My Evening with Dr. Sheldon Cooper (But is he an Aspie role model?)

the_big_bang_theory_covers_sheldon_cooper_851x315-851x315I know, I disappeared again. Sorry.

I’ve written about obsession, my tendency to fixate on something and not let go. And that’s what keeps happening: I move from one thing to another, again and again (sometimes things like watches or video games, sometimes concepts like death or quantum physics).

In so doing, I’ve neglected my blog, I think because of my fear I’ll let people down (which, ironically, I have) by not devoting myself fully. Damn you, obsession! This time, I won’t make any promises, but I’m hoping — really hoping — I can keep that obsessive little demon at bay for a while.

Today’s post, though, is in fact about an object of my obsession, most people’s favorite sit-com, “The Big Bang Theory,” and in particular, the character Dr. Sheldon Cooper (played, amazingly, by Jim Parsons).

It’s become conventional wisdom that Sheldon is an Aspie, even though the writers have denied it. This is not a novel topic, I realize. Others have posted intelligent and insightful blogs about Sheldon and Asperger’s, including here, here and here. But I’m hoping my perspective advances the conversation.

Let me explain the title. One of my feverish aspirations (i.e., “dreams”), for the past year or so, was to see a taping of “The Big Bang Theory.” Ever since I became aware of the show — and I was a latecomer in that regard, sadly — I’ve obsessed over it. I watch it just about every day. Sometimes even multiple episodes in the same day. I’ve even gotten my wife and daughter hooked, which, given their TV show preferences, is no small feat.

The next logical step was to see it in-person, as it’s being taped. It was a realistic plan, unlike many of mine, since I live within a relatively short drive of the Warner Bros. studios in Burbank. (I should clarify: it’s a “short” drive outside of rush hour, which, in LA, lasts from 6:00 to 11:00 am and 2:30 to 7:00 pm.)

I tried to get tickets so many times. Just as Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj clicked the refresh button over and over to get Comic-Con tickets in one episode, I did too, using multiple computers and smartphones.

Finally, one day, I succeeded, but I was able to get only one ticket, and it was “standby,” meaning I’d have to wait in a line for hours and hope few VIPs showed up that day. I’d also have to calculate what time I needed to arrive to maximize my chances of getting a ticket, again, like the BBT guys (although hopefully with better success). But I was not deterred, and after about five hours of waiting, I got in. (I’ll include details about the experience in a future post.)

So that’s how I spent an evening with Sheldon. Okay, perhaps “with” is an overstatement. But I was in his vicinity, at least, and I think at one point he may have looked at me.

But back to the primary topic: Sheldon and Asperger’s.

I would agree Sheldon has Aspie characteristics. That’s beyond doubt, with examples provided in the links above and some compilation videos like this one. And much of the time, he does seem to act as one would expect a person with Asperger’s to act: he doesn’t understand social conventions (and has to memorize them); he interprets statements literally and is bad at noticing sarcasm; he has trouble reading emotional states and interacting with other; he engages in many rigid routines (the three-time door knock is probably the most well-known); and he gets fixated on a subject and will converse about it at length regardless of whether others in the room are interested; and he has great difficulty seeing the world from the perspective of others. (I identify with all those traits.)

But, despite these limitations, he’s often quite adept at conversing with others, at coming up with quick witty retorts, at using humor to make light of situations (and with good timing and delivery), and at joking around with friends and colleagues. (Here’s a good compilation.) One of my favorite examples, which includes all of these things, is the scene where Sheldon is attending a lecture by famous string theorist Brian Greene.

Don’t get me wrong: it gives me great pleasure to see Sheldon use humor. It’s extremely entertaining and makes him an engaging, intriguing, interesting character. In fact, it’s probably what redeems him (in the eyes of many) for his insensitive behavior.

But there’s the rub. I suspect that many people, especially in the neurotypical community, love Sheldon not so much because of his insensitivity but because he’s so funny. It’s human nature to want to be in the company of those who make people laugh, and to look past those people’s “bad” traits. The problem is, most Aspies are not that funny.

On the contrary, what makes Aspies so unique and valuable to society (at least in my opinion) is their earnestness and loyalty, their intellect, their ability to focus and concentrate on a single subject for great lengths of time and ignore all distractions, the unique perspective they bring to all types of issues. Aspies are not known for their humor. (But if anyone feels differently, by all means, please post a comment.)

My concern is that the character of Sheldon, who, after all has his lines written by some of Hollywood’s top comedy writers, has set too high a bar. I worry that people will expect that when they interact with an Aspie, he or she will say something insensitive … but then follow up with a witty retort or a joke. But most likely, there will be no follow up; it will just be the insensitive (but truthful and insightful) comment.

But maybe my fear is unfounded; maybe people understand that Sheldon is just a TV character, and that Aspies they encounter in the real world aren’t as funny or entertaining. I certainly hope so. Even with the risks Sheldon poses, I am grateful for his creation.

By the way, the episode I saw taped (a couple weeks ago) airs today. If you watch Big Bang Theory, you probably don’t need to be told to pay attention to Sheldon’s lines. But just as a “head’s up,” watch for Sheldon’s lines when he walks into a “fusion” restaurant with Penny. His insensitive but brilliant biting humor is at its very best.


“Mary and Max” or: how odd can an Aspie be?

Mary-And-Max Aspies for Freedom

The other day my wife and I watched the stop-animation (i.e., claymation) film “Mary and Max.” It’s about a little girl living in Australia, Mary, who becomes pen-pals with a middle aged New Yorker named Max. The opening credits claim it’s “based on a true story.”

My wife usually refuses to watch stop-animation films, but for some reason, this one appealed to her. I suspect it’s because Max has Asperger’s and I told her so — she sometimes tries to figure me out by studying the behavior of fictional Aspies — but she denied it. I had a bad feeling when I saw that the Aspie, Max, looked like a human version of Shrek. But viewers gave the movie four full stars on Netflix (a rare accomplishment, as any of you Netflix viewers know) and besides I like claymation, so I said ok.

My wife really liked the movie; me, not so much. I’ll admit it was very creative, and different, and certainly entertaining. So I can’t say I hated it. But something about it bothered me: Max, even for an Aspie, was really odd.

Right off the bat, there’s his appearance — the human Ogre thing. He’s physically quite revolting, even in clay. Aspies are often awkward, nervous, and stressed out by social interactions, and he definitely was all that. But where in the DSM-IV does it say that Aspies, or people with autism generally, look like Halloween creatures?

I also can’t avoid mentioning his, um, girth. Now I know weight is a controversial topic, and lots of people struggle with weight issues. But Max isn’t just slightly overweight or even obese. He weighs 350 pounds. And that’s just at the beginning of the movie! By the end, he’s gotten considerably fatter (“wider,” as the movie puts it). I would guess — did they weigh the clay? — he was about 450 lbs. by the end. It’s no wonder, considering his diet — mostly “chocolate hot dogs,” chocolate bars nestled inside hot dog buns. I forget the exact number but one day he ate over 30 of them.

Someone reading this might be thinking, but the movie’s based on a true story, so what was the writer supposed to do? Well, it turns out that, in an interview, the writer, Adam Eliot, admits he fibbed a bit when he characterized it as “based” on a true story. He now says the term “inspired” is more accurate. But I’m not even sure that’s right.

The names are of course made up, but so are basic attributes of the characters. Turns out “Mary” is actually a boy — in fact, Adam Eliot based that character on himself. And it wasn’t Mary who wrote Max but the other way around. Also, Eliot wasn’t 8 when he started the correspondence; he was 17, almost an adult.

There are more fundamental differences. One of the key commonalities between Max and Mary was that they were loners, without any friends, shunned by the outside world and misunderstood. Mary was even suicidal at one point. But in real life, Eliot (i.e., Mary), though he claims in some sense to be “different,” was not bullied as a child and had plenty of friends. So that part was false as well. Even Max’s typing his letters was inaccurate — the real “Max” handwrote most of them.


Eliot also says, quite significantly in my opinion, that the real pen-pal “looks very different” than Max. I take this to mean, although Eliot doesn’t explicitly say so, that, unlike Max, his pen-pal is not morbidly obese, doesn’t not eat chocolate hot dogs, is not hideously ugly (does Eliot even know what he looks like?), did not win the lottery and use his winnings to buy chocolate, did not kill a sidewalk mime when Max’s in-window air conditioner landed on top of the mime’s head, and was not institutionalized for eight months for a nervous breakdown. (It’s not surprising, then, that the real “Max” wasn’t very pleased to see how he was represented in the movie.)

In other words, and here’s why I supplied so many details about the movie, the writer made the Aspie far stranger than he actually is!

Why did he do this? I can’t claim to know his motivations, but here’s what I think — he used his Aspie pen-pal as nothing more than inspiration for a fanciful story, sort of a dark fairytale. That might be all right, except that for lots of people, this is is one of their first encounters with Asperger’s. In case anyone misses it, Max is identified as an Aspie in the movie’s description and at one point even wears a t-shirt identifying himself as such.

Now, I don’t necessarily agree with the media’s “Sheldon Cooper” characterization of Asperger’s either. (This excellent post dispels any doubt Sheldon’s an Aspie.) Sheldon, whom I’ll write about more in-depth in another post, is sort of the anti-Max. He’s brilliant, funny and endearing, and according to my female co-workers, quite handsome. (At last year’s “White Elephant” gift exchange, a cardboard cutout of Sheldon was “stolen” several times — it was the most popular gift!) But either extreme gets it wrong.

I realize Max (and Sheldon) is just a fictional character, and hopefully, most people can tell the difference between fiction and reality. But why couldn’t “Max and Mary” have featured an Aspie who was more, well, normal? Trust me, I’ve lived in New York, and your garden variety New Yorker is plenty strange as is.

Update (7/9/2013): Another blogger has published an interesting list of movies that feature Aspies, including “Mary and Max”:

My first post — why I created this blog

From a young age I’ve known I was different. I just didn’t know how. On paper, I lived the “American dream“: Ivy League school, high-paying job, nice house, beautiful family. But despite my successes, I felt I was being held back by something, a deficiency, I couldn’t articulate. I studied hard and worked hard, but I didn’t advance like many of my colleagues, didn’t have the extensive networks they had, or the ease of developing business connections and friends. I knew I was missing out, but why? Was it something I did, or perhaps didn’t do?

Growing up, I was often called “socially awkward” or “anti-social.” And it was true (anti-social in the literal sense, i.e., not socializing). But only in my mid-30’s, after hearing my mother tell me for years her suspicion my father had a condition called “Asperger’s,” did I think, after researching it, maybe the label applied to me. I basically diagnosed myself, and had it confirmed by a psychologist who specialized in Asperger’s. Finally, at age 38, I knew exactly how I was different.

But, unlike many adults who have received a diagnosis, mine hasn’t made life easier. Before my diagnosis, I had some rudimentary understanding I was different. But now that I know my social deficits, I’m hyper-aware.

I think of movies like The Usual Suspects or the Spanish Prisoner or The Sixth Sense, where, in the end, the protagonist suddenly views past events through a new lens, uprooting his fundamental perception of the world. I now know why my classmates voted to impeach me as 5th grade class president. I’m guessing it had something to do with my frequently referring to my “authority” as president and reminding them of school rules, like standing quietly in line (at the time, I thought I was doing them a favor). I also know why I didn’t go out on dates in high school and, sadly, why I’ve lost so many friends over the years. Finally, it makes sense.

But unless someone invents a time machine in the near future (which they won’t, because, time being a constant, they already would have invented it), those events are frozen in time. There’s no way to repair the harm I caused by my ignorance of basic social norms, the unwritten rules most people instinctively know but we Aspies must learn from scratch. As someone already predisposed to depression, it’s not the most life-affirming realization.

There’s another way I feel like an outsider even in the world of Asperger’s. I’ve told almost no one of my diagnosis. The only people who know are my immediate family, and even they are skeptical, because while they may recognize my oddities, their understanding of Asperger’s is shaped by the archetypes portrayed in the media. I don’t seem like “those people,” like my father, for example. If there were an audition for Aspies, my father would get the part. Growing up, when my family went to a restaurant, my father would get up and walk out when he was done eating. If two people were conversing, my father would abruptly interrupt to say something that had no relation whatsoever to the conversation. When we were at the mall, he would walk up to strangers and ask them about politics. If there was a video game demonstration, he might push aside the little boy waiting for a turn. Or approach dark-skinned strangers and ask if they’re Mexican, and speak to them in Spanish, using the handful of words he knew (like BO-nas DEE-as). Here I was, an Aspie, and even I knew he was violating basic social etiquette.

I haven’t told others I have Asperger’s because, well, I fear how they will react. I have significant responsibilities in my job, and it’s important that people trust my judgment, without questioning whether it may be skewed by the perceived defect of an autistic condition. Ironically, one of my duties is advising clients on what “reasonable accommodations” to offer people with disabilities, including, in some cases, those with Asperger’s. If I disclosed that I too have Asperger’s, would it be a conflict of interest for me to advise? As an Aspie, I think I can be trusted to be objective even in such circumstances, but I don’t know if my clients would agree.

The other day I read an intelligently-written blog by an Aspie which included advice that, if someone inadvertently offends a friend by making an inappropriate comment or otherwise violating a social norm, she can make amends by saying, effectively, “Oops, sorry, I just had an Asperger’s moment.” I don’t disagree with the advice, but it assumes the diagnosis of Asperger’s has been disclosed. That is not the case for me (and many others). I have lived, covertly, with Asperger’s for decades and while transparency may provide certain advantages, right now, I consider them outweighed by the dangers of disclosure. I suspect other Aspies are in the same situation. For good or bad, Asperger’s is a condition that, in many cases, can be hidden from the public, unlike, say, a physical impairment. It is the Aspie’s choice, and a delicate and complex one, whether he or she chooses to disclose.

I am writing this blog partly to vent frustrations but also to share my observations and experiences, with the hope that other Aspies, and their families, will share as well and that it can be a symbiotic environment where everyone advances, even if just a tiny bit. I’d also like to teach the world to sing … but that’s for another day.

I welcome comments, even if the poster disagrees with every word I’ve written. As an Aspie, I have very thick skin … metaphorically, I mean 🙂

P.S. In case you think you might have Asperger’s, here’s a test developed by one of the world’s leading experts. It’s not 100% conclusive but pretty close.