While I believe it has never been explicitly stated on either “The Big Bang Theory” (BBT) or “Young Sheldon” (YS), it seems pretty clear that the character of Sheldon Cooper is intended to be autistic. He represents one of the common stereotype sets of an autist: Annoyingly obsessive about some topics, lacking in overt empathy (in a way that neurotypicals recognize), arrogant about his above-average intelligence, emotionally detached (even about his own needs), impatient with social scripts, prone to meltdowns, and inadvertently callous.
There are layers to this representation, especially if we take in the full context of both shows. Until recently, despite being a regular viewer of both shows (“Young Sheldon”, still in production, is on my DVR watch list), I have had resentment towards the depiction of Sheldon, but I couldn’t quite explain the complexities of my emotions.
Today, I will try.
I am autistic, but have only accepted that identity in the last few years. When I first started watching BBT, I had different sorts of mixed feelings about it. Many of my friends, everywhere from neurotypical to various spots on the neurospectral plane (oooooo, sounds spooooooky!), but uniformly “geeks and nerds”, disliked it because they felt it was holding us (geeks and nerds) up to public ridicule.
This gets at one of the main questions about comedy in general and BBT specifically: Are we to laugh AT the characters, or WITH them? And I think in the case of BBT, it was some of each.
When BBT depicts Sheldon’s sincere attempts to navigate a neurotypical world in a humorous way, it’s good. When BBT depicts Sheldon’s callous arrogance, steeped in anti-intellectualism or even “let’s laugh at the autistic person”, it’s bad. And on those occasions where Sheldon’s implied autism acts as a cover for his cruelty, it’s very bad.
I did not accept myself as autistic until after BBT had left production, and so now I’m involved in the process of reassessing based on that new perspective. I didn’t see the point of YS at the time, but I started watching it because my child (then eight) was also a fan of BBT and was interested in a show about a child roughly his age. To its credit, while the show maintained some of the details of Sheldon’s stereotypical autism, the comparative powerlessness of a child renders him less dangerous; the downside of that, though, is that it becomes easier to laugh AT the character.
But now I’d like to set the complexities of comedy and the neurotypical gaze aside. Let’s pretend it’s a drama, and nobody is laughing either at or with anyone. And I’m going to take YS/BBT as a single story about an autistic child growing up around the cusp of the 1990s.
For historical context: “Rain Man” premiered in theaters in 1988. The first season of “Young Sheldon” takes place in 1989. Outside of psychological circles, the public perception of “autism” was Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond Babbitt: A minimally communicative obsessive savant. Far from Sheldon Cooper.
Far from me.
See, growing up, I was Sheldon Cooper. I didn’t get along with my peers because I saw myself as too intelligent to deal with them. I had frequent, often violent, emotional meltdowns. I had topics I was obsessed over; at one point, it was my goal to read every Agatha Christie novel, and I could tell you many details about her characters. At another, I was going to be a ventriloquist, so I borrowed a book from the library of ventriloquism jokes and was hand-copying it (this was a world before easily accessed copiers) before my brother pointed out how inane that was (at which point I melted down and hid in a closet).
And, like Sheldon Cooper, the word “autism” was never uttered in my presence directed at me. In 1988, the Year of Rain Man, I was a junior in college; when I was a child, the “Rain Man” stereotype was a thing spoken of in hushed tones, in the same way we spoke of children with Down Syndrome. Had it been suggested to my parents that I was autistic, it would not have gone well.
At some point, when I was late into my teen years, my mother suggested I read “Dibs: In Search of Self” and “Lisa, Bright and Dark”. The first of these is about a child that would definitely be diagnosed with autism today. When it was published (1964), the author (a therapist writing about a fictionalized version of one of her own clients) avoided the term, and Dibs is closer to Raymond Babbitt than to Sheldon Cooper.
The fact that she offered these two books to me together, one about an autistic child and one about a suicidal teen, suggests that a therapist had offered them to her as a way of understanding me. That’s conjecture, but a reasonable one.
So: When I was a child, “autism” was a label reserved for non-communicative or minimally communicative boys who were highly intelligent but emotionally very unstable. Sheldon and I were far too communicative to earn it.
(Spoiler alert: I wasn’t a boy, but nobody knew that at the time.)
Sheldon the Child did not receive any real supports for his autism. Indeed, since he was raised in a fairly conservative part of Texas, with fairly conservative parents, the idea that he should have received therapy would have been anathema. Why would he need therapy? His unhappiness stems from his having to interact with people less intelligent than himself. That’s a reasonable thing to be unhappy about.
Sheldon the Adult has the problems common (not universal) to autistic adults who have not been given any supports as children and hence have had to navigate into adulthood on their own.
Unlike Sheldon the Child, I did receive quite a bit of therapy as a child, but it was aimed at helping a neurotypical boy deal with his tantrums. I was not neurotypical, not a boy, and was usually having meltdowns, not tantrums. There were ways in which the therapy helped, but also ways in which the therapy created dysfunctional and inaccurate beliefs about myself which, at 54, I’m struggling to dismantle.
Another way in which my lack of diagnosis (partially because of a lack of understanding) hurt me is in my toilet training issues. I did not routinely use the toilet to defecate until my tween years; I regularly soiled myself, even at school. This was attributed to my mother’s failure to toilet train me correctly, and while I will readily criticize her for things that were her own doing, I have come to believe that particular issue wasn’t her fault.
I only recently learned about the connection between interoception and autism. I have long known that I have Sensory Processing Disorder–there are foods I cannot eat because of their texture, I cannot stand the smell of coffee, I struggle with misophonia, I avoid most wool–but it didn’t occur to me that SPD could be related to my childhood encopresis.
But it makes sense: I have interoception issues, and they were stronger when I was a child. I often ate (and eat) not out of hunger but out of habit, because I don’t feel hungry until I’m extremely hungry. The opposite was also true: I didn’t feel the urge to void my bowels until it was an emergency.
My lack of diagnosis as autistic (or as “Asperger’s”, which is what I much more likely would have been called in the 1970s and 1980s) as a child had two damaging effects on my upbringing: I was not given appropriate supports and management strategies, and I was given disapprobative messages that created shame cycles in my brain.
To be clear: Autistic people are not any more entitled to meltdowns than neurotypical people are. We are not any more entitled to arrogance or callousness. We are just as obligated to be civil, polite, and kind, and many of us succeed at that.
But Windows software won’t run on Apple computers. It is not the fault of either the computer or the software, but it’s just not going to happen. (Computer pedants: Please just accept the analogy. I know some of you are wanting to “Well, actually…” this part.)
Autistic meltdowns need to be managed with strategies appropriate to autistic processes; using neurotypical strategies and then shaming the autist for not getting better results in shame, not in effective management.
Sheldon the Child became the callous, arrogant, emotionally detached Sheldon the Adult largely because of that lack of supports, just as I became who I am because of that lack. In my case, and extrapolating for Sheldon as well, it wasn’t just a lack of supports that was harmful, it was also the presence of the wrong supports, which inevitably failed to address the problem and led to feelings of “What’s wrong with me? Why am I so broken?”
I’m not broken, I’m autistic.
Postscript: Removing the comedy and looking at YS/BBT as a serious narrative, it works as a cautionary tale about the importance of proper supports (which, in BBT, Penny and Amy do provide; Amy appears to be autistic as well, although Penny is neurotypical). Taken on that level, it can be helpful for children who are now showing similarities to Sheldon the Child, as well as for adults struggling with the same “What’s wrong with me?” feelings I have.
At the same time, though, it can’t be forgotten that they are sitcoms, and there are dangerous messages in the idea of neurotypical laughing, either at or with, this behavior. This gets into a separate, also important, conversation about diminishing the responsibility autistic people have to be accountable for our harmful acts. That is for another time.
Also for another time: The BBT theme that men normally act with a combination of enabling and fear around other men, while women are expected to pick up the slack of actually helping.