Fictional autistic people on TV: A case study based on Sheldon Cooper and Abed Nadir
Autistic people as invented characters
After the film “Rain Man”, in which Dustin Hoffman played a person with early childhood autism, there were not many attempts for a long time to present autism through fictional characters in the film. Today, however, Autism is much more of a public topic of conversation than in the 80s. This has motivated various authors and directors, so that today more fictional characters with autism can be seen on TV than ever before. These are sometimes more, sometimes less successful, and sometimes they put their autism more or less in the spotlight. The risk of presenting a false picture here is particularly high in programmes that aim for laughter. The two best-known comedy series that depict characters from the autism spectrum are “The Big Bang Theory” with the character Sheldon Cooper, played by Jim Parsons and “Community” with the character Abed Nadir, played by Danny Pudi. The portrayal of these characters as people with autism could hardly be otherwise.
Sheldon Cooper – “The Big Bang Theory” / “Little Sheldon”
If you judge the importance of a character by the level of familiarity and ratings of the show in question, when it comes to the topic of fictional autistic people in the media, you should definitely look at the character “Sheldon Cooper” from the series “The Big Bang Theory”. Recently, there is an offshoot of the series, “Young Sheldon”, which accompanies the main character in his childhood in 1989. This shows the popularity of the character, who apart from his enormous intelligence stands out because of his often clumsy social behavior, which often puts him in absurd situations. In general, one can prescribe these traits in the autism spectrum, although they are presented here in an extremely clichéd way.
However, Big Bang Theory can fend off criticism of this depiction mainly by one thing: …because there is no evidence whatsoever that Sheldon is autistic. But it is also not denied. Mayim Bialik, who plays Sheldon’s later partner Amy, explicitly emphasized in an interview that The Big Bang Theory deliberately does not pathologize the characters. It is not always necessary to dissolve everything or limit it with titles and categories. At least this statement has something positive.
Abed Nadir – “Community”
The series “Community” has not reached the level of awareness in Germany of “The Big Bang Theory”. But also this comedy series has as one of its main characters someone with clearly recognizable behavioral patterns, which are generally regarded as signs of autism. Unlike Sheldon, however, Abed explicitly states from episode 1 on that he is an Asperger’s autist. One of the characters simply states that he is sure that Abed has Asperger’s – without any judgement. The aim of humorous allusion is to make Abed an equal member of the group. And not Abed’s autism.
In general, Community does a lot more right than The Big Bang Theory in its presentation: Abed is not highly intelligent, he is an ordinary student with a great liking for films and series that shape his interaction with reality in a quite credible way. Abed also sometimes accidentally hurts his friends’ feelings, but apologizes for it and tries to learn from it.
In “The Big Bang Theory,” ten seasons later, Sheldon never claims to be autistic. And also the portrayal of the character Abed Nadir in “Community” is not always really realistic. But it doesn’t have to be in a comedy series – the important thing is to realize that characters with autism can be funny – without it necessarily having to be their autism that’s funny.
*** Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version) ***