I have recently started to watch the Big Bang Theory. Though a friend of mine introduced me to it years ago, I simply disregarded it because it didn’t appeal to me too much: there were way too many stereotypes. Recently, despite the stereotypes, I’ve decided to watch it from another perspective and analyze some of its characters: Sheldon Cooper (the nerd who seems to have HFA and OCD) and Leonard Hofstadter (the neurotypical geek).
Sheldon Cooper does show traits of having HFA. However he is an extreme stereotype of what a nerd with HFA might be. So he can be extremely enervating, specially for a non-geek neurotypical. Let’s see some of his traits:
- He has a high IQ and a photographic memory. He remembers everything like if it were a movie, and can tell you exactly when and what happened, and which were your words. In fact, he seems to have photographic memory and think with images (very much like Temple Grandin does.)
- He has interests in many different things, and he does know deeply about all of those interests. Ask, and he’ll tell you all about them.
- He does not like physical contact. Hugging is an issue for him.
- Being alone is being at peace. He gets nervous with people around, but being alone does not affect him in any way, in fact, it is Heaven.
- He does not recognize or understand human emotions. He needs to ask or create patterns of behavior. For the most part, he is pretty lost.
- To reason with him is to apply logic. If what you are arguing is ilogical, you are doomed, because there is no possibility of understanding each other.
- He loses the sense of time. In some chapters he is so absorbed with what he is doing that he forgets all the rest.
- He doesn’t understand when he is really tired. When researching something that bugs him, or poses a great challenge, he can be days on it without sleeping. Also, in different activities, he does his best and seems not to realize that he is really tired.
- It is hard for him to make friends because it is hard for him to understand social interaction. As the show advances, he creates more and more patterns to survive in a highly neurotypical society.
- He lacks empathy. Since he does not understand other people’s emotions, and he is unable to relate to them, he really seems a heartless robot. He has created some patterns as to try to guess what is happening around him when people get moody, but he is not always successful.
- He is very innocent and true to his friends in his way. He lent a great sum of money to Penny in one of the chapters without much ado. He is very generous, despite what seems a machine-like behavior.
- He does repetitive things, like knocking at the door saying the name of the person who is inside the room three times. He repeats this pattern always. If he does not finish his pattern, he gets distressed. Some people with HFA need to do some repetitive stuff, which makes them relax, like swinging while sitting, forwards and backwards, when they are nervous.
- He doesn’t like presents: they put him nervous and consider them as an obligation.
- He does lists for packing his luggage to extreme detail. Lists for packing, in Sheldon’s world, mean to write down how many pairs of socks, which color, how many trousers, etc.
He also has OCD traits like having everything in a specific order, being crazy about it, and washing himself/cleaning a lot.
I live with “a Sheldon” (my Vulcan), and he is much easier to live with than the fictional character. Not all people with HFA will be as extreme as Sheldon is. For example:
- Does my Vulcan have a favorite place to sit down he calls his own? Well, he has his chair, but you can actually sit on it when you want. He does not get desperate or extremely disturved just because someone is using it.
- Is he inflexible with what he eats every day? Nope. Though he would be able to eat the same thing every day without getting bored, unlike me.
- Has he a shirt for each day? He simply doesn’t care about clothing. However, he does like geeky T-shirts as Sheldon does.
- Has he a germ phobia? He is concerned about germs, but it is not a phobia, it is a great concern about them.
- Does he get sarcasm? Nope. But he has created patterns as to grasp them as Sheldon has done. Sarcasm, as a certain type of jokes, just elude him.
- Does he like to be hugged? Only if the one hugging is a girl. But if you get too emotional he will start to get signs of “allergy”.
- Has he empathy? Zero. Like Sheldon he needs explanations for what emotions mean, otherwise he is quite lost. If I am ill, I just tell him. If I waited for him to find out himself, I would be waiting for ages.
- Is he absorbed by special interests? He is, indeed. If he likes the topic, he can be eternally on it, regardless of being tired or not.
- Is he a scientific nerd? He likes technology, electronics, robots, artificial intelligence, etc, etc. (As long as it is machine/tech related.)
- Do you need to apply logic to convince him or make him change his mind? Yes. Without logic there is nothing you can do.
- Is it hard for him to make friends? Well, it depends on where the target of friendship is, and the environment. So far, it’s been okay.
- Does he do any repetitive actions? Only when he is really nervous he tries to calm himself down by swinging his body forwards and backwards while sitting down. But, apart from that, he does not knock three times on a door like Sheldon does.
- Does he like presents? Nope. He gets nervous with presents because he doesn’t know how to react to them.
- Does he understand time? I’d say no. He can lose track of how much time has elapsed very easily. Thus, he needs an acurate schedule.
- Does he need to have repetition during the day or a clear schedule of what will happen during the day? Yes. If the schedule is not jeopardized, or if you give him instructions about what is going to be changed, everything will be allright.
- Does he make lists when packing his luggage? Yup. Lists are one of the best things: they make his life easy.
As I said, Sheldon is presented as an extreme autistic young man. What he does, and how his behavior is presented are extremes of what autistic people with HFA can do. In fact, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw the first two chapters of the Big Bang Theory was the HFA association with Sheldon.
Leonard Hofstadter is the neurotypical geek. He is very much like I am, but without the extreme stereotyped behavior. While Sheldon is a nerd, Leonard is a geek. Despite being neurotypical he knows how to live quite comfortably with Sheldon. In fact, Leonard has an autistic mother who shows, like Sheldon, HFA traits as well.
Leonard is intelligent, knows social conventions, and is emphatic, however sometimes misses stuff. He is clumsy but likes technology. He wants social contact, and he yearns for Penny to become his girlfriend (I won’t create spoilers here, to discover how it goes, watch the show). He seems to be the less geek of the whole pack of characters. However he is quite geeky: he likes to read comics, and to play games, enjoys technology, loves to show up his intelligence, loves games, etc. He can change his routine at ease. He is plainly neurotypical: he gets nervous, he gets angry, he does move his face accordingly on what he feels, he understands social cues (most of the time), he gets desperate, etc.
Leonard is an intelligent neurotypical geek. He is portrayed as being clumsy with his clothes, but it fact geeks have much better understanding of fashion than nerds do. Here Sheldon, the nerd, seems to have more fashion sense than Leonard in terms of casual clothing. However, reality shows that it is, most of the times (not always), the opposite. He loves technology, gets absorved by what he is doing, but he gets tired, and when that happens he simply rests (unlike Sheldon).
Could Leonard be considered an Aspie? Though he sometimes might look like so, he is not. He is simply a geek. Geeks and nerds share with Aspies and HFAs some traits like having some social phobias, tending to like technology, be concerned on how correctly they speak or having an intense focus on particular subjects.
It seems that the combo: autistic nerd with neurotypical geek works, as a couple, and as friends, and quite well by the way. Despite the show’s extreme stereotyping of the characters, I must admit that it is a good way to explore the geek/nerd world and who might be in there from the couch of your house. TV shows can help, but not always, to explain certain behaviors to your friends in an easy way.
For me, being a geek is a true blessing. If I had been a common neurotypical girl, I would have had lots of misunderstandings with my nerdy HFA. Simply put, my geek personality helps in understanding him and having few misunderstandings. Plus: it makes our lives easier. It also puts me in a quite good position: I can interact with non-geeks and explain to them what’s going on with him without being too literal, scientific or petulant. Couples which are composed by someone with HFA and a non-geek neurotypical have harder times than those composed by nerd with HFA and neurotypical geek. Just because the number of misunderstandings increase. The layer of mutual understanding is really thin, whereas the one shared by nerd/geeks has a little bit more substance.
Think for example about presents. Being a geek myself makes it easier for my Vulcan to give me presents. He only needs to fish into the pool of geeky things that I like. Plus, I have no problem in creating lists for him with things that I would like to have, making our life together easier. Even if one thing is not in the list, if the store has geeky things that match my liking, I am sure I will get one of those geeky things. This makes him be less stressed, and quicker with social conventions. This does not mean that he likes these social conventions, he only acknowledges them and does them because he wants me relaxed and logical. In my words: happy.
Does this mean that a couple with a non-geek and an HFA will be more restless? It doesn’t need to be, but it could be if the non-geek jumps too quickly into conclussions about his/her HFA sweetheart. Some people are not so eager to create lists and putting them on the fridge for his sweetheart to look at in case of “birthday” or “xmas”. Some people simply cannot be flexible enough as to let the autistic sweetheart at home during crowded family gatherings at some relative’s house.
According to Software engineer Burr Settles, the difference between geeks and nerds has an equation (based on twits). According to this equation you can easily know whether you are a geek or a nerd.
If you take a look closely to the graph, you’ll notice how many traits correspond to Sheldon and how many to Leonard. It does seems that Sheldon is a nerd, and Leonard is a geek. Though some attributes to one another can be mixed. If you add to this equation autistic traits, you can get a better picture of these two fictional characters, specially Sheldon.
Nerds have been defined as machine-like people, often with a total lack of empathy. And this has been seen as a negative thing. However, whether they have an autistic brain or a neurotypical brain, reality is that nerds and geeks are great contributors to our society. Just think about how many of them are in Silicon Valley, and what they are doing. Or how many are in NASA. We use computers and devices that once were thought into geeky or nerdy minds, and then were put into reality. Both nerds and geeks, with or without autism, and non-geek neurotypicals working together are key to develop a much better society.
TV shows often characterize extremes creating exaggerated stereotypes, so that people can easily relate to them or understand them. The more exaggerated the better. The Big Bang Theory is no exception to this rule. Stereotyping is an associative process, meaning that you create a stereotype when you base an idea about a group with a shared understanding about that group. Stereotyping is just a natural coping mechanism: we create stereotypes by staring at the same patterns, or similar patterns over and over again. And we exaggerate the traits to make them identifiable in an easy way. However this process can result in negative effects: the prejudice. Stereotypes turn negative when they become prejudices. And when prejudices prevail, we create marginalized or separated groups we later blame things on, that usually have nothing to do with them. Just because they are so different, just because the stereotype has turned into a prejudice, we feel empowered to treat them as ants.
Sheldon can be funny, and his stereotype can be used as a way of defining autistic people with HFA. However it can also turn out to be an instrument for prejudice, since he can be easily misunderstood. Media uses stereotypes because they are easy means to convey general ideas about different types of people. Simplifying is the target so that a simple message can be transmitted easily. We are the ones who need to take those stereotypes and take out the real valuable information from them, leaving out all the possible negative effects. Only then, we’ll grasp the reality behind them.