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.