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.