Does Sheldon have Aspergers?

I’ve decided it’s about time for me to talk about Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory again. Specifically, about how he is so completely portrayed as a stereotype of Asperger’s, yet the show never just comes out and says so. Even more specifically, about the reasons the show’s creators have given for why they are refraining from doing so, and how utterly offensive those reasons are.

This is a topic that has been bubbling around in my head ever since I first encountered it, as well as the blow-to-the-gut feeling I had upon first hearing a rough outline of the justifications for not giving Sheldon the Aspergers label. Fair warning – this is an emotional enough topic for me that I’m probably going to have some trouble writing it. Also, I am not always very good at unpacking and explaining why something is problematic and/or offensive, and I’m not sure I am going to have all the words I need to do it justice or fully explain my feelings. Still, I am going to try.

So basically, apparently lots of people have questioned whether or not Sheldon has Aspergers. Enough so that there are multiple articles out there talking about it, and the show’s creators have talked some about why they have not and will not give Sheldon that particular label. The problem is I happen to find all their reasons deeply problematic and offensive. I figure I’ll just go over them and try to unpack their problems in no particular order.

Number one on the list is that if he’s afflicted with a real disease, how can his friends mock him the way they do? [link]

Alright, if that’s what they are going to declare “number one,” then that’s where I’ll start. The first problem that jumps out at me is the fact that they call autism a disease. Autism is NOT a disease, not at all, and it is incredibly offensive to call it that. Autism is a condition, a syndrome, and can also be termed a disorder as well as a developmental delay. It is not, not at all, a disease. A disease is something you have. Something that happens to you, but is separate from who you are. Autism is a difference that is there from the start, and will always be there. It is about how I think and view and interact with the world. For me, and many others, it is an identity.

However, there is another matter deeply problematic in this statement of theirs. One thing more or less everyone I come across in the autism community agrees on regarding Sheldon Cooper is that the Sheldon jokes (very nearly all of them) are autism jokes. Some of us find them funny, others of us find them offensive, but all of us recognize them for what they are. So when I read that sentence up there, it sounds to me like they are saying they want to mock autism and make autism jokes (because, you know, that’s exactly what they’re doing), but they don’t actually want to admit to it. Personally, I am not in the least bit impressed with that. I would much rather people just admit that they are making jokes about Aspergers rather than look away and deny it because, I don’t know, they might feel bad if they own up to what they are doing.

Our feeling is that Sheldon’s mother never got a diagnosis, so we don’t have one.

Well that doesn’t make any sense at all. It does, however, reflect some ignorant attitudes I’ve seen around occasionally, that seem to assume that Asperger’s has been on the books as a diagnosis more or less forever. In reality, Aspergers only made it into the DSM in 1994, and even then it was fairly obscure. It wasn’t until 2000 or so that it really started becoming a thing. Occasionally I encounter people who believe that if someone did not get a diagnosis in childhood, that must mean they weren’t really challenged and thus their perspectives as adults don’t mean much. This is very far from the truth, and I imagine many adults who are being diagnosed today would have been diagnosed as children, had it been known. Sheldon’s mom not getting him a diagnosis means *nothing whatsoever.* That particular justification sounds, at best, like a bad cop-out. At worst, it sounds like an echo of the harmful attitude that people diagnosed in adulthood must not have had significant problems as children.

Instead of the writers having the freedom to make Sheldon as anal and nerdy as they like, they would be constrained by the nature of the ailment.

Parsons and the show’s writers have very carefully avoided labeling Sheldon as having an ASD, because they’ve said they don’t want to be limited by what an autistic person would or wouldn’t do. [link]

Ok, I’m going to address these two together, because they are more or less the same thing, and have the same problems. Here, they are saying that if they actually labelled him with an ASD, they would suddenly find themselves writing a personification of autism, rather than writing, oh I don’t know, A CHARACTER. As though if you give someone that label, suddenly EVERYTHING they do is about that label or comes from that label.

It’s like they’re saying they would do exactly what ada hoffmann asks writers not to do in her livejournal post here. When you write about autism, there is absolutely no need to reduce the autistic character to only autism, or (even worse) to only the deficiencies of autism. In fact, it is it is a fairly horrible thing to do, because it denies us our humanity, our agency, our flexible, dynamic, and incredibly diverse selves. That is not ok at all. Labelling Sheldon with Aspergers would not suddenly limit him, and it is not ok to act like it would. It really says something about what they think of those of us on the autism spectrum – and what it says is nothing good.

As for “limited by what an autistic person would or wouldn’t do,” well that’s an interesting statement. Exactly what limits are those, anyway? Ari Ne’eman is a white house appointee, and founded the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Alexis Wineman was Miss Montana and made into the top 15 for Miss America. Jessica-Jane Applegate won a gold medal in the paralympics. If you browse through ThAutcast’s facebook page, you’ll see autistic musicians, autistic artists, autistic people who play any variety of games, autistic people with intellectual gifts, the list goes on and on and on. Tell me, what exactly are these limitations on what autistic people “would or wouldn’t do”?

In reality, there is no reason that Sheldon would lose anything if he were labelled with Aspergers. Not unless the writers decided to do so, and if they did it would ENTIRELY be something they chose to do. Not something they were forced to do because of the label.

But by not defining Sheldon, they’ve inadvertently captured an important aspect of autism, which is that the disorder has common tendencies, but flexible boundaries.

No. Well, yes in that they are showing that “the disorder has common tendencies, but flexible boundaries,” but it is not at all *because* they did not define Sheldon. As I said above, they could still do so if they said he had Aspergers. In fact, it would be incredibly offensive (and downright wrong) if giving him that particular label changed any of that. And really, the author of that quote admitted, right in that sentence, that labelling Sheldon as being on the autism spectrum would not (or at least should not) have lost that aspect of autism.

Not unless the writers decided that they would do it that way. Which would be predictable, but wrong.

In the writers’ minds, calling it Asperger’s creates too much of a burden to get the details right. [link]

You know what… at least this one is honest. Everything so far has shown significant ignorance about Aspergers on the part of the writers/creators, to the point of being really quite offensive. Clearly, they do not know Aspergers well enough to be able to write about it, if they actually believe all the things I talked about above. While I am internally facepalming about their worrying about “details,” there is no question that they would at least need to learn enough to rid themselves of their misperceptions and prejudices. That said, I am disappointed with their decision, as well as their attitude that it would be a “burden” to learn even the basics of autism.

Personally, I would love to see Sheldon get diagnosed with Aspergers (or other ASD). It would not at all need to change the way he is portrayed, nor would it need to reduce him to “autism traits.” He could be just as eccentric, dynamic, and funny (or offensive, depending on your point of view) as ever, with all the randomness he sometimes has.

And really, this post is not purely about the fact that the creators of The Big Bang Theory have said offensive things about Aspergers in their justifications to not label Sheldon. They have simply expressed the same misinformation that already surrounds us. The fact that people seem to so readily accept their justifications just further shows how far the ignorance goes, which is a big reason why I wanted to write this. These attitudes and beliefs are wrong. They are offensive. And they need to stop.


Filed under opinion, rant

19 responses to “Does Sheldon have Aspergers?

  1. Personally I think it’s better that they don’t. I am not only an aspie myself, but I surround myself with many others. Not a single aspie I know is anywhere near as annoying and intolerable (on a personal level, as in I would not like to know the guy. I actually quite like the character) as Sheldon. This would immediately place any diagnosis into the category of gross exaggeration, and open those of us who actually are autistic to comparison. Personally, I would rather not tell someone I have asperger syndrome and then have everyone expect me to behave exactly as Sheldon does. All that would do is fuel more ignorance and misconceptions that already prevail in this world. As you rightly pointed out, the writers clearly do not know very much about ASDs, which pretty much renders the whole argument moot. How can they possibly write about that which they do not know (with any accuracy or decency)? If they chose to do so, they would then place expectations upon themselves to not only try to be more accurate instead of the massive exaggeration currently on display, but also to be respectful about it. The latter point would in fact make a huge difference, because people do not respect me for the fact that I’m an aspie… they respect me as a person only. Nobody walks on eggshells to cater to my difficulties, and nor should they have to. Only where it becomes necessary to do so should anyone adjust their behaviour to work with mine. For example, where I do not feel comfortable in a large crowd, I ask that I do not get put in one.

    I would rather a grossly exaggerated portrayal of ASD that is not actually a portrayal of ASD at all, than the same grossly exaggerated portrayal labelled as if accurate.

    Furthermore, I would really like to see an honest depiction of a person with an ASD in a TV series, just not a sitcom.

  2. A spy

    The way you’ve written the article with such a verbosity and articulate thoughts just like sheldon’s dialogues are, I can easily tell that it’s an aspie’s writing. Even the person who first commented on this article has written in a similar fashion. I suggest you go to some professor who might teach you to be as brief as possible…

    • Cornelius

      At least articulacy helps circumnavigate any misintended offence and resulting “youtube”-like discussion threads… I could be as brief as two words in my reply here, but that would not help a meaningful discussion of the topic at hand.

      Face-to face contact is the when to consider being brief.
      Taking the time to put your thoughts to paper/screen used to be considered a virtue and a matter of courtesy to the reader.

      If a word is accurate to the point you’re trying to make, then why not use it? There is something to be said for targeting your message to your specific audience, but this can be misconstrued as manipulative. Better to use all the language skills in your grasp to make your message as clear as possible.

      The problem with being brief is that it leaves rooms for others to interpret the rest of your message from their personal point of view, which often seems to lead to misconceptions and socially “awkward” situations, for which I as an “aspie” am first on the “blame”-list..
      Taking the time to put your thoughts to paper/screen used to be considered a virtue and a matter of courtesy to the reader.

      If a word is accurate to the point you’re trying to make, then why not use it? There is something to be said for targeting your message to your specific audience, but this can be misconstrued as manipulative. Better to use all the language skills in your grasp to make your message as clear as possible.

      The problem with being brief is that it leaves rooms for others to interpret the rest of your message from their personal point of view, which often seems to lead to misconceptions and socially “awkward” situations, for which I as an “aspie” am first on the “blame”-list..

      The quotation marks are not intended as sarcasm. English is not my first language. Sarcasm is not something I have mastered in any language so far:)

  3. Tricia

    You spent all this time commenting on how they won’t diagnose Sheldon with ASD that you completely forgot the point of the article (or at the very least what the title suggests it to be): “Does Sheldon has Aspergers?”

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  5. LittleWolf

    Actually, I have Asperger’s Syndrome and have suffered immensely through it my whole life, through bullying, serious emotional (and even sexual) abuse. My own family wouldn’t accept me, arguing over why I was so weird and different, I struggled through school with reading comprehension (identifying with characters) even though I read with the proficiency of an adult at 7 years old.

    But my boyfriend (whom I greatly suspect has AS) and I ADORE Sheldo because we identify with him so, and even if it is not out fault, there are things that we as Aspies do that are immensely stereotypical, amusing to others or perceived as purely negative. There is a reason that in online communities it is referred to as ASSbergers, imdividuals with AS can truffle to make friends and at often assumed to be simply narcissistic or academically lazy.

    I think it’s wonderful that Sheldon’s friends laugh at his idiosyncratic behavior but they clearly acknowledge his difficulties, remind eachother how to behave around him (not sit in his chair or touch his food etc) and Still Love Him despite him being very hard to deal with at times. The same way I was very difficult for my parents to cope with.

    Sheldon is a fantastic example of Asperger’s Syndrome despite being a little exaggerated though a lot of us ARE rigid in behavior and exceptionally gifted. He is abnormal enough for people to finally recognise the differences in us that might be more subtle, or understand our point of view. My BF and I laugh at/with him because we understand him and the bemusement of other people in reaction to his behavior.

    I think the (good) reason Sheldon isn’t openly labelled as the poster boy for Asperger’s because some people would think the syndrome was being painted in a very negative light as Sheldon’s behavior can be trying at times but it IS an accurate representation of some individuals with AS whether we like it or not. And some people will always be frustrated by how ‘self centered’ we can appear to be, but that’s life.

    People need to get off their ‘high horses’ (I have conquered idioms) and stop regarding ANY portrayal of their condition as offensive. There will always be ignorance and misconceptions, yes this show’s example is exaggerated but I think characters like Sheldon and Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time have helped my friends and family understand AS more than any hospital material or ‘expert’ ever has.

  6. My take on Sheldon is that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. He may also have Asperger’s, based on his difficulties with social cues. But the thing that’s “wrong” with him is NPD, not Asperger’s.
    Sheldon lacks empathy. People with Asperger’s do not lack empathy, or rather, they do not have more or less empathy than anyone else. Because they sometimes respond to social cues in unexpected ways, they may appear to lack empathy. But Sheldon really doesn’t care about other people. He places his own needs first and can horribly cruel. He is empathy-deficient—which is the very definition of NPD. Unfortunately, the lumping together of Sheldon’s narcissistic and ASD tendencies contributes to stereotypes about people with Asperger’s – and that sucks.
    I’ve always thought that a more positive example of a character who (possibly) has Asperger’s is Abed from Community. Abed isn’t a master of social norms, but he clearly has love and empathy for those around him.

    • Mariana

      I think Sheldon has more than just ASD — maybe OCD or something like that that makes him more than usually rigid and fastidious.

      I don’t think Sheldon has a personality disorder, and definitely not NPD. NPD is associated with people like con artists, cult leaders and emotional manipulators. NPD also requires the desire for “narcissistic supply” — people whose attention and validation feed the narcissist. Sheldon would to some degree not mind being left alone if it weren’t for his deficiencies dealing with the real world. I don’t think Sheldon ever intentionally hurts people for no reason, and Sheldon has *no* command of people emotionally enough to manipulate them or control them in that sense. And I don’t think Sheldon never cares about people or has callous disregard for people in the sense you are talking about with a personality disorder — he does love Leonard and Amy and Penny (to a much lesser degree his other friends).

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  9. Twister

    As someone who resonates a lot with Sheldon’s character and tendencies. I see why they aren’t labeling him. They have the freedom to do whatever they want with the character. I don’t like labels like ASD, ADHD etc. I was labeled when I was younger and for many reasons I don’t like the standard labels the American psychiatrist use. It is fine if someone resonates with one and if it helps them than I completely support it however, sheldon does not need a label. For one, when giving a character a label like that they become almost like a poster child or face for that disorder. That is a big responsibility to expect them to undertake. And since not a lot of characters on modern TV have the ASD label it would give them more attention from the community and possibly offend people more. I’ve always thought the character of Sheldon was supposed to be a kinda weird genius. More of a genius who is so smart it is hard for him to relate to others. A typical profile of a genius in our culture looks similar to ASD characteristics. I don’t think they ever focused too much on ASD characteristics, it’s just that his weird geniusy personality happened to have a lot of ASD characteristics. Honestly, I think you are taking this a little too personally. Sheldon is very loved. Even though he often is just plain rude or difficult to be around, his friends are very patient with him and often times very loving. I don’t think they are really trying to belittle or judge him, just making jokes. Friends do that to each other. Tease each other. Like for instance, I was diagnosed with ADHD as a kid and my friends know this and still tease me when I act real ADD like change topics in the middle of a sentence or something. It’s not really something I can help. It’s just how my brain works but they aren’t trying to be mean, they are just teasing. In a loving way. My true friends like all my little quirks and if they do tease me it’s in a loving way. If that makes sense. I know this things are confusing. Human interactions are pretty confusing but my point is, I don’t ever get the feeling that the show is making fun of ASD. I find sheldon to be a very endearing and lovable character and I think that is how he is portrayed. A lot of people don’t even agree with the standard “disorders” anyways so I think it is a lot to expect a show to agree include a disorder in their show. It is their choice. It is their artwork. A lot of people just are not very educated on things like ASD and so they probably don’t really know the politically correct way to answer these questions about ASD. I wouldn’t pick apart all their answers to these questions because keep in mind that you know WAY more than them about ASD and what is “politically correct”. They probably have no idea that it wasn’t a popular label when Sheldon was a kid and they shouldn’t be expected to know that either. Remember it is just a TV show. Anyways, this is a interesting topic. Thank you for posting your opinions on this with honesty.

  10. Beverly

    You’re absolutely right in that Sheldon has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. A lot of people think that we Aspies lack empathy and are unemotional, but that is more of a problem with communication itself, both to and from neurotypicals. I do have problems understanding other people, but I try SO hard to be accomodating and sensitive, and am helped by people who know I have Asperger’s; realize I am struggling; and will explain social rules to me when I am bewildered. Sheldon does not try. I have had a friend since 5th grade who has helped me with “rules” all our life together. She likes the show too, and every so often I ask her on the phone, “Aren’t you glad I’m not as obnoxious as Sheldon?” She says, “SO much.”
    I am guessing that they may disclose Sheldon’s ASD on the last show, when they don’t worry that laughing at him will be inappropriate. It will be interesting to see their reactions. Bernadette already gets it — she explains to an exasperated Howard that Sheldon’s intelligence “Gave a wedgie to the rest of his brain.”

  11. Lisa

    All it took for me was Leonard holding up that sign reading “sarcasm” and I knew that the show’s writers had probably read up on Asperger’s, probably on Wikipedia. Nobody affiliated with that show is actually going to label Sheldon, because it would leave the show open to criticism and possibly even lawsuits. As things stand now, it can be called a portrayal of an ‘eccentric’ genius…the ‘nutty professor’ trope. We know there is more to it than that, but Chuck Lorre would have nothing to gain and everything to lose by putting the correct label on it. That would confer a responsibility that he’s not willing take on. It’s easier for him to play AS for laughs without owning up to what he’s doing. It’s Chuck Lorre. What do you expect? I’ll give the show credit for at least giving the Normals some frame of reference, because now you have to even try to explain what Asperger’s is, you just say “like Sheldon” and they get it.

  12. cody

    I never saw any of these jokes as “autistic jokes” in fact I never even would have pegged sheldon as autistic untill my gf who works with children autism mentioned it. while I understand your anger I feel u may be looking further into this show than any of the writers intended. I can’t hardly see a bunch of sitcom writers sitting around going “lets create an autistic character and make fun of him”

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  14. Brindle

    I totally agree with every word you said!! My son is an Aspie and he Loves Sheldon. He is never as happy as when he watches him. He will look back smile and say “Did you see that!! Its me!” Its given him a boldness and a pride. He sees he isnt alone. I am an ADHD mother with Dislexia. I probably dont need to explain this but… I get “Sheldon look” on a regular basis. As well as diagram explaining why I am not as nerdy as he is, aparently I dont have the card he n Sheldon carry. Its offensive that while I am trying to educate my family I can only conclude with Like Sheldon even tho aparently they dont want to give Sheldon a disease nor limit him.
    He will continue to watch and will enjoy relating to Someone even if its on a screen. Hopefuly someone will see that Aspergers is not a disease that needs a cure but a truly untaped sorce of potential for all types of creative story lines.

  15. I didn’t know anything about Aspergers until I watched Parenthood and afterwards I started wondering if Sheldon had it. If he does I like that they havent said for sure and that its something we can just wonder about. I dont know.. it makes the show seem deeper or something.

    I also kinda feel like if they said he did.. it just wouldnt be right for this kind of show, the tone.. and being a comedy.. main character having a condition that they make jokes about… seems inappropriate. I would feel weird watching. Maybe thats wrong but thats how Id feel.

    I think its just a touchy subject. People will complain if they dont say he has it but acts like he does, people will complain if they do say he has it and they make jokes or that they dont get it accurate enough. SO probably better to just leave us to think what we want. Someone will be unhappy no matter what.

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