As an autistic person, there are a lot of things running through my mind while I’m sitting on the couch, watching The Big Bang Theory with my dad. I think about all the sensory details in the show, and the sensory details around me in the room. Are there too many things on the couch with me, taking up my seat? Is the room too hot? Too cold? Do I have enough milk ready to sip?
But there’s one thing I really think about, and that’s this: “Is Sheldon Cooper an autistic character?”
It’s a question that’s been long asked by fans–and critics–of the show, both autistic and non-autistic. Most people can recognize the hallmark, stereotyped traits of autism that Sheldon possesses. He’s neat, almost to a fault. He’s obsessed with organization, space and everything being in its place. Loud noises and too many sensory details are overwhelming for him. So is change. He has a hard time driving. A lot of the time, his comments are seen as funny to others but not to him.
These are things many autistic people have to go through. I, for one, always wondered if Sheldon was autistic simply because he’s so like me. We’re not the same person, to be sure. He’s a scientific mind and I’m a creative mind, focusing on how I can write the next great novel rather than cracking string theory. His special interests include Stark Trek and trains, and mine include Gilmore Girls and Victorian architecture. But he’s still a portrait of myself that I rarely see in the media.
The creators and writers of the show have addressed the question of a diagnosis for Sheldon, but they don’t want to take the storyline there for a lot of reasons. One reason being that they think it’s too serious for a show like this. Another being that they don’t want to be stuck in a specific set of characteristics for writing Sheldon.
Wait, what was that again?
I think they just said that autistic people are just a set of characteristics, and that we aren’t capable of being anything outside of that. Okay, I understand that. Autism is definitely very misunderstood by the larger community, and most people think House Rules by Jodi Picoult when they think about what it takes to make an autistic character.
Setting aside this upsetting fact–that the creators of the show don’t understand autistic people enough to realize that we are people and not a strict set of checkmarks on a list–would I want Sheldon to be diagnosed as autistic? Do I want any character to be categorized specifically as autistic in the storyline?
Yes, I do. I want as many representations of autism as possible, for one thing. This is a tale as old as time. As a bisexual person, I can also agree the issue affects other marginalized groups, like LGBT* people, people of color, other people with disabilities besides autism, etc. The more characters that have autism, the more representation we have. The more likely we are to see a wide spectrum of characters who we can identify with.
Sheldon would be a perfect example of this. As an autistic person, there’s not a single episode that goes by when I don’t, at least once, say, “Yup! I see where he’s coming from there. Haha, that’s so me.” While non-autistic friends were laughing because Sheldon got distracted by train trivia on the Valentine’s Day episode, I was laughing because I, too, would get overly distracted by trivia and memorabilia on a date. No doubt. But I also would be on a date with someone who respected me enough to understand why I do that, and who wanted to share in my obsessions with me (to some extent).
How different could life have been for me if, growing up, Rory Gilmore, or Lilo from Lilo & Stitch had been canonically autistic? Very different. They both feel like me, in very autistic ways that other characters often don’t. And yet, there’s nothing in the script that requires anyone to identify these characters this way. It would change nothing about Sheldon, nor Rory nor Lilo, in a negative way, to make it a fact that they are autistic. It wouldn’t change any character. Contrary to popular belief, being autistic wouldn’t make a character necessarily less likable, less empathetic, less outgoing, less spunky, less creative. It wouldn’t make them less.
Instead, it would make them more. It would give make them more to a whole lot of real, unique, living and caring autistic people out there who have almost nothing when it comes to media representation.