The writers of The Big Bang Theory may not be able to say it but I can: Sheldon is autistic. In the words of Jim Parsons, the actor who plays Sheldon, by refusing to admit the truth they are avoiding ‘social responsibility’. Their refusal to acknowledge what is obvious to anyone acquainted with autism shows their own cowardice – if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck it’s a duck. Sheldon has issues reading social cues and rules. He struggles with facial expressions and tone, has special interests, routines, rituals and speaks differently to the people around him; he lacks the southern accent that his family has and uses more formal expressions than both his family and his peers. He also embodies many stereotypes around autistic people, for instance being very non-sexual, which is only highlighted further by being juxtaposed by Walowitz, and having issues with touch and affection. And, of course, being a genius scientist.
It hurts watching how the show treats Sheldon. He’s called ‘crazy’, or some synonym, almost every episode, including to his face. This clearly upsets him – he frequently protests “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested.” As do other things that characters do despite knowing that’ll cause distress to Sheldon, such as sitting in his ‘spot’ on the sofa. They are often unsympathetic and frustrated by his needs. Despite all supposedly being very intelligent and well-versed with a wide range of scientific fields, not once does a character bring up that Sheldon is very likely autistic. One has to wonder: does autism not exist in The Big Bang Theory Universe?
The issue is not the way other characters treat him. People are often unkind to autistic people, even those who should know better, and Sheldon does not help matters by being consistently arrogant, misogynistic and insulting to people around him. Rather, it’s that the show doesn’t treat nastiness towards Sheldon as a problem – instead, it expects us to laugh. Insults to Sheldon or deliberate hurtful acts are almost always accompanied with canned laughter. Leonard calling him crazy to his face? What hilarity!
Sheldon, like many autistic people, doesn’t have a particularly expressive face or voice, which means that insulting him is easier than other characters. There is no need for an apology or a moment of sympathy because he doesn’t seem hurt, merely oblivious or confused. Instead of still treating him as a person deserving of empathy, the show uses this to get away with laughing at Sheldon’s expense. This is often an issue with autistic or autistic-coded characters; they’re treated like they have no feelings because they don’t express them through body language. If a character has no feelings to hurt, what does it matter what is said to them? The Big Bang Theory, especially in the first few seasons, perpetuates this idea about autistic people being robotic, alien and emotionless. Jokes at Sheldon’s expense are a cheap laugh for the show and they make full use of them.
Having said this, there are moments of genuine situational comedy. Sheldon often takes things literally and says what other characters are thinking but won’t say due to social convention. There is a lot of natural comedy here and I don’t really have an issue with these jokes. They’re relatable moments for a lot of autistic people. It’s also true that characters like Penny grow accustomed to traits like this in Sheldon, which is genuinely heart warming to see.
The show has also been criticised by autism advocates for portraying ‘cute autism’; they exploit the funnier parts of autism like taking things literally but never show the struggle that comes with autism. Sheldon never has violent or ugly meltdowns, he had friends, family and ends up with Amy and is successful in his field. But I don’t believe this to be an issue either.
Firstly, the show is a sitcom and doesn’t stray into hard-hitting topics. In the same way that I don’t think every show with a gay character has to show the struggles of homophobia, not every show with an autistic character needs to show the darker issues that autistic people face. I wouldn’t want those situations treated with the upbeat lens of a sitcom. It would either be distasteful but maybe funny or just plain bad. Autistic characters should be able to exist in sitcoms and that seems to necessarily mean that the harder parts of autism are excluded from the narrative. We don’t see Raj being racially abused in the street or Howard being attacked by anti-Semites. This isn’t the show denying those experiences but recognising that they fall outside the scope of a sitcom.
Relatedly, Sheldon is an aspirational figure for autistic people. He shows what we can be – loved and professionally successful. His friends don’t leave him for being ‘weird’ even if they could be more accepting. That’s not the experience for a lot of autistic people. Personally, I feel as though I’ve lost friends due to autistic traits like not liking loud noise, so seeing Sheldon with a friendship group that does, ultimately, love and care for him is reassuring, as silly as that may be. Whilst the show as a whole treats Sheldon’s as less important and worthy of empathy than those of other characters, he does have good relationships with other characters; as much as they complain about him, they do clearly care for him and miss him when he isn’t around.
The Big Bang Theory exploits autism and it can’t get away with it by denying the obvious. Even if someone doesn’t realise that a person or Sheldon is autistic, if they see someone who shares traits with Sheldon, they can associate that with how Sheldon is treated and how that is – in the eyes of the show – risible. Autistic people deserve to be more than just a quick joke. At best it’s lazy, uncreative writing, and at worst it’s propagating harmful ideas about autistic people and laughing at their genuine discomfort.
Illustration by Marcelina Jagielka