndrome (a form of so-called "high functioning" autism, a term I know is problematic) back in 2016. I, therefore, identify as an 'Aspie'. This type of autism is as complex in scope and as varied in impact as all other forms, but some common traits include: repetitive and restricted interests, sensory sensitivity, issues with socialization and more prominent literal (black/white, right/wrong) thinking.

Sheldon never misses an opportunity to show how intelligent he is. Image:IMDB

When you think of an autistic character from film or TV what comes to mind? I don't know for sure but I can take an educated guess that you are probably thinking of Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man (1988) (if you can think of any at all). Don't get me wrong, Rain Man is an excellent film and, for its time, actually portrays ASD quite sympathetically. But, Babbitt is only one portrayal of a vast condition and one that is now over thirty-years old.

With so few representations of ASD characters on TV the ones we do have are important because, for many, they will form the basis of their entire understanding of the condition. So, how realistic are these limited portrayals? To answer that question I will be examining two characters from two of the most popular and widely watched shows of the last few years. In this article I will be looking at Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory (2007-2019) and in my follow up after Christmas I will focus on Sam Gardner from the Netflix series Atypical (2017-present).

Sheldon Cooper was portrayed for twelve years by Jim Parsons on the hit TBS sitcom about a group of geeky academics living in LA. What is interesting about Sheldon is that the show's creators - Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady - have always denied writing Sheldon as having Aspergers, while Parsons himself claimed that after ASD fans started identifying with the role, he began reading into ASD and used it to inform his performance and to make it more realistic. This was a nice touch on his part.

Chuck Lorre, however, has stated that as far as he's concerned "Sheldon's mother didn't get a diagnosis, so we don't have one". I am torn about this decision. On the one hand I can see that he may not want to have the character be seen as 'special' as then any inappropriate thing that Sheldon does, people with little knowledge of the condition will just associate ASD with those negative traits. However, if they had acknowledged the condition they could have used the character as a way to educate the public about what the condition actually is while still having Sheldon be his annoying, lovable self.

Flags, one of Sheldon's few intense interests also shared by Amy (Mayim Bialik). Image:IMDB

There are aspects of Sheldon's character that I feel are very accurate to Asperger's and others that I fear are based on stereotypes or actually have nothing to do with the condition but rather his personality. Sheldon is routine oriented and is always uncomfortable with changes to his carefully planned life. From my point of view this is true. I used to get very anxious when going on holiday for example because of the change in routine, new sensory information (new smells, heat changes etc). Transitioning from the summer holidays to term time was also difficult. For us aspies, there is comfort, not contempt, in the familiar.

Sheldon has lots of intense interests which he will fixate over - Star Trek, Comics and trains to name but a few. He spent much of his youth learning all he could about these, often very specific, things that interested him, stored the information, then moved on. This is also true of me, although my current obsession - Star Wars - has been going strong for the last decade at least. Sheldon is also interested in the pragmatism of science and how the world works. While I don't claim to be anywhere near his level of intelligence, Sheldon and I do share a love of discovering some little scientific fact or phillisophical theory and then sharing it with anyone who we manage to corner.

Sheldon's long-suffering best friends, Penny (Kaley Cuoco) & Leonard (Johnny Galecki). Image:IMDB

Where I don't think Sheldon is a good portrayal of ASD is in the way he treats others. Sheldon is rude, condescending and incredibly arrogant. One of the most persistant and popular myths around ASD is that people on the spectrum have no empathy. This is not true. It is accurate that we struggle to recognise facial cue's, body language, indirect language and sarcasm (No, I'm 'fine'!) but studies have shown that once we know someone is upset we actually feel their pain more accutley than neurotypicals. This, again, goes back to the black and white way of seeing the world. 'I don't like to feel bad so I should stop others from feeling bad'.

Until the very last episode of the very last season, Sheldon knows his behaviour is selfish and negativly affecting the lives of those around him but does nothing about it. To me this is down to his personality and his unwillingness to accept his imperfections. Many 'aspie' kids are given the training to function better socially while still young and they carry these skills with them in through life. Sheldon, it seems, was taught these skills but chose to ignored them.

Although he does improve in this regard in the last few seasons, this is still the biggest issue for me with the character of Sheldon Cooper. The popularity of the show means that for a whole generation, he is the autistic person they know and now because of his behaviour many of the negative stereotypes around ASD will forever be reinforced in the minds of the audience.

The video below from autistic YouTuber 'The Aspie World' showcases somemore of Sheldon's most prominent autistic traits. May contain ads.

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  1. The whole time I've watched The Big Bang Theory over the years, it seemed to me that one of the functional villains of the show was Sheldon (the other one being "women who won't f*** me"). He is written to be starkly different from the other characters of the show, and there is no distinction of any kind made between autistic traits and Sheldon's personality traits, and thus the whole image gets sold as "haha autism person annoying." I could not understand why people liked his portrayal as a representation of autistic people, when it seemed his purpose in the show was to be as obnoxious as possible. Isn't that *not* how we want ASD people to be perceived?

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