On Sheldon Cooper, and Hollywood’s failure to portray autistic people

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Hollywood has historically not supported minority characters in major films and TV, continuously deciding not to label characters portraying autistic stereotypes autistic. (Photo by Edgar Colomba on Pexels.com)

Hollywood’s historical ineptitude at supporting minority characters in major films and TV is made even more problematic by their insistence on creating autistic characters, but refusing to ever label any of them as autistic for a multitude of incredibly harmful reasons.  

There are well-known examples of this, like Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory. Most people can see the numerous autistic stereotypes that make up Sheldon: he’s very poor at reading social cues, he has a very rigid routine, he has special interests that he routinely info-dumps on. However, Mayim Bialik, the actress who played Amy, claimed that, “We don’t pathologize our characters. We don’t talk about medicating them or even really changing them.” 

That’s…great, but not the question? It is not pathologizing to note that a character who was written as autistic is autistic, and it is certainly not asking to change that character in some way. The character already is autistic, which is the entire problem here: writers are happy to include autistic characters, but only if they’re just weirdos who are high-functioning. Giving an autistic character the label would, according to people like Bialik, somehow change and damage the character, which is both unreasonable and harmful.  

Sheldon Cooper is far from the only example of this. In far too many TV shows and films, autistic-coded characters are just the weirdos who get treated like garbage— but it’s fine because they’re not really autistic. Temperance Brennon from Bones was, according to series creator Hart Hanson, written as autistic but not labeled. “If we were on cable, we would have said from the beginning that Brennan has Asperger’s…Instead, it being a network, we decided not to label a main character, for good or for bad. But those elements are in there.” Hanson said.  

Mayim Bialik and Jim Parsons at PaleyFest 2013 for the TV show “Big Bang Theory.” Jim Parsons’ character, Sheldon, portrays many autistic stereotypes, although the show does not openly acknowledge it. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Stepping beyond Hollywood’s refusal to acknowledge autistic characters as such we hit another problem: there is only one type of autism that is deemed acceptable by the television and film industries. Autistic characters, or autistic coded characters, are almost universally weird people who like math or science, don’t understand how to talk to people, are emotionless and don’t want to interact with people. That’s simply not how every autistic person acts. Showing autism as this one set of high-functioning symptoms hurts every autistic person. 

Indeed, many autistic people have been trying to move away from the functioning labels, which are often seen to do more harm to the community than good. Kaylene, an autistic self-advocate, writes, “The most common factor that determines whether an autistic person is considered high or low functioning is the ability to speak verbally,” which is very true. Autistic people are primarily judged on their ability to verbally communicate. A person who uses Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, to communicate better than someone with limited verbal abilities would still be considered more disabled. 

In addition, the functioning labels lead to many people thinking that high- functioning autistic people don’t have needs and issues beyond being bad at reading social cues. A comic from Rebecca Burgess attempts to explain the issues with the way many people view the spectrum versus how it should be viewed: as many different traits and sections in which people have varying levels of proficiency and needs

Television needs to show legitimately autistic characters instead of just characters who are autistic but aren’t named as such. They also need to show a wider variety of perspectives of autism. Most autistic people will tell you that few, if any, television and film representations of autism are generally accurate to their lived experiences. Nonverbal characters, characters who stim and characters with serious sensory issues deserve to be able to be shown as people—not just worthless combinations of stereotypically severe autism.  

So how can this be improved? Well, writers could start approaching autistic people when researching their characters instead of just asking neurotypical experts. This would help create autistic characters with a more diverse set of experiences and needs, something that the industry desperately needs. In addition, it needs to not be taboo to say a character is autistic when you write them as such. Autistic people deserve to have role models they can look up to, the same way that any other group does, and that can’t happen when every autistic character is just “weird.”  

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