Why Sheldon Cooper Matters, Aspergers or Nerd

05 Jan

If you have read my most recent posts and tweets, you might be thinking I am becoming a bit obsessed with The Big Bang Theory. You are correct. I am in the midst of a self-imposed TBBT marathon, having purchased each of the seasons on DVD. I have watched approximately two-thirds of the first season, and I have some preliminary thoughts on Sheldon Cooper’s status as an Aspie. If you are  wondering why I care so much about whether or not this diagnosis is appropriate, read the next two paragraphs. If you are simply curious about why Sheldon might be (and not be) an Aspie, skip the following two paragraphs and read on.

There have always been television shows about nerds, which can be lovingly defined as people who do not conform to society’s beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do. Nerds are often highly intelligent but socially rejected because of their obsession with a given subject, usually computers. More simply, a nerd is a stereotypical label used to describe a person that is socially inadequate. A four letter word, but a six figure income.  One whose IQ exceeds his or her body weight. Urkel from Family Matters and Dwight Schrute from The Office immediately jump to mind. More recently, Glee has redefined what nerds look and sound and act like. These nerds are likable, if not lovable, and funny, proven by ratings, longevity, and pop culture.

If I wanted an embodiment of an Aspie, I would not turn to Urkel, Lea Michelle, or Dwight. They were and are representations of suspender-wearing, pocket-protected nerds, not of the particular characteristics organic to Aspies. They can read body language, understand sarcasm, initiate conversations, talk about topics other than an obsession. They are not Aspies. That Shelden has graced our televisions highlights  the successes of neurodiversity and of the widening acceptance of the human experience. The reality of the old formula that a nerd is a nerd is a nerd is not quite right.

So, we turn to Sheldon. Is he an Aspie — an adult Aspie at that — to offset the other working pop-culture definition of AS (Parenthood‘s Max)? In many ways, I would argue he is not — he’s just a nerd. When he was fired for being socially inappropriate and too honest (both Aspie traits) to his new boss, Shelden seized this monumental change in routine (of three years) to conduct much-wanted experiments and venture into public to see how “normal” people live at the grocery store. And with Penny, the social genius from Omaha, Shelden is again too pedantic and too honest, yet he recognizes certain social cues from her (as well as his best friend Leonard) that are surprising at times. Ultimately, though, these are rare occurrences.

Sheldon is usually too loud, too forward, too obsessed, too smart (if there is such a thing!), too honest, and ever-so-unaware of what others think of him. Take the episode in which his inability to recognize sarcasm (and other figurative speech) results in his recommendation of a proctologist to Penny. In these 120 seconds, we see his seven-tiered breakfast fiber system, his awkward gait, his ever-so-routine outfit (graphic t-shirt covering his long-sleeve t-shirt pushed slightly up to his arms no doubt due to tactile issues), his struggles with social cues, his atypical speech pattern and prosody, his inability to read the mood of Leonard, his apparent non-reaction to Penny’s disgust with the guys’ night activities, his obsession with symmetry, and on and on and on I could go.

Sheldon is a cocktail of characteristics so easily recognizable as traits of Asperger’s complicated by his feats of neurotypical genius. Therein lies his — and the show’s — greatness: Portraying an under-represented, but highly important and influential part of our population in a manner that is accessible and admirable.


Posted by on January 5, 2011 in Uncategorized


13 responses to “Why Sheldon Cooper Matters, Aspergers or Nerd

  1. KWombles

    January 5, 2011 at 10:51 PM

    Oh, you’re in for a treat as you work your way through the show. We’ve watched the show obsessively here; my daughters adore Sheldon. We’ve been through all three seasons several times and we always do it as marathon sessions!

  2. Katzedecimal

    January 6, 2011 at 12:24 AM

    Dr. Sheldon Cooper joins Dr. Spencer Reid (“Criminal Minds”) and Dr. Temperance Brennan (“Bones”) as television characters with strong AS traits. All three characters present adults with AS as successful, socially acceptable, and valuable to their coworkers and friends. Dr. Brennan even puts the idea of adult women with AS into the public consciousness. I applaud these actors and the effort they put into portraying their characters in a way that makes them recognizable, and positive role models for viewers with AS and our families.

  3. Julianne

    January 7, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    Just stumbled across your blog as I was looking for other autism-related sites. My family and I LOVE Big Bang Theory, mainly for the quirky humor, but also because of Sheldon’s Asperger tendencies. My younger brother has PDD-NOS, so my family tends to appreciate shows that help awareness!

  4. aspergers2mom/Elise

    January 14, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    We love Sheldon, in our house he’s a hero.

  5. Michael V. Drejer

    January 16, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    The writers of TBBT have specifically stated that Sheldon does not have Asperger’s. Though it’s easy to see where people get the idea that he does have AS. But it is because he shows so many aspie traits that I think he is so awesome. I have Asperger’s myself, and I can definitely relate to many of Sheldon’s quirks and ways of behaviour.

  6. Rita

    January 20, 2011 at 3:07 PM

    Sheldon has a textbook case of Asperger’s. Only an Aspie couldn’t recognize it at first sight. If you still continue to analyze it, it means you have it too. 😉 (just kidding)

    Actually, I love Sheldon very much. He is my favorite TV character. And it’s his Asperger’s that makes him so charming. Sheldon Cooper plays a truly amazing part in our awareness – through his character, all the traits related to the condition can be understood and accepted by humans.

  7. Make pretend real

    January 22, 2011 at 9:47 PM

    I can only hope that my incredible and unconventional Aspie daughter ends up like Sheldon:) They’re a lot alike already.

  8. anna

    October 7, 2011 at 5:12 AM

    It’s so obvious he has Aspergers, that it’s ridiculous to even debate.It’s ridiculous to deny it, he has text book case of Asperger syndrome.Not understanding sarcasm and of course after all these years he may know some social rules ,but he’s awkward ,hardly understands what’s for and why,

  9. Berisha

    November 1, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Hes got a lot of the traits of Aspergers, but hes also an asshole, so I am like searching for a way for him not to be, he is really even more so OCD(Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) sometimes these two overlap but not always. And lets keep in mind he is a made up character. As someone with Aspergers I am a little disturbed by the trend of all people with Aspergers being portrayed as male, usually white, technology nerds who are really selfish with not just awkward mannerisms but a genuine lack of caring about people. Also a stereotype that we are all totally uninterested in romantic relationships and sex, not true, and that we all have OCD. Some people with Aspergers are actually quite messy, while we are all pretty much nerds some are more into literature art culture music. Many Aspergians are into psychology, or social sciences or politics. But the TV stereotype of an Aspie wouldn’t probably be interested in anything involving human beings. It is true that we are often slow to understand what other people are thinking and feeling due to a lack of reading body language. It does not mean we cannot emphasize, that is a lie. It does not mean we don’t care about people.

    • Berisha

      November 1, 2012 at 4:56 PM

      I just want to clarify real quick. You can have Aspergers and be a selfish jerk, of course. The fictional character of Sheldon does seem too Aspergers for me to deny it. Its just nor correct that being a selfish jerk is part of the condition, its neither an excuse for someone with Aspergers to act like that or for someone without Aspergers to stereotype that we are all like that. I’m not a big fan of Community as a show more of a fan of Big Bang actually but I have seen it and I find Abed to be a Asperger character that is much more to my liking, I’ve also heard that the writer of the show may in fact have Aspergers himself.


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