Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.
You can't see it, but one in every 160 Australians has it. It makes them anxious, obsessive and often unable to pick up social cues. It's Asperger's syndrome.
Asperger's is a disorder on the autism spectrum. It gets its name from Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who first observed the condition in a group of children in 1944. Common characteristics include poor social skills, anxiety, average to above average intelligence and an intense focus on facts or hobbies, coupled with a penchant for rigidity and aversion to change.
But in today's pop culture, Asperger's cues make for ripe entertainment opportunities.
Asperger's on the screen
In episode three of the new HBO series, Silicon Valley, the main character, nerdy programmer Richard Hendriks, gets sized up by a bullish man. "You remind me of my son. He's got Asperger's, too," he says to Hendriks, who waffles nebbishly, stammering as he tries to explain his way out of the diagnosis.
"[The show] is like Asperger's Entourage," actor T.J. Miller, who plays the character Erlich on the show said.
There's that word again. More and more, the term is becoming a go-to tick, a signal that a character will fall into certain characteristics: intelligent, quirky, awkward.
"Part of what seems to be happening with Asperger's now is that it’s almost becoming shorthand, kind of the way OCD has," Erika Drezner, a coordinator for the Asperger's Association of New England, tells Mashable. "It means they’re nerdy and smart and not very socially gifted." Drezner is running a pop culture-themed workshop at an upcoming AANE conference, and is mother to a child with Asperger's.
However, those with the syndrome vary greatly. They aren't all geniuses with social skills problems on the side. Far from it. According to Pat Schissel, executive director and president of the board of the Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Association, only about 12% of the Asperger's community is "gifted" in that sense.
Thus far, none of the main characters on Silicon Valley have actually said they have Asperger's. It's not the first time TV characters have outwardly displayed "common traits" of the syndrome, without actually owning the disorder. The Big Bang Theory, Community, The Middle and Bones are among the hush-hush crowd. The characters tap close to home, but never quite go there. In The Middle, it's suggested that the character Brick is on the autism spectrum by a teacher who says he is "a quirky child...maybe clinically quirky, even."
However, just because the condition goes unnamed doesn't mean the Asperger's community is blind to the references. But does it hurt the public's impression of the disorder, equally?
Keeping it quiet
Reasons vary for the autism spectrum silence in Hollywood. Community creator Dan Harmon says it didn't occur to him that the character Abed might have Asperger's, until fans of the show started pointing it out. Big Bang Theory co-creator Bill Prady has said the character Sheldon was based on someone he used to know, though the actor who plays Sheldon, Jim Parsons, has admitted, "I can say that he couldn't display more facets of it."
Plenty of YouTube clips exist, purely to document Sheldon's Asperger's-like behaviour.
Now that Sheldon has been pegged by the autism community, the writers squirrel even farther away from labeling the character. It would mean added responsibility to straddle the fine line between mockery and mirth.
Definitively labeling a character with Asperger's requires a new layer of sensitivity.
Silicon Valley is an especially loaded example, given pop culture's inclination to connect Asperger's with tech geeks. Take Lisbeth Salander, the tattooed misfit heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film series. She has remarkable intelligence, photographic memory and a penchant for computer hacking. Though author Stieg Larsson never explicitly writes that Lisbeth has the disorder, he communicates the possibility via thoughts from other characters, like protagonist Michael Blomkvist, who surmises she must have the syndrome.
Then there's The Social Network, the 2010 flick about the founding of Facebook. It paints Mark Zuckerberg as a narcissistic aspie. Though the character is, again, never labeled with the disorder (and the real Zuckerberg has never made any indication he has it), film reviews and autism sites were quick to point out the character's intense similarities, established from the film's opening scene, where Zuckerberg displays his poor social skills.
"I think the whole character portrayal of the Zuckerberg movie is a perfect example of people who think, ‘Oh well, Asperger's, they’re just arrogant and they want to be left alone and they’re weird and that’s it,'" says Christian Tsetsos, mentor and administrative assistant at Behavioral Concepts.
"I think that a lot of us, especially me before I was socially competent, want so bad to connect — we just don’t know how."
Tsetsos, 25, was diagnosed with Asperger's when he was five years old. He describes his early years with the disorder as "horrendous" and anxiety-inducing, though he says he now has a better grasp on it.
"I lived socially isolated from the time I was 12 to 20. Basically, I would go to school, I’d come home and that was my life," Tsetsos says. "At 20 years old, I was wondering what it would be like to have a friend, so at work I decided to challenge myself to try to connect with the others."
He now considers himself socially aware, but what he sees on screen doesn't mirror his own experiences with Asperger's, he says.
"I think pop culture tends to focus on the more impaired, bizarre acting," he says, citing examples like the titular character of Adam, the 2009 film about a lonely man with a textbook definition of Asperger's.
In the comedy world, the unusual (especially if it's particularly bizarre) is welcomed with open arms. The more extreme aspects of Asperger's translate into wild onscreen antics, so long as the disorder itself remains unnamed.
When it is named, it can tread dangerous waters. Season three of the hybrid musical dramedy Glee introduces a character named Sugar Motta. She quickly parades into rooms, making rude and socially unaware comments, but it's "okay" because she has "self-diagnosed Asperger's." The show faced backlash around the trope-y character.
Would critics direct the same negative reaction at Sheldon, if his character was labeled as openly?
Asperger's, so long as it's unnamed, is an easy plot excuse to make characters perform quirky or bizarre acts, due to the disorder's wide-ranging behavioral traits.
Show writers who purposely don't give their characters disorders get away with most anything. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory behaves strangely because he's just "Sheldon-y," not because he's someone with a disorder.
"I think there’s a general misunderstanding of how debilitating [Asperger's] can really be," Drezner says. “I think the danger is when people sort of get one idea in their head and get kind of attached to it and say, 'This is what the condition is — it’s Sheldon.'"
The aim for realism
Fictional works like Parenthood have aimed to portray Asperger's seriously. The NBC dramedy stars a large family, featuring a character named Max, who is diagnosed with Asperger's at a very young age. It comes from a personal place: The show's creator and executive producer Jason Katims has a son with the syndrome. The personal touch has made fans out of people in the community, such as Schissel and Drezner, who both name it one of their favorite portrayals of Asperger's.
“I feel like it can be comforting to see representations of your experience on TV," Drezner says. "I think it's normal."
Along with Parenthood, Schissel and Drezner also commend The Middle. However, Tsetsos says he sees more of himself in introverted characters like Angela Chase of the short-lived series My So-Called Life (though she doesn't have Asperger's).
"She’s not supposed to have a disorder, but I feel like a lot of us with Asperger's were kind of like that," Tsetsos says. "We look normal, but we’re just with our own struggles."
At the end of the day, it's more about how those with Asperger's can relate to the characters, regardless whether the disorder is explicitly there. For Tsetsos, it's more important that the public educates themselves, and not simply rely on the limitations of Hollywood.