This blog marks the first time I’ve analyzed CBS’ hit show The Big Bang Theory this season. After watching this week’s episode, “The Einstein Approximation,” I saw several examples of the writers avoiding any attempt to link Sheldon Cooper with the autism spectrum, but certainly toying with those traits whether they intend to or not.
My most popular blog last year was an overall critique of Sheldon, portrayed by Jim Parsons, and how he and the production staff of Big Bang handled inquiries regarding Sheldon’s mental state. The creators summarized his behaviors as “Sheldony,” but even without an official label, I’ve often cited the show as a great illustrator for autism and how others respond to the bohemian characteristics of Sheldon.
In Monday’s episode, Sheldon attempts to solve a physics problem and devotes all his effort to solving the problem, using anything nearby as a prop. Unfortunately, his quest for knowledge usually comes at the expense of his friends. One scene combines two trends of autistic people and employs them for comedic effect. The first represents an obliviousness to the surrounding environment because Sheldon is focused solely on his mission. Since Sheldon can’t sleep while he’s solving a problem, he leaves his apartment in the middle of the night and enters a ball pit inside a kids play area (rigging a tumbler and alarm system to get inside). A security guard then calls Leonard, and Leonard arrives to bring Sheldon home.
Before Leonard meets Sheldon, the security guard tells Leonard that he once worked a party with a “special” kid, special a clear reference to a mentally disabled child. Leonard replies that Sheldon is “extra special.” Again, the writers don’t consider Sheldon an autistic, but Leonard’s reply reinforces the audience that Sheldon’s thought process is vastly different from his academic and social peers and could be easily interpreted that Sheldon, at the very least, definitely has traits that match with autism spectrum disorder.
Of course, Sheldon refuses to leave because he’s still working on his problem, using balls to represent the parts of a carbon atom. The stubborn behavior reflects the intense focus autistic people put into their projects, refusing to let anything distract them, which often leads to ignoring other people’s requests. Leonard threatens to forcibly remove Sheldon and enters the ball pit to do so (pictured), but Sheldon’s superior knowledge of the structure allows him to outfox Leonard, appearing every few seconds to taunt him with “Bazinga!”
While fans familiar with autism still relate Sheldon’s behavior to that of an autistic friend or relative, I haven’t read any articles or noticed a recurring pattern on the show that suggests a direct link in the Big Bang timeline. Seeing almost every episode since season 2, I’m convinced that making Sheldon an official autistic would remove most of his comedic value. We understand much more than we did when Rain Man was released, but after seeing the domino effect that occurred after Dr. Andrew Wakefield suggested a link between vaccines and autism, the precedent exists to suggest that fans, TV critics, and casual mainstream viewers could blindly assume that anyone with autism would interact the same way as Sheldon. That assumption would certainly complicate the education process and perhaps kill the momentum The Big Bang Theory is riding.
For now, I’ll continue to enjoy the comedic follies of contemporary television’s favorite nerds while I watch for more “hidden” signs of autism that find their way into the show’s script.