(Some spoilers, but no major plot points are mentioned.)
I have only ever watched Big Bang Theory a couple of times, several years ago when it was brand new. There is a lot of speculation over the autistic status of the character of Sheldon Cooper. The writers say he’s not written as autistic (meaning they’re not basing him on a DSM checklist) though the actor has said he plays the character as if he were. While the character is officially not, the viewers say he is and when talking about my own children, “oh, like Sheldon on Big Bang!” is a common enough reaction. So when the backstory series of the character aired I watched it and what was made very clear to me is that Sheldon is indeed not autistic; he’s gifted. The public just doesn’t understand enough about either to distinguish between the two.
Now, there is no doubt that Sheldon is super smart. But being gifted usually also comes with Dabrowski’s Overexcitabilities. These include, Emotional, Imaginational , Intellectual, Psychomotor, and Sensual (Sensory). A gifted child can have one, some, or all of these, with varying degrees of intensity. With a greater understanding and awareness of how things can go wrong also comes a high occurrence of anxiety in gifted children (and adults), as demonstrated in the pilot episode as a fear of germs and the zoom in on potential dangers when he’s forced to go outside. Gifted people also have a heightened sense of justice, as demonstrated in Sheldon’s attempt to reinforce the dress code in school and his erroneous belief that when his father informed on the wrong doing that “justice descended upon the rule breakers.”
I wrote out a whole paragraph on all the things I saw in the one episode that indicated to me that the character of Sheldon is not autistic. However, the whole thing felt too much like a list of stereotypes, which really made me feel icky. Also, as I thought more of it, it does seem wrong on one hand to criticize the portrayal of an autistic person in Atypical as a DSM checklist and nothing else, while on the other hand saying Sheldon can’t be autistic because he doesn’t have the checklist of indicators. It has been pointed out to me that a less than 30 minute show is hardly enough information to diagnose. Not to mention, I am in no professional way qualified to assess anyone for autism. I have been learning a lot about giftedness and it’s quirks for the past 5 years, and autism only for the last 2 years. Some autistic people may identify with the character and feel that he is very much like them and that he is indeed autistic; I’m not going to argue with that. But in my opinion, all of Sheldon’s “quirks” and his demeanor is more consistent with a gifted person, not an autistic one. To be clear: a person can be both gifted and autistic. These people are usually referred to as Twice Exceptional or 2E for short. (2E can also referred to gifted plus another exceptionality like ADHD or dyslexia, to name just a few examples.)
So, why did I write this? What is the point of this? It seems to me that Sheldon has kind of become this generation’s Rain Man. I have had a pediatrician, among other people, refer to Sheldon Cooper as an example of Asperger’s/autism. He’s become the new stereotype, the new example that people base their expectations of autistic people on. And I really don’t think they should be. It doesn’t help them understand people like my kids better, and it places expectations that are going to be disappointed. It’s hard enough when my kids don’t act the way other people think they should. They don’t need more expectations heaped on them.