Mayim Bialik’s Take on Sheldon Cooper and Autism is Wrong

The sitcom The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) has been on tv for eight years and has been renewed for at least two more seasons. In that time there has been a lt of speculation about whether the character Sheldon Cooper has either Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or both. He is never directly diagnosed or labeled on the show but his behaviour is easily recognizable as autistic.

As a result autistic viewers have been looking for verification from people associated with the show and we finally got it, sort of.

Actress Mayim Bialik (who plays Amy Farrah-Fowler on TBBT) was being interviewed by Neil DeGrasse Tyson when he asked her about the speculation. She gave a response that Radio Times lauded as “Brilliant”. She said,

“All of our characters are in theory on the neuropsychiatric spectrum, I would say, Sheldon often gets talked about in terms of Asperger’s or OCD. He has a thing with germs, he has a thing with numbers, he’s got a lot of that precision that we see in OCD. There’s a lot of interesting features to all of our characters that make them technically unconventional socially…

I think what’s interesting and kind of sweet and what should not be lost on people is we don’t pathologise our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them.

And I think that’s what’s interesting for those of us who are unconventional people or who know and love people who are on any sort of spectrum, we often find ways to work around that. It doesn’t always need to be solved and medicated and labelled.

And what we’re trying to show with our show is that this is a group of people who likely were teased, mocked, told that they will never be appreciated or loved, and we have a group of people who have successful careers, active social lives (that involve things like Dungeons and Dragons and video games), but they also have relationships, and that’s a fulfilling and satisfying life.”

Essentially TBBT is a utopian example of what happens when people are accepted for who they are and the lack of diagnosis is a radical move towards inclusion and building acceptance of people’s differences.

It’s a nice idea but it’s a false one both in how the show is structured and made and in how people who have autism and other behaviour disorders are treated.

It is true that diagnosis has been withheld on the show by design. The intention however was not to make a statement about the pathologization of people with behaviour disorders. We know that the creators of TBBT never intended for Sheldon to be seen as autistic because when asked, they deny that he does. Bill Prady one of the co-creators of the show has acknowledged the similarities but categorically denied that Sheldon was autistic. His reasons for denial are troubling. The avoided officially giving Sheldon an ASD diagnosis because it would put much pressure to get the details right. The other creator Chuck Lorre also denies Sheldon is on the spectrum.

So this idea that TBBT is a way for the awkward and possibly autistic audience to see that the world can fit them and that TBBT is just a big “It get’s better” message to those of us who were bullied for having characteristics similar to Sheldon are just false. Bialik’s excuse is just a way to push back against the criticism that TBBT gets for turning ASD into a caricature. She made a nice progressive sounding statement that just doesn’t happen to be true. There is no underlying moral of the acceptance of difference regardless of label in The Big Bang Theory.

There isn’t even really a veneer of it as most of the comedy around Sheldon is just how socially inept and different he is. The comedy comes all to often at his expense.

The show may not label Sheldon with OCD or autism but his behaviour is still pathologized. His friends constantly question and bring attention to his atypical behaviour. He is  even aware that people find him odd. He has on more than one occasion proclaimed “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested”. The thing you should take away from this is not that he was seen by a doctor who failed to diagnose him and accept that at face value–My parents had me tested for ADD as a child, as I don’t have ADD I was not diagnosed, no alternate explanations were sought and yet I was and still am autistic. Heck, when my parents noticed that as an infant I avoided using my left hand, the doctor just said I was really right handed (seriously), I actually have cerebral palsy and failure to diagnose or misdiagnose is common–What you should focus on here though is that Sheldon feels the need to defend his behaviour because others are questioning it from a psychological way. So yes the show really does pathologize Sheldon, it just doesn’t give him the explanation or defense of a label. In so doing tacitly making the judgement and the laughter at his expense acceptable because if he were acknowledged as autistic, this treatment would be considered cruel.

As Jacqueline Koyanagi brilliantly puts it in an article on Disability in Kidlit (go read the article, seriously excerpts don’t do it justice)

Here is a character who is obviously coded as autistic, so much so that his behaviors often tip over into autistic caricature…. So, yes. Caricature it is, stripped of context. In this case, it’s all in the name of comedy, but it can and does happen in the name of entertainment of any stripe. Sidelining the issue does not erase it.

She goes on to say and I completely agree,

Fictional characters exist to be consumed by real people, and real people live on the autism spectrum. Characterization, regardless of label or lack thereof, regardless of genre, has a real impact on these real people, myself included. Content creators must understand that they can be answerable for that impact. When they render a character into their world wearing an entire suit of autistic behaviors, reactions, and needs, responsibility-dodging only serves to hurt the population they’re representing, whether they wanted their work to be representative of that population or not.

Koyanagi and I have something in common, we we both diagnosed on the autism spectrum as adults and as she points out,

The difference between “generic eccentricity” and a formal diagnosis is just that–formal diagnosis. It seems absurd that it bears stating, but a person on the autism spectrum is on the spectrum even before they are diagnosed. Similarly, bullying is bullying regardless of when diagnosis/identification occurs–and, yes, even if it never occurs…

Aspects of a person’s being can’t be swept under the rug by denying labels with a shrug and a saccharine smile. Eschewing labels does not equate dodging responsibility, and mistreatment done in ignorance is still mistreatment. That goes for the actions of fictional characters and writers’ intentions alike. When autistically coded characters are dismissed as eccentric and worthy of disdain, it reinforces the idea that we are just being difficult. When the people around autistically coded characters are portrayed as Atlas-like martyrs for enduring such a burden, that is doing real harm to real autistic people. Media matters. Media influences, shapes, and deepens perspectives on real issues.

When Mayim Bialik says that they refuse to pathologize the characters on the show. She is essentially saying “we don’t see disability, we just see people” a sentiment that erases experience. Perhaps not for the fictional Sheldon but for people in the real world. People with autism are already people and they are often people with needs that differ from those of the neurotypical majority. Not labeling someone is just reinforcing the idea that disability is bad or shameful, even if it is couched in terms of universal acceptance. Because at the end of the day difference is treated differently (often in terms of discrimination and oppression) and it is those of us with labels who are more able to advocate for accommodation and change. People who are simply different are far easier to dismiss and ignore.

I am with Dumbledore on this issue “Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself

Ignoring the autistic coding of Sheldon Cooper is harmful and unfortunately avoiding the label allows Lorre and Prady to create a caricature of autism with plausible deniability built right in.

So don’t be impressed with Bialik’s seemingly progressive interpretation because it is a lie painted over an issue that is finally being recognized to excuse past bad behaviour.

Radio Times gives Bialik a credibility bump by pointing out that she has a PhD in Neuroscience but she is not the person who has to live with the consequences of a world that internalizes her ideas. Autistic people do.

There is a reason one of the most enduring slogans of the disability rights movement is Nothing About Us Without Us. We deserve proper representation and not to be brushed aside when someone with credentials but no shared experience minimizes our concerns.

There is no TBBT utopia and things will not get better for the people who see themselves in Sheldon Cooper if the game plan is to pretend that neurological disorders don’t exist or more importantly that people will treat those exhibiting symptoms of ASD or OCD well without activism and advocacy. Ignoring social discrimination doesn’t make it go away, it helps it grow and gives it legitimacy.

Footnote/ updated

I would like to mention that Bialik does have one good point, the idea that people who are on as she puts it the neuropsychiatric spectrum don’t need to be changed or cured to have fulfilling lives is entirely correct. I also though don’t see that reflected in the show as the people around Sheldon are constantly complaining about how dealing with him frustrates them.

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13 responses to “Mayim Bialik’s Take on Sheldon Cooper and Autism is Wrong

  1. I’ve been watching “Leverage” and couldn’t help but notice Parker is an equally obviously non-neurotypical character, but, while her friends occasionally react to her stranger actions by saying something like, “There’s something wrong with her”, unlike Sheldon’s friends, *they never blame her for it*, even though there are times her not knowing how to handle a social situation puts people in danger. They clearly find her lovable and they do their best to guide her at handling things she’s ill-suited for, and then defer to her expertise in the areas of her strengths. It is a much better example of a show where a person who probably should have an autism spectrum diagnosis is accepted for who they are.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure I totally agree. I think she made great points, and as someone with borderline personality disorder, which is stigmatised in a similar way, I don’t think it’s necessary to label characters. The problem is, most psychiatric diagnoses themselves are clusters of symptoms that occur in everyone – we all experience anxiety for example, but that doesn’t make it a disorder. We all experience low mood, but that doesn’t make it a disorder. We all experience feelings of obsessions over tasks, but that doesn’t make it a disorder. However on TV shows, these normal traits are typically exaggerated, which can then make them appear as pathologies or disorders.

    TBBT shows Sheldon as a loveable character, who is, like we all are, inherently flawed, in that at times his unwillingness to accept change (which he has little control over) can make life harder for other people. And, please don’t misinterpret the word flaw as purely negative, because I view flaws as what make us human and each of us unique. Freckles, differences in personality, whatever it is.

    As someone with borderline personality, tiny things can set me off, and one small can make me hugely upset and really ruin my whole day. It’s the one thing people with autism or asperger’s share with BPDers. I’m aware that I can be a difficult person for other people to handle but of course, it’s not intentional. It shows how Sheldon navigates the world and in turn, how those around him navigate the world and help him to cope with everyday life. I think it’s ok to show characters with varying personality traits and not have to put a label on it. You can still identify with them and in fact, I think it’s a handy reminder – the symptoms of psychiatric illnesses, with the exception of positive symptoms like psychosis, are symptoms most people encounter. Too many people forget that. In fact, a lot of people nowadays experience feelings of low mood and anxiety and assume they must be mentally ill, feelings which are just part of being human and are totally normal and healthy.

    Like autism, psychologists and psychiatrists have been discussing putting other disorders on a continuum – nothing in life is one or the other. In fact, so many scientists have discussed the usage of spectrums for a number of things, for instance, sexuality. Most people aren’t rigidly straight or rigidly gay. TBBT shows human variety and celebrates individual differences, and I think that’s a hugely positive thing.

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    • Except he is the butt of so many jokes and his behaviour is coded as autistic and either the denial that he is autistic or that not labelling him somehow depathologizes in the context of TBBT is pretty false as I point out in the post.

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      • There is not one character on that show that hasn’t been the butt end of a joke at their expense. But Sheldon has been shown to dish it out just as much as he takes. And there are plenty of times where he’s aware he is wrong, but does something anyway.

        I don’t feel Sheldon should be protected from being joked about, just because some people believe he is one thing or another. Matt stone & Trey Parker of South park fame put it best IMO. “Once you’ve declared an idea should be off limits to be joked about, you’ve stopped writing comedy, and have started writing politics.”

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      • It’s not that it should be off limits. It’s the disingenuous way that they try to pretend that they are not being offensive. If they cling to the “he’s not autistic” line, which they do despite Bialik’s comments. They’re just covering their asses. Matt Stone and Trey Parker don’t try to pretend they aren’t doing exactly what they are doing. Which is I suspect why they have so much respect from people despite the fact that they’ve done something to offend everyone at some point.

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  3. Hello,
    I have found this post searching in Google about TBBT and OCD.
    I’m diagnosed as a OCD sufferer since 20 years ago and Sheldon’s behaviour towards germs and public places and dirtiness. Well.,this is totally OCD and some of the stuff I feel identified with. It pisses me off that the creators deny he suffers from ocd, the symptoms are there. I cannot.speak about ASD because I know very little about it but as an OCD sufferer I need medication, if I didn’t took it my anxiety levels would go up the ceiling. I could not leave my home for fear of germs and contamination so saying that we.don’t need medication is rather insensitive
    I’m not English.speaker so pardon my grammar mistakes
    Best wishes

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  4. “Fictional characters exist to be consumed by real people” that statement might be right but also real people with disorders of all kinds aren’t the same. Not all of them sseking to be reprsented. Not everything needs to be adressed/labeled/diagnosed especially not in a comedy Show. If you like TBBTlike it for what it is and not for what you want it to be. Enjoy Entertainment!

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  5. There is no denying that Sheldon Cooper is autistic. In fact, I am sure the show’s creators are fully aware of it as they are doing an amazing job at portraying him! The reason they don’t want to officially state it is that then they have to stick to the description completely or they will get in trouble with the autism community or advocates of it.

    Btw I full agree with you that labeling or diagnosing is not necessarily wrong. It gives you the power to advocate, but more importantly, in my experience it has created more understanding, rather than less. As long as we understand that each individual is more than just a label, or may fit a label to a greater or lesser degree, it can give an explanation for what is otherwise perceived as simply odd behavior (and as we know, people are constantly evaluating or judging other’s behavior anyway). I remember a boy with down syndrome who was teased, but after learning more about it the children stopped.

    The label can also work the other way. For example, social skills training can be useful for people with autism because it doesn’t come naturally to them. But you cannot work on something if you don’t acknowledge it first. As for all his endearing qualities, Sheldon can also be downright rude. His buddies often say “he can’t help it”. I would have all the understanding for the extra hardships he endures because it is hard for him to adapt to change or read sarcasm, but would still require him to work on being more considerate. That is just fair. As for myself, I have major OCD, and I expect people to understand and be considerate, but not to accommodate me at a major cost to them if I am inflexible.

    Lastly, as you pointed out, the creators of the show are using Sheldon’s socially awkward and obsessive behavior precisely because it makes for so many hilarious scenes. If he were officially labeled as autistic (and OCD), they probably wouldn’t be able to get away with that the way they are now.

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  6. Pingback: What to Know When Coworking With Someone With Autism – Neurodevelopmental Disability Protection Trustee Board Bangladesh

  7. “The show may not label Sheldon with OCD or autism but his behaviour is still pathologized.”

    Your half wrong here. In a recent episode Amy confirmed him as having OCD, to which Sheldon confirmed that to be true.

    Also there are some out there that don’t see everyone that has OCD to have autism.

    “http://ocdtreatmentcentre.com/ocd-and-autism/”

    In fact some of Sheldon’s behavior backs up this article as recently he claimed to be ashamed of his knocking ritual because he is incapable of letting go of it.

    And he recently revealed to Amy his secret hoarding locker where he keeps nearly everything he has owned. He also feels ashamed of having such a thing. And that she is the only one who knows he has such a thing.

    “The thing you should take away from this is not that he was seen by a doctor who failed to diagnose him and accept that at face value”

    Actually it was left as ambigous BECAUSE his mother decided not follow up with a specific specialist in Houston and started regretting it, as revealed in season 5.

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  8. “I would like to mention that Bialik does have one good point, the idea that people who are on as she puts it the neuropsychiatric spectrum don’t need to be changed or cured to have fulfilling lives is entirely correct. I also though don’t see that reflected in the show as the people around Sheldon are constantly complaining about how dealing with him frustrates them.”

    Accepting people for who they are and not trying to change them does NOT mean you never get frustrated. Even people outside of the neuropsychiatric spectrum get frustrated with the ones they love outside the neuropsychiatric spectrum. I think you might have unrealistic expectations.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this.

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I am watching this show right now for the first time and a google search brought me typo your article.

    Thank you.

    Like

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