Autistic Characters on T.V.

Although the writers of the show deny it, everyone knows Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory is on the autism spectrum–certainly Asperger’s, since he spoke early as a child. And Jim Parsons has admitted that he made the choice of performing the character as having Asperger’s. Whether the writers intended to do so or not, Sheldon is everyone’s favorite autistic character–so much so that the spinoff Young Sheldon debuted this year.

There are those who complain that on The Big Bang Theory everyone is laughing at the autistic character when everyone is complaining about or making fun of Sheldon. I don’t remember, but I suppose there were those who complained about everyone laughing at the gay characters on Will & Grace when it first debuted. Yet, the social consequences of that show for gay people cannot be understated. There is little doubt in my mind that it was responsible for the shift in support for gay marriage shifting from a clear minority position to a (just barely) majority position. Sympathetic portrayals of gay characters–and laughing at them doesn’t mean we don’t sympathize with them–changed attitudes toward gays. And sympathetic portrayals of autistic people, whether in comedies or dramas, will change attitudes toward us as well.

Of course, it would help a lot if it were 100% clear Sheldon was on the spectrum. The show’s official denial that Sheldon is on the spectrum prevents people from forming the full empathetic tie and as a result we haven’t made the same kinds of gains as gays made through Will & Grace.

That’s why I have great hopes for The Good Doctor. I just saw the first two episodes, and from the perspective of someone on the spectrum who understand the transformative power of art–being a poet, playwright, and fiction writer myself, I am optimistic.

For one, I absolutely love how the show depicts most people’s attitudes toward someone with autism. Dr. Shaun Murphy is treated absolutely terribly by almost everyone. The president of the hospital believes in Shaun, but we do not yet understand why he believes in him to the degree he does. There’s a woman on the board who supports Shaun because she supports the president, but she otherwise seems neutral about him.The only other person who treats him well actually treats him with a great deal of pity. Pity is what you feel when you think yourself superior to another person (vs. sympathy or empathy, which are more egalitarian in nature). Pretty much everyone else either dismisses him at best or are horrified at the very though of Shaun being a doctor. The surgeon to whom he’s assigned refuses to allow him to do anything other than siphon. Almost everyone dehumanizes Shaun to a degree that, I hate to say, feels exactly right.

The show also attempts to help the audience understand Shaun’s thinking, using ghost images in the background and foreground. The funny thing is, I actually do have those experiences, of literally seeing things right in front of me and moving things around to figure them out. It’s why I did spectacularly well in organic chemistry–I could see the molecules in 3D and move them around in front of me to see how they were shaped, structured, and could interact and react. So, like Shaun, I’m a strongly visual thinker. But it also seems that Shaun is a pattern thinker as well–and also like me. My experience of pattern thinking is that a series of images comes rapid-fire, one after another, literally showing me the pattern through the series of images. Again, the show does a good job of showing that kind of thinking.

Another aspect of our thinking implied by the show is that our memories are highly contextual. Meaning, we can remember things well and quickly under just the right natural prompts, but not if we’re being pressured. Demand an answer, and I may not be able to draw the memory to the surface to answer you. At the very least, it might take a while. Also, depending on how complex the question is, it may take a while for the images to stop coming and for us to reformulate them into words to answer. Thus, the awkward pauses and long delays (seconds seem forever when you’re used to an immediate response). Again, from my perspective, the show does a good job of getting these things right and of creating scenarios that communicate those kinds experiences to a neurotypical audience.

Let’s face it, these shows are never going to make everyone happy. There are a variety of autistic experiences–some are more musical, some are more visual, some are more pattern thinkers, some are savants, most are not, most are high-functioning, some are not–so we shouldn’t dismiss what’s being depicted on the show just because it doesn’t perfectly match our own experiences. We should be surprised it that were in fact the case. More, the depiction of people different from us helps us to develop empathy for those others. And that can and should include depictions of other kinds of autistic experiences.

Speaking of savants, it is said in The Good Doctor that Shaun is a savant. But his depiction is, quite frankly, simply that of a rather run-of-the-mill high-functioning autistic. Due to his experiences, he became hyperfocused on anatomy and physiology and thus became a doctor. Becoming an expert in one’s obsessions is one of the primary traits of those with Asperger’s or who are otherwise high-functioning autistics. And the way his memory works seems rather run-of-the-mill autistic, as noted above. But then again, I have a Ph.D. in the humanities and I public peer reviewed papers on the different kinds of spontaneous orders, so what do I know about being run-of-the-mill? (Maybe more than most realize.)

To wrap up, let’s return to Sheldon Cooper. After all, there is a new show depicting the character: Young Sheldon. It’s pretty cute, and while there’s no mention of his being anywhere on the spectrum (there wouldn’t have been much awareness of it in 1989, when the show begins, since Asperger’s works weren’t translated into English until the mid 1990’s, meaning nobody could have diagnosed him with Asperger’s), it seems the writers are giving several nods in that direction. In one scene, there is a good depiction of Sheldon’s anxiety about being outside. In another, it is shown that Sheldon has perfect pitch. Why does that matter? Because there has been shown to be a strong correlation between having perfect pitch and autism traits. Some even claim a 100% correlation. If the latter is the case, then whether the writers intend Sheldon to be on the autism spectrum or not, Sheldon is on the spectrum.

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3 thoughts on “Autistic Characters on T.V.

  1. Thank you for this post. I only saw the pilot episode. I felt really bad for how people treated him (I’m talking about The Good Doctor.) When his rabbit pet died, I felt so bad for him since I know how important a pet can be for an Autistic child. And I wanted to slap that arrogant surgeon who treated him so badly.

    I am glad you explained everything from your point of view. While I read somewhere that they did extensive research to create the show and the actor who plays Shaun spent many hours observing and studying people with Autism and Asperger’s, it is still Hollywood and I was and still am wondering if they are going to tell it like it is. I was hoping to find someone who lives it to give his or her opinion. Thank you for doing so.

    Liked by 2 people

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