The Asperger’s Geek is what I call fictional characters that display stereotypically autistic interests and behaviour, yet in my opinion do not accurately represent autism spectrum disorder. Examples of the Asperger’s Geek can be found in television, films and (to a lesser extent) books. It is often used by writers who have not done enough research into autism, and therefore find themselves resorting to the use of outdated stereotypes, often without realising it.
The most popular example of this stereotype is The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. Sheldon is a highly skilled physicist who is rude to others, has a pathological need for routine/repetition and receives support from his friends and family when in difficult social situations. The show’s producer has stated that he does not want to label Sheldon with autism. Actor Jim Parsons (who plays Sheldon) knew very little about autism and Asperger’s when the show first aired. Upon researching the disorder Parsons came to the realisation that Sheldon ‘certainly shares some qualities with those who do [have Aspergers]’ (Parsons). Most people I come into contact with (including the parents of autistic children) describe Sheldon Cooper as ‘that character who’s really autistic’. It would seem that whether intentional or not, Sheldon has become a poster boy for autism.
I watch The Big Bang Theory regularly and find it very entertaining. However, I believe the autism stereotypes it presents could be quite damaging, especially given how little most viewers know about autism. Sheldon is really a caricature of ASD, with certain aspects of the disorder exaggerated to an astronomical degree in order to provoke humour (for example, Sheldon keeps a spreadsheet of his bowel movements) and other more distressing aspects of the disorder missing entirely, such as the crippling anxiety caused by sensory overload. One aspect of The Big Bang Theory I do like is that Sheldon has an active social life. The rest of the autistic characters I’ll be discussing have little or no interest in socialising, a popular misconception about autism. Several of my friends and I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and while it can be draining, we love spending time together.
What I find very unrealistic about the character of Sheldon Cooper is his high self-esteem. Several times in the show, he refers to himself as brilliant, intelligent and the next stage in human evolution. Christopher, autistic protagonist of popular novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time also has a high level of self-esteem. In the real world, a healthy self-esteem is often lacking in people with autism. A lifetime of struggling to maintain friendships, awkward social interactions and being bullied often lead high functioning autistics to develop poor self-esteem and resultant mental health issues. I’ve met many adults with Asperger’s Syndrome who are undergoing treatment for depression, anxiety and self-harm. Sixty six percent of the Asperger’s population have experienced suicide ideation at one time. (This is higher than the percentage of suicide ideation almost any other group of people, including patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and terminal illnesses).
Why are these statistics so important? Surely there’s no place for them in The Big Bang Theory, a light hearted comedy about nerd culture. Well there should be. Most of The Big Bang Theory’s audience have come to accept Sheldon as autistic, and if he doesn’t represent autism in a realistic manner it could create unhealthy perceptions about the disorder. For example, the other characters in the show repeatedly lose patience with Sheldon, snapping at him, openly laughing and making fun of his issues. That might be fine for someone with Sheldon’s ego. But for a real person with high functioning autism, who has enough social awareness to understand when they are being made fun of and therefore an understandably fragile ego, this kind of teasing could have disastrous consequences. We need to learn to treat autistic people with patience, kindness and respect. They are people in their own right and do not exist solely for the entertainment of others. Furthermore, autistic people who watch the show deserve to see a realistic portrayal of their disorder, regardless of how light hearted and fun The Big Bang Theory is attempting to be.
Surprisingly, autistic activist Temple Grandin supports the show, suggesting:
‘Silicone Valley is full of brilliant people who look and act differently, like the geek character Sheldon in the television series, The Big Bang Theory. If you’ve never watched this show, do so. The four main characters all have social challenges in various ways, and this series can be used to discuss social problems and solutions with a spectrum individual.’- (Grandin, “The Way I See It”, p. 282)
I have to disagree with this. While Temple is highly intelligent and has taught me a great deal about autism, she often supports the damaging stereotype of the Asperger’s Geek with assertions that ‘There is no black-and-white dividing line between computer nerds or geeks or Asperger’s or high-functioning autism’ (Grandin, p. 283) ‘geeks, nerds, and people with mild Asperger’s Syndrome are often one and the same thing’ (Grandin, p. 172).
As a young person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I cannot relate to these sweeping generalisations at all. I’ve never been that into comic books, video games or other aspects of nerd culture, and just because someone is doesn’t mean they automatically develop social issues. Popular examples of the Asperger’s Geek, such as Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Nathan from X and Y are depicted as only being interested in maths and science, and having little or no imagination. Yet I hate maths and science because there’s only one right answer. Many of my neurotypical friends are into computers, video games and nerd culture. Like the characters in The Big Bang Theory we often meet up at a comic book shop. But we are not, as Grandin puts it, ‘one and the same’ (Grandin, p. 172). Regardless of how nerdy they are, my brain is still physically different to the brains of my neurotypical friends. Claiming a computer geek is the same as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome is like claiming someone who doesn’t enjoy exercise is the same as someone with Cerebral Palsy.
Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Nathan from X and Y are all male. Indeed, almost every example of the Asperger’s Geek is male. That there are so few role models for autistic girls in our culture really frustrates me. Growing up, admitting to my Autism made me feel extremely isolated- it felt like there was no one else in the world like me. Indeed, autistic women are so invisible in our society that many women with Asperger’s Syndrome remain undiagnosed until their twenties or thirties. This means they go through life without any support for their disorder, and can develop severe issues with mental health, self esteem and communication as a result.
Young adult fiction writer and Corrine Duyvis recognises this problem, suggesting:
‘If I’d seen that girl in my books, I might have thought, She looks familiar. And if, in that book, someone used the word Asperger’s or autism to explain those obsessions and oddities, I might have mentioned it to my mom. We might have been able to get a diagnosis before I ran into all sorts of trouble later down the line. Instead, I saw Rain Man on TV. I never once thought, that looks familiar.’ (Duyvis)
The stereotype of the Asperger’s Geek is damaging because it implies autistic people lack an interest in socialising, are much more thick skinned than the reality and simply does not represent the majority of people on the spectrum, especially women. However, there is one more reason why the characters in The Big Bang Theory, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and X and Y are creating unhealthy perceptions about autism, and that is their intelligence.
In my article “Autism and Intelligence” I told you about a conversation I had with a neurotypical friend who believed autistic people are, in her words ‘usually really intelligent or really talented’. My initial response was to feel ashamed and keep quiet about my diagnosis. I’m not that intelligent or talented. I’m just a normal girl who happens to have been born with Asperger’s Syndrome. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t know a single neurotypical who feels guilty about not being a maths or a science genius, so why do we place these absurdly high expectations on people with autism? Because of the books, films and television shows that only feature stereotypical Asperger’s Geeks. Because of the documentaries and news broadcasts that suggest genius is an inevitable part of autism, when in reality very few people on the spectrum have savant qualities.
I dislike this assumption that all autistic people are reclusive geniuses because to me it implies we’re expected to “make up” for our lack of social skills and the support we require by excelling in another area. As though being born with a disability immediately puts you in debt to society. There is nothing to make up for. Autistic people are not less than neurotypicals; we’re just a little different, and that difference should not shame us or put us in debt. The reason I require extra support has nothing to do with autism itself, and everything to do with the fact that autistic people only make up one percent of the population. If the majority of the world’s population was autistic, we would have built a world that enables autistic people to flourish, and in that scenario I do not doubt for a second that neurotypicals would be the ones classed as disabled, because they would be trying to navigate a world not remotely suited to the way they think.
So how can we build a world that is more autism friendly, a world where the rate of depression and suicide ideation is the same in the autistic population is it is for neurotypicals? We can start by getting rid of the Asperger’s Geek stereotype and representing autistic people in a realistic manner. I often hear people saying Autism Awareness Week should be changed to Autism Acceptance Week, but in truth I don’t think the world is quite ready for that. How can people truly accept something that they know nothing about beyond a few entertaining stereotypes? And how can autistic people ever feel normal, validated and less alone if according to films, books and television people like us don’t exist?
There are autistic people out there who are creative. There are autistic people out there who are social. There are autistic people out there who are female. We exist, and we have a right to be represented accurately.