Sheldon Cooper


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HOW SHALL I LOVE THEE, O SHELDON? by James Christie, via The Huffington Post.

I was thinking about roles in life for people with autism the other day, and my thoughts turned toThe Big Bang Theory‘s Sheldon Lee Cooper.

And I realized a simple thing.

Sheldon is The Man!

More precisely, he’s the alpha male of the new age. The Head Honcho, the Big Cheese, A Number 1. All the things I was calling Joss Whedon the other day…

However, he is also pretty hopeless at social intercourse, lacks empathy, and is horribly arrogant about his intellect. In another time, he might have been the villainous Mekon toEagle comic’s heroic Dan Dare; but nowadays he tends to hang around in comic-book stores, receive heartfelt restraining orders from the likes of Stan Lee and Leonard Nimoy, and fail to formulate an effective algorithm for relations with his girlfriend, Amy Farrah Fowler.

An easy character at whom to laugh.

But let’s look at him from another angle. Sheldon Cooper, who, like his friends Leonard, Raj and Howard, displays some very geeky/autistic traits, is a theoretical physicist at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. With thirty-one Nobel laureates to its name as of 2010, Caltech is one of the greatest research universities in the world. The institute’s aim is“to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education” and the basic purpose of theoretical physics is (according to Wikipedia) “to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena.”

Or in other words, quite literally to work out how the universe works.

Each generation has its own alpha males and there’s little doubt that Aspergers would have made pretty poor pioneers in America’s era of westward expansion, but today’s frontiers are a different matter entirely. Sheldon and his colleagues are working at the cutting edge of science, helping the West maintain its lead in the global knowledge economy and, when they make a discovery (theoretical or actual), potentially altering our relationship with the physical universe around us.

For example, evidence for the possible existence of dark matter (which apparently accounts for most of the mass of the universe and plays a major role in the evolution of galaxies) was first found by astronomers and astrophysicists eighty years ago. A spectrometer on the International Space Station only made what may be the first actual observation of dark matter a day or so ago.

Does dark matter matter?

Well, that’s the question to which the answer is uncertain, but research, by its very nature, often provides unexpected replies to unspoken queries. Freeze-dried food, better Goodyear tyres and space blankets were all surprise spin-offs from research into space travel by NASA.

So, to risk a generalization, many of the physicists, scientists and astronomers who are changing our world may be on or near the autistic spectrum. People (like me) who do not necessarily fit in to mainstream society all that well, who might have a liking for comic books (I started out with Superman, flirted with Star Trek and ended up browsing throughBuffy…) and who have that slightly obsessive focus on one subject which could lead to the unification of conflicting field theories.

Can we afford to find roles in life for such quirky savants? Even to love them?

A better question might be: can we afford not to?

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives and works in Glasgow.


Asperger’s Are Us: Absurdist Humor At It’s Finest…Or, Not…They Don’t Really Care

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 The cast: Comedy group Asperger’s Are Us members Ethan Finlan, left, Noah Britton, New Michael Ingemi and Jack Hanke.

Jack Hanke, 18, arrived at rehearsal wearing a giant sombrero and green kimono. Noah Britton, 29, took off his pants mid-practice, explaining that they still stank from last night’s concert. He ran through the rest of his comedy troupe’s practice wearing boxers, and the group’s signature T-shirt, which reads: “I don’t want your pity.”

Britton, Hanke and the other two members of Asperger’s Are Us don’t care who thinks they’re weird. Or even funny. They think they’re hilarious. And if others don’t, who’s the one with the disability?

Many traits the public has long found engaging or amusing have their roots — perhaps surprisingly — in Asperger’s. The absurdity of Monty Python, the flat demeanor of Star Trek‘s Mr. Spock and the awkwardness of Andy Kaufman, are all common Aspergian traits. Dr. Sheldon Cooper on Big Bang Theory gets laughs for those characteristics, too.

“In the last few years, Asperger’s has become recognized as a foundation for some elements of comedy,” said John Elder Robison, a nationally renowned Asperger’s advocate, and author of Be Different. “All of a sudden there is a broad public awareness that the reason for behavioral differences in those characters would probably be called Asperger’s.”

Common traits of Asperger’s and their consequences:

Intense focus – can limit ability to multitask, as well as enable expertise.

Hypersensitivity to sensory input, change and human interactions – can lead to being overwhelmed by sights, sounds and stresses, as well new observations, insights

Inwardly directed – often fail to notice the impact of their behavior on others; capable of being extremely insightful.

Don’t conform to social norms , often because they can’t understand them – can lead to social isolation, as well as creativity, originality

Linear, literal thinking – can lead to confusion about metaphors and sarcasm, and difficulty learning without ordered instruction, as well as bluntness, an inability to lie, and desire for fairness.

That growing recognition helps groups such as the Boston-based Asperger’s Are Us, which is getting gigs right now because it’s Autism Awareness Month. They’re grateful for that, but as their shirts suggest, the men aren’t seeking compassion.

“We’d much rather (the audience) appreciate us as comedians than as people who’ve overcome adversity,” said Britton, the group’s informal leader since he was the others’ camp counselor seven summers ago.

Asperger’s, which is defined by social awkwardness and repetitive behaviors, is part of the broader “Autism Spectrum,” of related disorders.

Members of Asperger’s Are Us revel in absurdist humor, like Kaufman’s and Monty Python’s. Some of their own jokes get laughs because their delivery is so dead-pan, some because they offer insights into male adolescence, and some because they’re just plain wacky, like a skit in which one member says another has gotten him pregnant and the other replies, “You can’t be pregnant, I’m bubble-wrap.”

There’s been little academic research on what makes people laugh, and virtually none on the connection between autism and humor, several scientists said. And maybe that doesn’t matter.

“You don’t want to rely on academics to tell you whether something is funny,” said Simon Baron-Cohen, a leading autism researcher in England and cousin to comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. “Ultimately you want to look at the audience response.”

The group’s biggest show, held last summer in an old movie theater, was received with a standing ovation. Several audience members described the group’s humor as “fresh,” and “raw.”

In person, group members toss off endless puns and bathroom jokes, cracking one another up. They still laugh at the same gags they thought up as campers. One benefit of Asperger’s, they say, is that they appreciate a joke just as much the 40th time as the first.

They rib one another about the obsessions, or perseverations, common to people with Asperger’s. One skit lampoons 19-year-old group member Ethan Finlan’s obsession with train schedules.

That transportation expertise comes in handy, though, when planning group rehearsals, they said, and other Aspergian obsessions can be useful, too. Britton’s passion for psychology propelled him through a master’s degree and into a teaching position at a local community college.

Riffing recently on the ubiquitous jigsaw puzzle-themed autism awareness logo, the group’s fourth member, New Michael Ingemi, 19, wonders, “What’s it supposed to imply? That we’re missing a piece?” (Ingemi calls himself “New Michael” because his father’s name is Michael too. )

“We’re just differently assembled,” Hanke responds.

Obviously, not everyone with autism has this group’s quick wit and urge to perform. Many on the spectrum can’t speak; others struggle to hold a simple conversation.

June Groden, who runs a Rhode Island network of autism services, recently began training students in conventional humor, to help them fit in better socially. Young children learn to be “goofier” by singing silly songs. Older students practice delivering jokes, learning to appreciate when others laugh with them.

“We want these kids to try and learn at least some mainstream humor and get something out of it,” she said.

Britton, appointed last month to the federal Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee, a congressionally mandated advisory group, says he has a much easier time sharing jokes with others on the spectrum than with “neurotypicals.”

When people ask Britton to describe the purpose of his comedy troupe, he knows they’re expecting him to say something like “raise awareness about autism.” Instead, he once responded: “We want to sail a flotilla to Spain. We’ve been building all these boats and we just want to get out there.”

Pop Culture Nerds

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Comedian Andy Kindler used to do a bit in his act about hack comics who can’t be bothered to consider whether the premise of their jokes might be wrong. The example he gave was of a comic saying, “I see they have sugar-free candy now. Who’s that for?” To which Kindler responded, “It’s for diabetics, you idiot.” That’s the way I feel now whenever a video goes viral of some awkward, geeky young person behaving strangely at a spelling bee, or in line for a sci-fi/fantasy movie, or at a comics or gaming convention. Inevitably, late-night comedians and cable shows like The Soup replay the clip and make the same tired jokes, about nasal-voiced virgins who wear pocket-protectors and live in their mom’s basement. The tone of the jokes is always the same: “What’s with these nerds?” And I want to answer, “They’re autistic, you idiot.”

Two important points of clarification:

  1. Not every socially awkward and/or geeky person is on the autistic spectrum. I know some folks feel that autism is over-diagnosed these days, in cases where what’s really going on is just garden-variety awkwardness and/or eccentricity. Nevertheless, as we’ve come to understand more about autistic spectrum disorders, it has become clearer that people who 20 or 30 years ago would’ve been classified as “odd” in fact have a neurological condition.
  2. It’s okay to find the autistic funny. Trust me: I have an autistic son, and he’s frequently hilarious, without meaning to be. Besides, it’s the job of comedians to test boundaries, even if they end up offending people. I don’t consider jokes about the autistic to be out-of-bounds, by any means.

No, what bothers me is the hoariness of jokes about bespectacled weirdoes who know the details of every Doctor Who episode but will never know the touch of a woman. First of all, they’re about as cutting-edge as jokes about airline food. Second of all: Did you know that many autists find it uncomfortable to look other people in the eye, or to be hugged? So what’s the joke here exactly? That two recognized traits of people with autistic spectrum disorders—obsessive interests and difficulties with social interactions—are a thing that exists?

I’ve been wondering lately what’s behind the ongoing mockery of certain gawky types, and the unwillingness to extend them any empathy. Maybe it’s an overreaction to the way that “nerd culture” has been thriving over the past decade, as geek-friendly movies, TV shows, and videogames have become dominant, and as people with a facility for computer programming and statistics have become major players in arenas like sports and politics. Perhaps one explanation for the persistent contempt for the “nerdy” is that they’re becoming less of a marginalized subculture and more mainstream. Lately we’ve seen a pushback from old-guard political hacks who feel threatened by the rise in numbers-based election analysis over “what my gut tells me,” and a pushback from old-guard baseball writers against members of the Society For American Baseball Research, who prefer actual data to “trusting my eyes.” (Inevitably, sabermetricians get tagged with the “some nerd on a computer in his mom’s basement” insult from those veteran reporters, but then no one ever accused sportswriters of being witty.)

But it’s not just the stalwarts of crumbling institutions that are so pissy. On Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, he frequently makes fun of people obsessed with sci-fi and superheroes, punctuating the jokes with his impression of a nerd from an ’80s movie. Never mind that some of the funniest comics working today, such as Patton Oswalt and Chris Hardwick, are avowed geeks who don’t fit the old models of what it means to love fantasy arcana. To a certain generation of wags, nerds will always be reducible to Urkel.

To be fair, O’Brien’s nerd impressions have always been in quotation marks. One of The Simpsons episodes O’Brien wrote in the ’90s, “Homer Goes To College,” brilliantly plays off the clichéd version of jocks and nerds from campus comedies, subverting (some) of Homer Simpson’s media-fed expectations of college cliques. Still, whenever I see this Revenge Of The Nerds version of geekery replicated, I’m reminded of Harvey Pekar’s comic-book story about his VA hospital co-worker Toby Radloff, and Radloff’s obsession with Revenge Of The Nerds. When Pekar finally sees the movie, he gets aggravated that a guy like Radloff, who lives with his mom and has Asperger’s Syndrome, believes that he has anything in common with rich, handsome college kids who just happen to be wearing dowdy clothes and glasses on their way to becoming millionaires. Pekar had a point. Radloff is who he is, but for decades, “nerds” in the mass media have been artificial, self-reflecting constructions, with only a tangential relation to reality.

There’s been more nuance to the depiction of nerds in movies and on television in recent years, but it remains a complicated issue, as comedy writers try to reference the familiar. The Big Bang Theory is one of the most popular shows on TV, but it’s also one of the most divisive, because of its mix of the broad and the particular. The quartet of nerd buddies at the show’s center are differentiated from each other by their quirks—they’re not generic—and a few of them even have girlfriends. But in last week’s episode “The Bakersfield Expedition,” those girlfriends visited a comic-book store, in a scene that represented The Big Bang Theory at its best and worst. The worst: The proprietor had to explain to his dumbstruck customers that these were just women, and thus “nothing you haven’t seen in movies or in drawings.” The best: The proprietor suggested to the women that they might enjoy the comic book Fables, which is a specific and appropriate recommendation. The Big Bang Theory has been criticized as the nerd equivalent of minstrelsy by some, but its writers do know their subject, and do try to flesh out the stereotypes, even if they still lean on those stereotypes way too heavily.
Ultimately, I can’t be too annoyed by The Big Bang Theory, because it’s responsible for the character of Sheldon Cooper, the Aspie-esque astrophysicist played masterfully by Jim Parsons. Parsons and the show’s writers have very carefully avoided labeling Sheldon as having an ASD, because they’ve said they don’t want to be limited by what an autistic person would or wouldn’t do. But by not defining Sheldon, they’ve inadvertently captured an important aspect of autism, which is that the disorder has common tendencies, but flexible boundaries. Sheldon is an exaggerated version of a person with Asperger’s, but his fussiness is very familiar to those of us with family members on the spectrum. His rare moments of joy are just as familiar—and welcome, after so many years of autists being depicted as emotionless. In “The Bakersfield Expedition,” Sheldon reprograms his roommate’s GPS to deliver facts and quizzes about the interstate highway system, and during the scene where the Sheldon-voiced GPS explains the interstate numbering system, my wife and I shook our heads, because we’ve heard our own son deliver that same monologue from the backseat multiple times during long car trips.
Five years ago, when my son turned 6, I wrote an essay for this site called “Rain Man Revisited,” in which I lamented that movies and TV episodes about autism tend to treat the autistic as aliens in our midst, defined only by their family members, who spend their lives waiting for their autists to say “I love you.” The situation has vastly improved since then, even beyond Sheldon Cooper. The HBO movie Temple Grandin did justice to an icon in the autism community, showing Grandin as a complicated person with accomplishments and pleasures as well as limitations. Community, The Middle, and Parenthood have created distinctive ASD characters in the pop-culture-consumed Abed Nadir, the obsessive-compulsive bookworm Brick Heck, and the inadvertently insensitive Max Braverman. And Ryan Cartwright’s performance as the autistic superhero Gary Bell on Alphas has been one of the truest I’ve yet seen, accurate in the autist’s at-times-frustrating inability to control his own quirks while also allowing Gary to be amused and amusing on his own terms.
The key to the success of all of these characters is that the people who’ve brought them to life haven’t stopped at a costume or a funny voice. They’ve looked for the humanity, and haven’t treated these characters as unknowable, mockable weirdoes. And don’t think it hasn’t made a difference in the way real people understand and appreciate what it means to be autistic. My son is 11 years old now, in sixth grade, and thus far in his school career, his classmates have treated him with a combination of awed respect and genuine affection, rather than as a figure of fun or a victim of bullying. Maybe we’ve just been lucky in that regard—or maybe we owe a debt of thanks to Gary Bell, Max Braverman, Brick Heck, Abed Nadir, and Sheldon Cooper.,91151/

Does Technology Make Us ‘More Autistic’?

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I have wondered this for a while, and want to pose this question to families on the Spectrum: do any of your other (neurotypical) children display some autistic-like, or Asperger-like behavior? With the onset of the Internet, mobile devices, texting and social media, it seems that this generation’s teens, tweens and to a lesser extent, children have less, and crave less face-to-face interaction with their peers.  Some will, in fact, go out of their way to avoid personal interaction. 

Like most parents, we grew up with friends that we went to school with; we played both sports and games with them, and generally hung together as we made our way through middle school/junior high school, high school and beyond.  We shared interests and made interpersonal bonds because we knew no other way. 

The advent of technology has given our children the ability to communicated with someone thousands of miles away but in doing so, it robbed them of their social skills: speaking and writing to one another.  One of my teenaged son’s handwriting resembles that of a grade schooler, often printing rather than writing in script; even when prompted to write in script, the letters often resemble the capital letter/lower case letter alphabet banners that hung on top of classroom blackboards.  Now, this isn’t entirely of his own choosing; he happened to be in school as they too embraced technology, and began requiring work to be typed or printed.  Reading his handwritten prose reminds me of reading the words my autistic son worked on so hard to produce, often with hand-over-hand guidance to form individual letters, words, and eventually sentences. 

This post is really about how this generation’s adults-in-waiting have shied away from social interactions.  They know all their friends email addresses and Facebook statuses, and even have their cellphone numbers, if only to send text messages to each other.  A common conversation in my house goes like this:

     Me: Did you call Jeffrey to hang out?

     Son: He didn’t answer me.  I texted him an hour ago. 

     Me: Why didn’t you call his house? Maybe he doesn’t have his phone with him.

     Son: (no answer; tries texting again)

     Me: (walks away, shaking my head in disbelief)

Our children are well-versed in texting, and mastered that skill years before I did, even before we had QWERTY keyboards or touchscreens on our phones.  They seem content to ‘reach out and touch someone’ electronically, but balk at the notion of actually conversing.  Anecdotally, it seems that my sons are more apt to send text messages, or email someone, as compared to their female cousins or peers, who seem to take to video chat apps like Oovoo or Skype, much more readily.   

Yesterday we went out to a local restaurant to eat because the High School Music Dept. made an arrangement with the restaurant to donate 10% of each bill that was accompanied by a special flyer.  Good food, good cause, and the place should be filled with many friends and acquaintances.  After dining, we urged our sons to go say hello to their friends who were in the adjacent area/within viewing distance. 

“No.”  “I don’t want to.”  “I don’t have anything to say.”  were the responses we got from them, even after significant prodding and cajoling. 

Despite their (relative) social disinclination, they are capable of, if not accomplished at, expressing themselves, either through music or sports, with their peers; a manifestation of hours/days/weeks/years’ worth of repetitive movement that they convey to each other.  Even participation in a team sport or musical group can be broken down into how each individual child performed.   Someone could argue that savant-like behavior is also exhibited within the Spectrum. 

There have been many blog posts and articles similar to this one, positing that in some sense we are all ‘a little bit Autistic.” Maybe it’s because I’m hypersensitive to Autism issues.  Maybe it’s because I have three boys and Autism has a preponderance for affecting males.  Perhaps they are this generation’s nerds, who will go on to become the next Bill Gates or Sheldon Cooper

Perhaps they’re just average teenagers trying to make their way, just like we did decades ago.  Hopefully years from now, they will look at their children/our grandchildren and remark “back in my day…”

Does technology promote Autistic behavior? I’m not sold; it certainly can exaggerate some classic manifestations of Autism or Asperger’s.  Certain too is that technology will help the children on the Spectrum, and that we can’t go back in time; my autistic son can now spontaneously share his artwork with his grandmother via his iPad.   A small step in socialization but a step in the right direction nevertheless.  Technology is, and always will be the magnifying glass for our society: revealing things not previously seen, including ways to improve ourselves and our children.