Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, aspergers syndrome and Me

“You realise that if Penny wakes up there’s no reasonable explanation why we’re here.”
“I just gave you a reasonable explanation.”
“No, you gave me an explanation. Its reasonableness will be determined by a jury of your peers.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I have no peers.”

That was an exchange between Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter in the second episode of Big Bang Theory, the one where Sheldon breaks into Penny’s apartment to clean, dragging Leonard into his obsessive compulsive weirdness. Despite everything, as is often the case, Sheldon speaks the truth: he has no peers; none of us do, apart from a solitary extra in a crowd scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

People who don’t laugh don’t really live. Fortunately, another way of saying this is that those who don’t laugh don’t really exist. It’s true that we don’t all find the same things funny, nor do we all find as much to laugh about as one another. Some of us know we are not supposed to laugh at certain things but do so when no one can catch us. For example, many politically incorrect jokes can make me burst a gut. I’m not above telling such jokes myself, but I tell them in their postmodern, ironic get-out clause type way. In the right company, with those who get that the target of my jokes is the racist, the sexist, the homophobe etc and not at all their victims, then I’m more than happy to resort to such politically incorrect jokes. A lot of humour derives from such a source. Far, far too many on the left just don’t get it. Over the Christmas period, the New Statesman’s Penny Red ranted on Twitter against Big Bang Theory, arguing that it is as unfunny as it is, as far as she is concerned, deeply reactionary. Her diatribe was one of the reasons I decided to pick up the cudgels on behalf of the show. Anyway…

Society knows we all do stupid stuff. Each and every single one of us does that. There appears to be an unwritten social contract. We all earn the right to laugh at the foibles of others in exchange for granting permission to everyone else to take the piss out of us, from time to time, within reason. We do (or should) pull our punches when someone loses perspective and needs help to find their feet again. No one wants to drive others into clinical depression. No one who isn’t a sociopath. Decent people see our jokes causing genuine distress and, we try to pull them back from the brink. Our friends and family do that most of all. But strangers can play a part, work colleagues, neighbours.

The infants we are socialised out of being remain part and parcel of us for as long as we live. This inner childishness clings to and rejuvenates our egos, emerging to the surface when we’re not paying attention. As infants we don’t mind being laughed at any more than our pets do. Very young children are incapable of appreciating the distinction between others laughing at them and laughing with them. Infants may not understand what they did that made their parents, siblings and extended family laugh out loud, but they are delighted to have done something that made others so happy. The dignity of adults is a double edged sword. It both motivates us to be responsible, to compete for baubles, plaudits, prizes: Nobel Prize in Physics, Olympic Gold Medal, Best Director Academy Award, or Village Idiot of the Month. It pains us when we find our egos suffer humiliation. Self-deprecating humour helps us deal with this. And that brings me to Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.

Do we laugh with Sheldon or at him? A bit of both. He is by far the funniest character in one of the funniest sitcoms that’s ever aired in any part of the world. The writers and the comedian who plays Sheldon – Jim Parsons – deny his character has aspergers, but this is clearly a sticking plaster to camouflage the glaringly obvious: we are certainly laughing at an aspergers stereotype. We are – up to a point – laughing at someone who has a condition that is incomprehensible to most of society, leading to extreme bullying of children and adults alike, driving victims into social isolation and possible suicide. Should we care about this? I suggest we must, but not by denouncing the programme as an extended, utterly reactionary politically incorrect joke. This programme could, and should, be embraced by the aspergers community and by advocates for those with the condition: Sheldon Cooper for all his shortcomings is both a role model for those with aspergers (an advert for what is best in such people, for how they can participate in making all our lives better, an indispensable cog in a larger social machine) and, simultaneously, (at least up to a point) a painful warning of what can go wrong when the condition is not caught sufficiently early.

Is it Sheldon’s fault that his emotional growth is so stunted? Or is that the fault of his parents, his religious community who wanted to burn him as a witch, and his school chums who wanted to beat the crap out of him for being a genius who didn’t understand why it’s not the best idea to explain they are as dumb as a bag of rocks? Sheldon is who he is partly because he didn’t have the friends and family to help him cope. Now he has Leonard and Penny and a few others to help teach him, and he is learning lessons. It’s never too late and that is a good lesson for all the aspergers community. And it is worth the rest of society trying to help Sheldon and others like him. N’est pas?

I have pointed out in various blogs, twitter and elsewhere that I have a diagnosis of floundering somewhere along the autism spectrum. I have also explained that while I realise I have a great deal in common with those on the ‘spectrum’, I remain far from convinced by the diagnosis. Let me explain.

In my ‘humble’ opinion, a lot of the so-called aspergers symptoms are misunderstood, even by so-called specialists. I hate the idea of an autism ‘spectrum’. Spectrum is a model with a single dimension, measured in the world of Sheldon’s physicists by wavelength of electromagnetic radiation. If all humanity can be placed on a single autism dimension, then we can be given a rank, like colours on the rainbow or waves above and below visible light. But there is no single component to an autism diagnosis. There are a large number of variables. And we are said to have the condition if we meet enough criteria with sufficient strength. Far from scientific in my ‘humble’ opinion. Different facets of the condition can be weighted so as to attribute a single number to each and every one of us. But is this a good idea? Far too subjective in my opinion. Might it not be the case that some of these factors are in the eye of the beholder and different individuals may have different takes, their own personal agendas even, reasons for justifying their failures to help their son, daughter, pupil before he/she reaches adulthood? A two, three or four dimensional model might help in placing individuals into categories that allows for different treatments, medications etc. I believe my autism diagnosis is almost certainly a misdiagnosis. I believe there is merely a coincidence of symptoms that I share with those with aspergers but that my real diagnosis is a form of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or adhd.

I don’t believe I lack empathy. I find that allegation ridiculous, and more than a little insulting. Whether others with an aspergers/autism diagnosis want to embrace that assertion is a matter for them, but I certainly reject it. As far as people skills are concerned, I often believe in calling a spade a spade. On other occasions I happen to be the most diplomatic person who’s ever lived. Whether I am one or the other entirely depends on circumstances. I love drama and literature (by which I’m afraid I mean comic books mostly, exclusively due to dyslexia) where we’re invited to peer beneath the skin of every kind of character, including complex creatures for whom empathy does not come easily: Claudius from Hamlet, Lady Macbeth from Macbeth, and Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory.

I don’t think my sense of humour matches what is said to be the autistic sense of humour, judging from an article I read in New Scientist. You might think that explains why I am not in the slightest offended by the Sheldon character. This may be true, but only up to a point. If I do have aspergers/autism, then nothing in the Big Bang Theory offends at least a subsection of those with aspergers. Whether I have the condition or not, a great deal of what impairs Sheldon I recognise in myself. I laugh at a lot of what Sheldon does knowing that the joke is at my expense just as much as it is at his. I’m cool with that. I may not happy about being a figure of fun, but I’m sufficiently self aware to know that I’m burdened by these idiosyncrasies, insensitivities etc.. It’s up to me to try and fix these problems, with a little help from my friends, as well as a little understanding from the rest of society.

The Big Bang Theory, far from being an insensitive politically incorrect joke at the expense of those with aspergers or aspergers-like symptoms helps all of us. It helps those like Sheldon learn – belatedly – about why they need to develop emotional maturity. And it helps the rest of us learn why we should want to help them adjust to society; we need to make allowances for the fact that those like Sheldon didn’t get help at an appropriate age. Sheldon is making up for lost time. Good for him.

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