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Terri Mauro

Asperger Syndrome on The Big Bang Theory

By February 12, 2009

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With all the talk about Mary McDonnell's Grey's Anatomy turn as a surgeon with Asperger syndrome -- or, really, an Asperger-syndrome surgeon, since it's not a people-first kind of portrayal -- have we been missing the first Asperger-syndrome sit-com? That's what a Slate article is calling The Big Bang Theory, a CBS comedy about a group of Cal Tech researchers who are "brilliant at understanding the workings of the universe, yet hopeless at socializing with Penny, a waitress who lives next door."

While the show has not given its characters diagnostic labels, Slate writer Paul Collins (author of one of my favorite autism memoirs, Not Even Wrong) tags Sheldon, a theoretical physicist played by actor Jim Parsons (pictured), as giving a pretty persuasive portrayal of a person with Asperger syndrome:

"Sheldon is an exaggerated sitcom characterization, granted, and yet how else does one describe a string theorist who insists on playing Klingon Boggle and Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock? A prodigy who experimented with his home's staircases to find the exact variant in height at which his father would trip? Who discourses at length upon the precise parameters of Christmas gift-giving? Or who refers to engineers as 'semi-skilled labor'--and is then surprised when they take offense?"

Unlike Grey's Dr. Dixon, though, it sounds like Sheldon's a character, not a bundle of characteristics. "I just think of his actions as 'Sheldony,'" co-creator Bill Prady is quoted as saying. TV critic Alan Sepinwall, commenting on the Slate piece, writes, "Watching the Mary McDonnell arc on Grey's Anatomy, where the character's diagnosis is made explicit, and then used as fodder for jokes, I feel like the old-fashioned sitcom Big Bang provides a more realistic, more human and, yes, funnier take on the situation than the big hit medical series."

Do you watch The Big Bang Theory? Does Sheldon seem like a good depiction of an adult with Asperger syndrome, or one that makes you wince? And speaking of wincing, though I can't speak to the latest of McDonnell's Grey's episodes because it's still languishing on my DVR, you can read some unhappy blog posts about it on The Karianna Spectrum and Psychology Today.

Read more: Special Needs News | Site of the Day | Special Needs Entertainment News

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

February 13, 2009 at 1:07 am
(1) Adelaide says:

I thought the first Asperger syndrome sit-com was THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, from all these years ago (1993-1997).

February 13, 2009 at 2:41 am
(2) QuicksilverHg says:

We really enjoy Big Bang Theory. I find it an interesting description that Sheldon is an ‘exaggerated sitcom characterisation’. I don’t think the writer has spent much time hanging around the University geeks – at times, Sheldon is understated! I can remember spending my high school dance with a physics geek a couple of year older than me discussing their recent entertainment – if you leapt off the physics building at the university, could you say the Big Mac jingle before hitting the ground (answer was – you could, but only if you jumped up).

As the mum of an Aspie (who can tell you anything you didn’t want to know about every single Pokemon, Bionicle, and weapon in every video game), I can see where Sheldon comes from. It helps that I am probably on the spectrum as well, because I can explain why we have to do ‘social’ things, even when they seem pointless and we don’t want to do them. I hope he is more socially ept when he is at University – but maybe he too will speak fluent Klingon and Elvish….

February 17, 2009 at 3:55 pm
(3) Shirley says:

My husband and I are parents to an 11-year-old Aspie and we watch The Big Bang Theory regularly. All we can do is laugh and shake our heads at the many similarities between Sheldon and our son. Last night’s episode (2/16/09) with the onion rings was exactly what our son would have done in the same situation. I have no doubt that Sheldon is an Aspie!

March 5, 2009 at 1:35 am
(4) Schoolpsych says:

As somebody who is trained to identify characteristics and traits of autism and Asperger’s, I was dumbfounded when I stumbled upon Sheldon’s character. From the moment he entered the room, I had a sense that he was more than just “quirky”, he was downright “aspie”. Of course, I get a little upset that the laugh track (and presumably the home audience) derive entertainment from his social deficits and other difficulties, but at the same time, I’m relieved that people can be exposed to a somewhat positive portrayal of someone on the spectrum.

March 10, 2009 at 1:05 pm
(5) Kathryn says:

I have worked with folks with all sorts of neuro-developmental and psychiatric disorders and the cast of the Big Bang Theory could be included in many different diagnostic categories. Poor Raj is an ad for Social Anxiety Disorder. Sheldon is much more endearing and socially effective than Walowitz can ever hope to be. Besides, as someone who has married not one but 2 physics majors, I assure you that the portrayals are not that far off the mark for Science grad students in general. All scientists at the Ph.D. level know a LOT more about some obscure area than any sane person would ever want to (it is called a Dissertation topic). Leonard is the one I find least believable – he is a plant to give the audience someone to empathize with. Needless to say, I love the show.

December 1, 2009 at 1:14 pm
(6) Stephen says:

I have aspergers and I think Shelden is an aspie for sure. It’s nice to see it portrayed correctly.

December 6, 2009 at 11:29 am
(7) Asperger by proxy says:

My husband has asperger syndrome and we work hard at our marriage. A good sense of humor is paramount and The Big Bang Theory really helps us see the humor in our relationship..which ultimately, helps us each survive with our identities somewhat intact.

March 18, 2010 at 11:12 pm
(8) Ric says:

Yeah I agree that it is a fairly accurate portrayal of an aspie. However, it only seems to touch on the quirky and loveable/positive aspects. I don’t think most people understand or are even ready to understand the dark side of this illness especially when left untreated.

April 17, 2010 at 6:11 am
(9) Grafton says:

Illness? No.

April 17, 2010 at 10:43 pm
(10) Buddicca says:

I married a ” Sheldon ” excepting his focus is WW2 British Aircraft instead of physics and the irony is HE put me on to the show! We get the humour at different levels as he doesn’t ‘get’ sarcasm either but cracks up when Sheldon fails at it just like he does! I reckon the show is wonderful and where I first was on the brink of being annoyed at seeing the same mannerisms played out for laughs……I kept watching…and now I’m the one laughing the loudest!
I actually think personally its helped my coping mechanisms to see it in a comic situation. ( as they do take a lot of patience! )

July 17, 2010 at 5:23 pm
(11) mother of two aspie boys says:

We love the Big bang Theory in our house. its great to see the boys laughing as they connect with the behaviours of Sheldon. The wrighters may no t have intended to him to have Aspergers – just as I did not intent to have two sons with Aspergers. There is no doubt on either count! I hope the series runs and runs as we think its fantastic. (and agree its not an illness and as for treatment what did you have in mind??)

July 22, 2010 at 10:16 am
(12) Cyndi says:

I don’t have a child with Asperger’s but what I love about the show is the way he is shown as functional in a bizarre way with friends who “get” him, love him, appreciate him, look out for him, etc. He does the same for them! It’s inclusion at its best! I dream of a day when we see this with other disabilities, too. I love the show, and I’m glad others do too!

September 12, 2010 at 1:52 pm
(13) phil says:

The Big Bang Theory is chock full of hilarious moments. But being an Aspie myself, it is not worth sitting through all the painful reminders of how different I am and the inherent social mistakes to get to the laughs.

My wife can’t understand that. My wife watches it religiously and owns the dvd’s. She calls them therapy. It helps her deal with me in some way that I don’t understand.

September 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm
(14) Jessica says:

Most of the autism rights movement doesn’t like “people first language”. Being on the spectrum is part of who we are, not a disease. Would you say “person with gayness” or “person with femaleness”? No, because it makes it seem like there’s something wrong with those, like you’d still have the same person without those traits. Same with neurodifference.

October 7, 2010 at 4:50 pm
(15) bonnie says:

I, too, saw immediately that Sheldon has Aspergers. I’ve been searching my whole life to find out why I felt different, left out, and as I became aware of Aspergers I determined that it was “me.” I’ve now been “officially” diagnosed at 57 by a social security psychiatrist and a health system psychologist and am continuing my research on the characteristics and prognosis. I would say it’s not just Sheldon, but ALL the geeks who have some degree of Aspergers. Even Leonard’s mother. The great part is that they’ve found each other and have successful careers.

December 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm
(16) outoutout says:

I’m an Aspie and I’ve been a fan of TBBT since the beginning.

Both Sheldon and his pseudo-girlfriend Amy Farafowler certainly exhibit a lot of stereotypical traits of Asperger’s Syndrome, but I’m kinda glad that the show decided not to slap a psychological diagnosis on any of the characters. We often forget that while art imitates life, it shouldn’t be held to the same standards of “life”. Sheldon is a fictional character in a situational comedy. By very definition he must be larger-than-life and over-the-top, otherwise it wouldn’t work as well as it does. Leaving things unsaid creates tremendous creative opportunity to grow and expand. (of course, I’m a writer m’self and that’s the viewpoint I’m coming from)

Kathryn – If you look at the characters in light of traditional comedic theatre, it makes a lot more sense. Leonard is the “everyman” – his sole purpose is to draw the audience in & give it a baseline. He’s not totally believable, but that’s kinda the point. :)

October 17, 2011 at 5:56 am
(17) Gil says:

Sheldon Cooper primarily exhibits traits of Anti-Social Personality Disorder with some narcissism and OCD thrown in whereas Amy Fowler exhibits traits associated Asperger’s Syndrome – social awkwardness and monotone speaking.

December 7, 2011 at 8:01 am
(18) Rebecca says:

As a female adult Aspie, with a son with autism & a daughter who is also aspie, I find Sheldon to be very accurately depicted as an aspie savant, who has absolutely no idea about how to socialize appropriately with others. There is a lot of Sheldon in myself and my kids, which is why I love him, because he makes me laugh, and if I don’t laugh, I cry and go insane so, Sheldon, keep up the good work! In fact, I think Sheldon would be my perfect husband, if only he was actually real……

April 29, 2012 at 8:38 pm
(19) Mike says:

My Aspergers son LOVES Sheldon. He sees possibilities for himself that he never considered before. The first sign was when Mr. finicky tried Chinese food in Sheldon’s honor. He sees there is a place for him in society.

May 3, 2012 at 4:01 pm
(20) Michelle says:

Personally, I never thought that there was any doubt that Sheldon has Aspergers. I only had to watch one or two episodes to point it out to my youngest daughter (who has nonverbal learning disability, in many ways rather similar to Aspergerrs). She completely agreed. The amusing part is that oldest daughter, who has ASD, loves the show but doesn’t pick up on it at all.

May 3, 2012 at 4:10 pm
(21) Michelle says:

PS – One of the things I like about the show (besides the fact that it’s funny) is that, in my mind, true inclusion would mean that we would see characters of varying abilities on the TV and in the movies, and there would be no mention would be made of their diagnosis. They would just be.

I mean is a show any longer memorable simply because one of the actors is of African descent? When it’s the same for actors who present differently physical or mentally, that will be inclusion. Or at least a step closer than we are today.

May 11, 2012 at 10:58 am
(22) specialchildren says:

How cool is it that a show that speaks so strongly to kids with Asperger syndrome and their families is the top-rated show on TV? http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/showtracker/2012/05/cbs-big-bang-theory-tops-ratings.html

July 5, 2012 at 11:52 pm
(23) jackie says:

Sheldon and Amy, definately Aspies!! Mum to an 18 year old Aspie and we laugh WITH them not AT them….Love this show! :)

August 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm
(24) betty loves the big bang theory says:

I always just thought of Sheldon and his workmates as typical of people (and myself at times) I’ve been around since college – geeky scientists. However, as soon as a 7-year-old boy with Aspergers came into our lives, I immediately saw Sheldon’s behavior for what it is. I see this boy as being almost exactly like Sheldon when he grows up.
I would imagine that there are many scientists who have Aspergers – we just never had a name for their geeky (mostly charming to me) behavior. I think the writers probably didn’t know this either and just assumed that they were piecing together every geeky-type behavior they had ever seen in scientist (and other geeks) behaviors.

January 4, 2013 at 6:56 pm
(25) Michele says:

Having worked with children with Asperger’s and having a daughter bordering on it (also studying theoretical physics) I find this program brilliantly funny but also touching and reassuring. There are varying degrees of the syndrome and just like real life some people with the syndrome will find it catches them, while for others there will be no attachment. I notice some of the reviews on other sites are quite derogatory but I feel it touches people on a variety of levels with everyone taking their own experience out of it.

August 30, 2013 at 1:41 am
(26) Jennifer Mills-Young says:

Yes! Sheldon is definitely an Aspie – I’m married to an aspie and he’s the one who found the show and introduced the family to it. ( as we’d never seen it ) The moment as my 2 NT kids watched and we realised they were watching dad was poignant and funny ‘ but dad does that ‘ and ‘ but dad says that ‘ and I realised it as well. I have realised though, we NT people laugh at different times to when my aspie hubby laughs. He actually thinks Sheldon is the serious ‘ normal ‘ foil and everyone else are the comic players when they are being ‘normal’. ( as he see’s Sheldon’s behaviour’s as quite appropriate! ) Yeah its also marriage therapy as well.

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