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Big Bang Theory’s Autism Simulation

Snoopy

I just posted this over on Tumblr, but wanted to share it here as well.

I’ve criticized The Big Bang Theory for things like its ongoing obsession with fat jokes, its casual sexism (OMG, girls don’t read comics/play D&D/etc), the handling of Sheldon’s autistic/OCD issues, and an ongoing sense of laughing at geeks instead of with us.

But I want to give a shoutout to something the show did recently in “The Itchy Brain Simulation.” Leonard discovered a DVD he had forgotten to return for Sheldon, and started worrying about how Sheldon would react. Because we all know Sheldon can’t let anything go, and would be completely annoying and freak out about the unreturned DVD, right? And then we the viewers can all laugh at the neurotic genius and ask why his friends put up with him.

Only it didn’t play out that way. Sheldon countered by asking why Leonard didn’t consider how annoying and difficult these things were for him. As far as I know, this is the first time Sheldon’s ever stood up for himself in this way. He took it a step further, saying he’d remain calm about the DVD … if Leonard wore an itchy sweater he had gotten as a gift until the DVD was returned.

Animated gifs ahead. (I did say this was being copied from Tumblr…)

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I loved it. I love that this show is finally acknowledging that it’s not a matter of Sheldon just being annoying. His brain works differently. As annoying as he comes off to his neurotypical friends, their habits often have the same effect on him. Only he’s outnumbered, meaning he’s getting stress from multiple directions all the time. And the narration consistently sympathizes with his “long-suffering” friends.

The writers are unwilling to label Sheldon’s character autistic, but the actor says that to him, “the character of Sheldon is very autistic in nature.”

My son is autistic, so this is personal to me. Seeing Sheldon used as the butt of various jokes rings too close to some of what my son deals with at school.

So seeing Sheldon challenge Leonard to walk in his shoes, and seeing Leonard completely fall apart because he didn’t know how to cope with it, was huge.

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The episode wasn’t perfect, and still had some problematic issues, but I thought this storyline was amazing, given what we’ve seen from the show in the past.

Thank you for this episode. I really hope this newfound understanding continues.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

Comments

( 37 comments — Leave a comment )
deborahblakehps
Dec. 7th, 2013 08:42 pm (UTC)
I thought this was great too. I loved the way Sheldon described how certain things made his brain feel.
irishkate
Dec. 7th, 2013 08:58 pm (UTC)
I seem to be the only person I know who doesn't love to watch this show - the generalised "casual sexism [...] an ongoing sense of laughing at geeks instead of with us" just irritate me.
I have seen it, it has been funny but I can't get past the attitude usually.
jimhines
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:01 pm (UTC)
You're not alone.

I tried livetweeting an episode a week or so back. After a half hour (probably 20 minutes w/o commercials), we had gone through nine fat jokes, some very uncomfortable racial "humor," and more. It was painful.
irishkate
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:04 pm (UTC)
I am so glad to know that. It's reassuring! I had begun to wonder if my geek hunour was out of whack.
blpurdom
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:15 pm (UTC)
I know a number of people who can't stand the show, for many of the reasons Jim mentions it is problematic. I don't find it remotely funny, as a math geek and borderline Aspie and parent of two borderline Aspies, and the spouse of a computer programmer. Every time I'm exposed to it I just find it irritating as hell.

I always found the treatment of Abed's character on Community to be fantastic (he also seems to be Aspie) and that show is just, in general, many times funnier, IMNSHO.
irishkate
Dec. 8th, 2013 08:50 pm (UTC)
+1
dionysus1999
Dec. 9th, 2013 08:56 pm (UTC)
I enjoy both shows, though both are occasionally sexist, fat phobic, etc. The characters on both shows have people I recognize in real life. Both make fun of the characters. The Jeff character in Community is more of a jerk than anyone in Big Bang.

Community has wider diversity of age and race/culture and has little do with what most people's experiences in community college were like. Abed's behavior has evolved from being Aspie to one who breaks the fourth wall, seemed like an abrupt shift in his ability to navigate social situations.

Sheldon's behavior has been more consistent, but based on his social phobias and Texas GOP values I have a hard time believing he'd last long in an academic position. I would not be surprised there are real life versions of him out there, however.
mariadkins
Dec. 8th, 2013 01:56 am (UTC)
i've never watched it. but what i have seen of it and heard about it, it really just seems immature.
i've never watched it. but what i have seen of it and heard about it, it just seems really immature to me.
pointytilly
Dec. 8th, 2013 05:47 am (UTC)
Definitely not just you. The Big Bang Theory makes me hate everything ever.

That scene/scenes look surprisingly NOT made of crystalized failure. I still refuse to watch it, but maybe it'll help some people get it better that no, really, when your brain's wired differently it's not just down to lol look at the weirdo being picky.

I tend to identify more with characters not explicitly coded autistic in part of things like this, they're just usually so...ugh. And unrelatable. Sheldon just makes me feel like they want to laugh at people like me without even admitting they are, with that uh no he's not autistic really excuse. Plus all the sexism and other isms, just no.
irishkate
Dec. 8th, 2013 08:50 pm (UTC)
+1
snapes_angel
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:06 pm (UTC)
It was a fluke. A good fluke. ;) Because since when have producers and writers for Wholly-Odd...yea. ;) But when they have a winner, it is good.
nelc
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:11 pm (UTC)
if Sheldon wore an itchy sweater

I think you mean Leonard? It's been long enough since I last watched the show that I have to remind myself who's who, but Leonard's jumper has his name stitched into it.

Edited at 2013-12-07 09:13 pm (UTC)
jimhines
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:14 pm (UTC)
Yes, thank you. Fixed now.
shanrina
Dec. 7th, 2013 09:17 pm (UTC)
I kind of gave up on this show because I got so tired of the humor (although I still really like a few of the early episodes), but I think I'm going to have to find this episode when it's out on DVD to see how closely it matches up with my own experiences (OCD, not autistic). I always thought Parsons did a good job of showing Sheldon's OCD, even though the other characters (and the vast majority of the audience as well as probably some of the writers) didn't really get it and just saw it, like you said, as joke fodder/Sheldon being unreasonable.
serialbabbler
Dec. 7th, 2013 10:06 pm (UTC)
Heh. I probably wouldn't be able to stand that episode since watching itchy people makes me itch. It's nice that they're trying to provide a more sympathetic view of Sheldon now, though. I really did like him before I lost interest in the show.
majgie_moon
Dec. 8th, 2013 02:35 am (UTC)
There was one other one where Penny dismissed something that Sheldon told her was a secret about him as not good enough for the secret exchange. She then told him an embarrassing story about herself. Sheldon responded by saying something along the lines of "oh, I think I understand what you are looking for now. Here's one, you hurt my feelings over something I feel is important." I cheered.
jimhines
Dec. 8th, 2013 02:38 am (UTC)
I do remember that one. Yes!!!
full_metal_ox
Dec. 14th, 2013 01:49 am (UTC)
Another scene in comparatively recent popular culture that seems to ring true for a lot of folks On The Spectrum occurs in the first Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes movie; remember when Holmes is sitting in the restaurant waiting for Watson and Mary, going batshit under the sensory overload?
crooked_halo
Dec. 8th, 2013 04:05 am (UTC)
I have two kids with autism so this really was great. Though I, too, have found the Big Bang Theory problematic for some of the reasons you listed.

Thanks for this post, Jim. This really does sound like a great episode, even if the show itself has issues.
roman853
Dec. 8th, 2013 06:34 pm (UTC)
Big Bang Theory
I think maybe you are taking the Big Bang theory thing a bit to far, it is entertainment, nothing more, its not a reflection on Society
jimhines
Dec. 8th, 2013 06:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Big Bang Theory
Speaking as an author -- someone who creates entertainment professionally -- that's one of the most insulting and flat-out *wrong* things you could come to my blog to say.

Edited at 2013-12-08 06:54 pm (UTC)
pernwebgoddess
Dec. 8th, 2013 07:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Big Bang Theory
Hear hear. I'm so tired of the whole "it's just entertainment" excuse for everything, ever.

If it was just "entertainment" with no affect on real society, why does my *five year old* want "soft kitty" sung to her at night? And why are all those memes it spawns making the rounds?
irishkate
Dec. 8th, 2013 08:51 pm (UTC)
Re: Big Bang Theory
+1
snapes_angel
Dec. 9th, 2013 02:46 am (UTC)
I like the BBT overall. I do not like everything about it, and quite a few segments leave me cold...but, as I have actually known people like that, some parts of the show, not a lot, but some, help me understand a few facets of human nature better than if I had not seen them. I did wonder, though, just how long ago the writers of the WoW actually played the game, since the playing field altered before, and completely changed after, the Cataclysm, where Azeroth was sort of...fractured.

That was my first episode, and there were enough jokes to keep me interested, even though my mains were Horde. Right now, theyare Alliance, because all my Horde friends and fellow guildies left for greener pastures. They watered down a lot of quests and story lines.

I play it for the plot. :) I'm still exploring the concept of an MMO-RPG as literary device.

Sheldon, I have been thinking back to my college psych courses. They came up with some new and nufty concepts you covered here, stuff to read up on (last class I took was, like, in the early 1980s). I have been regarding it as a modern Seinfeld. :P
nonnycat
Dec. 9th, 2013 03:23 am (UTC)
I don't watch TBBT myself because IIRC it has a laugh track... and that's one of my aspie triggers. It's like nails on chalkboard. But what I've heard about it hasn't given me much inclination to want to sit through something that is already causing negative stim, particularly given what I've heard of their handling of Sheldon.

But this? This actually sounds like it's worth watching, because that's rather a brilliant analogy to make. I've often described negative stim (as opposed to positive, which can lead to overstim but not nearly at the same rates... and some positive stim can actually be soothing) as being like listening to nails on chalkboard, but the analogy of wearing an itchy sweater possibly works even better.

I may have to dare the laugh track to watch this ep, because if it's that well done, it may give me something I can link to well meaning friends who don't quite get it, but might from something like this.
jimhines
Dec. 9th, 2013 01:00 pm (UTC)
It does have a laugh track, and there are plenty of other problems. But I thought this particular episode was pretty well done.

For my own ignorance, could you clarify the difference between positive and negative stim? That's not a distinction I've heard before.
nonnycat
Dec. 9th, 2013 11:30 pm (UTC)
Of course! Let me see if I can figure out words.

Stim/stimming is basically short for stimulation. I'm assuming you know basics but I'm going to include it for other folks who might not know and be curious. Stimulation is real tricky with people with autism spectrum conditions, because it can be very easy for someone to overstim. But what I mean by negative stim is stuff like, the itchy sweater, the nails on chalkboard. Some of it is stuff that everyone dislikes, but sometimes it's stuff that's very individual. Clipping nails is something most people see as normal but it's something that will result in me having a full on meltdown/shutdown (that essay is excellent and very much worth reading for a better understanding of autistic meltdown/shutdowns).

Positive stim is something I use in two senses, myself, although I know other ASD folk who just use the first definition. The first is stimulation that's positive, like, certain types of stimulation are soothing. The body/head rocking, and flapping hands, stuff like that which is often considered unacceptable by teachers and sometimes parents, is actually a way to help provide positive stim rather than negative. It doesn't have to be something that's considered an ASD trait, though. It can also be something like, for me, certain types of music. (Actually, come to think of it, music is a positive stim / soother for my also ASD sister, as well.)

There's another sense I use positive stim in, which is to describe things that I feel positive about, but actually cause negative stim. I just don't really feel comfortable using the phrase negative stim around them because then people wonder why I'm pushing myself to go see a movie if it's negative for me... neurotypical people, however well meaning, often don't quite get it. Same thing with able-bodied people who wonder why I push myself to do things that I really want even though it will put me into spoon depletion; because if I let my disability or my non-NT brain control EVERYTHING I do, then I wouldn't leave my house. So, even though it's not technically correct to use positive stim in this fashion, I do use it to refer to stuff that I feel positive about but causes negative stim because otherwise the reaction from other people is not so great. Kinda sucks that I have to modify my language to something non precise in order to not get effectively concern trolled (especially hard when these people really are well-meaning), but it is what it is.

But generally if someone says positive stim you should probably assume they are talking about stim that is positive and soothing. Sometimes you also see people use the term sooth/soother/soothing and it's basically the same concept as positive stim, just a different word for it.

Hope this ramble makes some amount of sense. If you need further clarification, let me know. :)
jimhines
Dec. 18th, 2013 03:43 pm (UTC)
That does make sense, thank you! I've watched my son stimming with things like running laps in the living room, or chewing his sleeves, both of which seem to be calming for him. But we've also seen where certain things like a particular smell hit just as hard as that nasty sweater.

I know what you mean about pushing yourself, too. It's not the same, but I've had to make similar choices with the depression sometimes. I know something might burn me out or put me into spoon-debt, but I also feel like it's stuff that's important for me to do anyway, for whatever reason...
nonnycat
Dec. 19th, 2013 02:10 am (UTC)
Yup. My sister and I are both on the spectrum. My parents kinda got used to the running laps around the house thing. And oh, fuck yes on the scents, although that's not as bad for me.

Noises are, though; I literally can't go into Walmart because the lights buzz at a certain frequency/pitch (I have an outside of normal hearing range, and I'm given to understand that's reasonably common in ASD folks) that gives me both a migraine and overstim. Let me tell you, that is NOT a fun combination. It's also something I mention because it may be important to know with an ASD kid who may not be able to verbalize what's going on; it took me literally over a year to figure out the WHY I was having so much trouble with Walmart, and it wasn't until I went into another warehouse-like place that had a slightly louder buzz to their lights (with the same reaction) that I figured it out. It's especially hard when it's something other people literally can't hear. (Thankfully, most of my friends, kith, and kin are understanding!)

I also have bipolar disorder and am dealing with low to mid level depression due to holiday PTSD so I very much sympathise on the depression front, too. It's not so very much different, actually; some people consider depression and bipolar also to be non-neurotypical. It's like, hm, it's sorta like where I have fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis and am talking about spoons issues with someone with, say, lupus; we have similar issues but they have different causes.
nonnycat
Dec. 9th, 2013 11:31 pm (UTC)
Sooo... I just answered this in a really long post but it got flagged as spam because I included a link to a very very good essay about autistic meltdown/shutdown. If you're able to fish it out, that would be great, since it was a ... very long comment that I'd rather not retype, heh.
jimhines
Dec. 10th, 2013 01:51 am (UTC)
Unspammed, and thank you!
anglerfish07
Dec. 9th, 2013 03:56 am (UTC)
That sounds great! :) So happy that this BBT episode is acknowledging non neuro typical behaviour tactfully.

I don't watch BBT, and I think I'll steer clear as laugh tracks are annoying and the sexism (and other isms) would just frustrate me.
margaret_y
Dec. 10th, 2013 01:08 pm (UTC)
Interesting that you linked to a GIF where Leonard takes off the sweater and gets some relief. I wonder if he ever realized that Sheldon *can't* do that. Not ever.

When I was teaching we did an exercise with 4th graders to show them what learning disabilities felt like. (Like the sweater, it was a metaphor, because we couldn't give them an actual learning disability.) We printed their math problems backwards and upside down and asked them to solve them, all the while telling them to hurry up because the bell is about to ring.

Most of the kids got it. They understood how hard it was and really sympathized. But some kids tried to turn the paper over and hold it up to the light to read the numbers the "proper" way. I reminded those kids that if you have a learning disability, you have it ever day. You can never get a day off from it.
jimhines
Dec. 10th, 2013 01:12 pm (UTC)
Good point.

I like the idea of that exercise, too. Anything to try to instill and encourage a little empathy!
Robert Harvey
Jan. 14th, 2014 06:18 pm (UTC)
I liked it for this same reason.

Being dyspraxic, the term 'it's an itch I can't scratch' just hit home so much. I'd love to see gifs of that, or better yet, I'd love to see this post on tumblr! :)

Scrap that, just seen you linked it to tumblr in the first line. Can't wait to reblog it!

Edited at 2014-01-14 06:21 pm (UTC)
jimhines
Jan. 14th, 2014 06:23 pm (UTC)
Was just getting ready to reply and link to that, but you already found it :-)
( 37 comments — Leave a comment )

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