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Dangers of "cute autism" & big bang

Posted by on Sep. 25, 2017 at 10:12 AM
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1 mom liked this
The Problem with Sheldon Cooper and the "Cute Autism"


Lydia Netzer


Sheldon Cooper doesn’t have autism, or that’s what The Big Bang Theory writers have always claimed. Speaking on behalf of the show, Mayim Bialik (who plays Sheldon’s girlfriend) told Neil deGrasse Tyson that the show’s writers refuse to pathologize their characters, because everyone should be loved and accepted without labels. Sheldon himself denies being autistic, stating “My mother had me tested.” And yet: Obsessive behaviors. Social dysfunction. Regressive tendencies. Inability to grasp subtext and sarcasm. Avoidance of physical contact. Anxiety. Scientific savantism.

Failure to call a duck a duck doesn’t change the fact that it swims and quacks, and viewers have decided that Sheldon is on the spectrum based on his many “spectrumy” behaviors. Of course they love him for it. He’s been called a poster boy for Asperger’s Syndrome. Sporting a shirt with his catchphrase, “Bazinga!” is like hoisting an autism flag. He’s such an icon that now we have a new show, Young Sheldon, in which a nine-year-old Sheldon Cooper goes to high school, undiagnosed autism and all.

Jim Parsons, who has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Sheldon, admitted that avoiding the label takes away a certain “social responsibility” to play the character true to that diagnosis. Without the label, the writers can have their autism jokes and avoid being accused of stereotyping. They can be on trend while skipping the “very special episode” a diagnosis might have necessitated. Put a word to it, and it gets awkward. People might get mad.

As the mother of a child who has gotten through his teen years watching and idolizing Sheldon Cooper, I am actually already mad.

Because I agree with the show: Sheldon Cooper is in fact not an autistic person. He suffers from a different condition, one that appears mostly on TV and movie screens, but also on Facebook posts, in Christmas letters to family, and in glossily remembered versions of real events: the cute autism.

People who have cute autism do funny things like always need to sit in the same spot and memorize obscure facts. They misunderstand sexual innuendo and they carry around white boards and they speak in funny, hyper-formal constructs. They amaze strangers with mental math, and they’re goshdarn persnickety about food and laundry. Cute autism is sometimes paired with cute OCD, which brings on symptoms like doing amusing rituals and being selectively germophobic, needing things to be lined up on shelves, and putting soup cans in alphabetical order.

A person with cute autism might commit a faux pas, but he will not be shamed and kicked out of school for it. He might utter a gaffe, but he will not permanently alienate a friend group because of it. He won’t destroy relationships. He won’t have an ugly emotional meltdown in public, or freak out and hit someone. While Sheldon Cooper’s friends on The Big Bang Theory are often exasperated and annoyed, they never shun him, because Sheldon never crosses the line into causing true offense and hurt. The writers carefully keep Sheldon just on this side of being awful. That is a high bar to set for autistic people in the real world.

I confess that I write this with imperfect conviction, because I have been watching The Big Bang Theory for a long time, and I have loved laughing at Sheldon. Sheldon has a Ph.D., a grown-up apartment, and a constellation of nerdy friends; he is going to be okay. What drives me to raise my hand right now and call foul is the appearance of Young Sheldon. Now we’re looking at a cute little child with cute autism, and it’s not really okay.

Characters who make viewers go “aww” over autism spectrum behaviors create an unrealistic expectation that autistic people be consistently endearing and quirky, and ultimately socially successful. The pilot of Young Sheldon promises little Sheldon will learn to take off his germophobe mittens to hold his father’s hand. That will not happen in real life. The pilot promises that while teachers will yell and students will scoff, Sheldon will prevail. That will not happen in real life. There will never be a very special episode of Young Sheldon where Sheldon beats his own face black and bloody, or cries himself to sleep because his last friend has decided he’s too weird and turned his back on him. The writers won’t allow that.

Consider the autism muppet, Julia, on Sesame Street. She is the epitome of adorable, and she teaches children to tolerate kids who don’t want to be touched, or don’t give eye contact, or make flappy hands. Julia will never push a joke too far or unwittingly say something unforgivably racist. Julia will never do something disgusting, or scary, or inexplicable, because Julia’s job is to teach kids that autism is safe and fine. But autism is not safe and fine. Autism is beautiful, and magical, and brilliant, but autism is also screaming, and hurting people, and agony, and clashing with the world.

Yes, we already know how to leave that part out.

“Cute autism” is an identity that families of autistic children already feel compelled to perpetuate by only showing the funny or positive sides of autism in scrapbooks or Facebook, and in conversations with parents of neurotypical children. We rinse the events of our kids’ lives until the scary parts are gone. This is why we need writers who create fictional characters from unfiltered truth.

Cute autism, cute OCD, cute depression -- they trick us into thinking that tolerance is easy, because these conditions can be sanitized into character quirks to enhance a thirty minute comedy plot. The producers may shrug it off and say, “He’s not autistic!” but he is, to everyone watching, and to my son who identifies with him so much. I know I should give you a pithy personal anecdote to really bring this home in a powerful way, but I won’t, because I am filtering out the ugly things about growing up autistic that might embarrass him or shock you. I don’t apologize for that, because my son is real, and his future is important. I maintain the cute autism, so my child is only as autistic as he is allowed to be. And it looks like young Sheldon will be too.

Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine and How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky
by on Sep. 25, 2017 at 10:12 AM
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Replies (1-10):
SamMom912
by Platinum Member on Sep. 25, 2017 at 10:12 AM
I was very moved by this article and wanted to hear what you ladies thought of it.

emarin77
by Gold Member on Sep. 25, 2017 at 10:35 AM

I liked it.

MixedCooke
by Group Admin on Sep. 25, 2017 at 11:48 AM
We just had this discussion at work last night because they couldn't understand why I didn't like that all these shows such as The Good Doctor and Attpical are coming out. It's just before people only thought of autism as the severe cases, the non-verbal, rocking back and forth, self-harming and now the are going to think the more high-functioning ones that are verbal or that their hyper focus has made it possible for them to be doctors. They are showing the both extremes but not the full spectrum.
perrywinkle
by Bronze Member on Sep. 25, 2017 at 11:57 AM
I agree with the article. While I love that austim is being portrayed on screen, The Big Bang Theory is not a good example. It plays into the Rain Man steroetyple and gets laughs but that is it.
ineedcoffeemom
by Brittaney on Sep. 25, 2017 at 12:19 PM

I actually like Atypical. They did a good job of crossing the line and showing what autism can do. He has a meltdown by himself on a public bus. He alienates himself by the things he says. Its not the "cute autism" its the real autism.

Quoting MixedCooke: We just had this discussion at work last night because they couldn't understand why I didn't like that all these shows such as The Good Doctor and Attpical are coming out. It's just before people only thought of autism as the severe cases, the non-verbal, rocking back and forth, self-harming and now the are going to think the more high-functioning ones that are verbal or that their hyper focus has made it possible for them to be doctors. They are showing the both extremes but not the full spectrum.


Stephw1110
by Silver Member on Sep. 25, 2017 at 12:35 PM
1 mom liked this
I have very mixed feelings about these shows. We watched "The A word", we've watched a handful of episodes of "Atypical", the DVR is set for "The Good Doctor" and we watch TBBT and will watch "Young Sheldon" (God we watch a lot of TV...) where part of me is glad to get to see ASD in mainstream shows I think it's giving people a false impression of ASD. Where I will admit, Ben is pretty similar to all of these characters, it leaves a lot out. Not all ASD kids are geniuses...Not all ASD kids live lives such as these. Many many more struggle greatly. But no one wants to watch a 7 yo have a full on screaming meltdown for an hour because his crayon broke, no one wants to see a 14 yo poop smearing, no one wants to see a 22 yo man masturbating in public because even through his brain doesn't work quite right, he still has natural urges. Autism isn't funny and I feel like when you try to spin these issues into a comedy, you're just setting up real kids for more bullying.

On another note, I'm also extremely sick of mom's in these shows being portrayed a crazy lunatics who's only mission in life is to make sure their kid is the most important thing in earth. Where I know I'm not going to let my son be trampled on, I'm teaching him to deal with the world as it, not for the world to cater to his needs. It made me so mad when in "Atypical" the Mom got in a huge fight with a store manager because she called ahead and asked for the lights to be dimmed and a bunch of other stuff.
ineedcoffeemom
by Brittaney on Sep. 25, 2017 at 3:00 PM

AMEN ON THE MOM PART. I feel like in Atypical they are purposelly betraying the mom negatively. When watching, it reminded me of why you don't let your child be your only world. You still need to be YOU or YOU GO INSANE. i think that was them showing how her insanity struck because she'd spent so many years doing everything for her son, that when he was ready to have some space she didn't know what to do with herself. It even shows in her daughter's resentful relationship with her, probably because she was pushed aside because her brother needed all the help and attention.

I hate that they showed that to the public instead of portraying a mom who at least tries to get it right by giving herself to all, including back to her own self care. But at the same time it does show the ugly reality of how autism doesn't just hurt the child, it hurts the family. 

Quoting Stephw1110: I have very mixed feelings about these shows. We watched "The A word", we've watched a handful of episodes of "Atypical", the DVR is set for "The Good Doctor" and we watch TBBT and will watch "Young Sheldon" (God we watch a lot of TV...) where part of me is glad to get to see ASD in mainstream shows I think it's giving people a false impression of ASD. Where I will admit, Ben is pretty similar to all of these characters, it leaves a lot out. Not all ASD kids are geniuses...Not all ASD kids live lives such as these. Many many more struggle greatly. But no one wants to watch a 7 yo have a full on screaming meltdown for an hour because his crayon broke, no one wants to see a 14 yo poop smearing, no one wants to see a 22 yo man masturbating in public because even through his brain doesn't work quite right, he still has natural urges. Autism isn't funny and I feel like when you try to spin these issues into a comedy, you're just setting up real kids for more bullying. On another note, I'm also extremely sick of mom's in these shows being portrayed a crazy lunatics who's only mission in life is to make sure their kid is the most important thing in earth. Where I know I'm not going to let my son be trampled on, I'm teaching him to deal with the world as it, not for the world to cater to his needs. It made me so mad when in "Atypical" the Mom got in a huge fight with a store manager because she called ahead and asked for the lights to be dimmed and a bunch of other stuff.


ineedcoffeemom
by Brittaney on Sep. 25, 2017 at 3:11 PM
1 mom liked this

I think the muppet character Julia is okay. Because she's teaching very young children who sadly have much more empathy that alot of adults, that looking different and acting different doesnt mean not liking you. I've watched kids follow my daughter around saying hello over and over again, not understanding why she's not saying hello back, or stopping and looking in their direction. I've had one instance where I met the MOST AMAZING MOM. I think seriously the best mom in the world, I met her and her son. Her son seemed kinda shy and she told him to ask my daughter if she wanted to play. So he did, and ofcourse my daughter gave no response. I always sit and watch to see how these things will go before stepping in. Well he looked back at his mom and she said, maybe she didn't hear you, ask again. That's when I knew there was genuine interest, the kid wasn't going to say hi and run off and I could have a chance to explain. So I told the mom and the boy, it's not that she didn't hear you, she simply can't answer you back. She can't speak yet because she has autism. The mom said ooooohhhhh ... pause ..... wow, did you hear that (little boy's name), this is a very special little girl. She would love for you to play with her but she just can't say it yet. But let's play beside her and I bet she will enjoy that. Let's try and see. And he ran cars in the sandbox with her, and he watched her play and my daughter even gave a couple of glances over at him. But the mom smiled and laughed and made the boy feel comfortable next to my daughter. That was one of the best days I've experienced.

As far as the other ones, I think Atypical does show reality but the others aren't really portraying autism. They're displaying typical people with quirks ..... the absent minded professor of some kind. To call it autism and to have that expectation of autism is damaging.

LCWAmommy
by Member on Sep. 25, 2017 at 5:30 PM
1 mom liked this
I have to say I love the Big Bang theory and we often call Abby “Sheldon” she has that very blunt personality and if she thinks something is stupid she will tell you. Of course we have our struggles too because while she’s a very smart little girl if something is hard she shuts down and just won’t do it. Our problems go way beyond being socially awkward, or refusing to eat anything different. Abby’s favorite show (besides doctor who) is Bones, she says she likes it because it’s about science and Dr. Brennan is just like her.
cmsloco
by Member on Sep. 26, 2017 at 12:49 PM

I was thinking about this all night and then I found this post this morning!  I watched the premiere of the good doctor last night and yeah have been a fan of the Big Bang.  I too watched Atypical and laughed at some of the antics.

 I have two boys. One is on the aspie end undiagnosed and I tell his bio father we have a Sheldon all the time. He is my oldest. He is in college working for his bachelor degree and planning on going for at least a masters.  He is still socially awkward but has learned to function in a group setting for school assignments and he does have one friend, his best friend, who I am thankful for each day.  Still not been on the first date so I'm waiting to see how that one plays out.  ;) 

Then I have my youngest, fully verbal,wonderfully sensitive however he is not the "cute autism". He is moderate functioning. He has no friends and is being homeschooled because of where the system wanted his placement. His therapy sets and behaviorist feel like he will always be at home and might be able to handle a small part time job when he is grown up.  The struggles for him are tremendous. I used to worry about the school calling cps because of bruises and marks left on his body. These were from sib behaviors. The school system got to see first hand with frequency so that was not an issue. Fortunately he is not aggressive toward others but we still haven't made it through puberty yet. (Fingers crossed and prayers up). 

My sister and mother were so excited about the good doctor and the positive portrayal these shows can potentially give for people on the spectrum. I am to an extent as well,but then I think about my youngest. Not all on the spectrum have savant capabilities. Not all people on the spectrum have learned to function within their distress. Not all behaviors are "cute".   

There are no shows out there that show this side of autism that are entertaining enough for the general public and our tv escapism.  (Let's face it, how many people are going to watch a documentary about the spectrum as a means to unwind at the end of the day. I say this and I love documentaries). I really don't think there will be.  It's not entertaining.   It's not pretty and cute.   It's messy but it's our lives and it can be joyful.  I know every mom on here has learned to celebrate the small victories that are actually quite large in our world which is their world.   And every mom on here has had days when autism kicked our butts.  

Portraying "cute autism" may not get the word out like we hope but maybe,hopefully, it will be enough to make society think. One of the best scenes in the good doctor last night for me is when our hero's hero made the speech to the board and compared not hiring the guy would be like not hiring him because he was black or a woman. I guess what I'm saying is these shows may be a bit harmful,but at least they are a start. 

we rock

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