Is the world ready for an Asperger's sitcom?

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Feb. 6 2009 1:33 PM

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Is the world ready for an Asperger's sitcom?

Sheldon and Leonard from THE BIG BANG THEORY on CBS. Click image to expand.
Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) in The Big Bang Theory

Picture a man and a woman in a car. The woman appears hungover and irate, and the man maintains a nonstop patter to engage her, oblivious to her fraying temper: "I'll say an element, and you say an element whose name starts with the last letter of the one I said." No response. "I'll start!" he blurts, ignoring her body language. He heedlessly bores through helium, mercury, ytterbium, molybdenum, and more until he reaches mendelevium—and her last nerve." Get out!" she commands. When he does, he's startled to find that she's not asking him to look at the car engine.

For some therapists, this is a familiar scene: a guy enthusiastically firing on all conversational cylinders at precisely the wrong moment and then puzzled by a hostile response. But it's not an autism spectrum disorder case study—it's a clip from The Big Bang Theory.

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How do you build a sitcom around a neurological condition without uttering its name? That's the challenge CBS faces in its show about the travails of four Caltech researchers: experimental physicist Dr. Leonard Hofstadter (played by Johnny Galecki), engineer Howard Wolowitz (Simon Helberg), astrophysicist Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali (Kunal Nayyar), and theoretical physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). The running joke of The Big Bang Theory is that these guys are brilliant at understanding the workings of the universe, yet hopeless at socializing with Penny (Kaley Cuoco), a waitress who lives next door. But a more subtle theme is that Sheldon—flat-toned, gawky, and rigidly living by byzantine rules and routines—appears to have Asperger's syndrome.

It's a resemblance that has not gone unnoticed in online forums by Aspies and those around them. "I'm the mom of a kid who has Asperger's," comments one respondent at the blog My Favorite Autistic. "I happened upon this show tonight, and I was glued to the t.v. watching it." A Canadian blog reader marvels: "It's never stated, but golly! How could he NOT be an Aspie?" And while not everyone with the condition appreciates the character, others respond in ways that simply speak volumes: "This is the first show I really get and laugh at," reads one post in a U.S. Asperger forum.

Sheldon is an exaggerated sitcom characterization, granted, and yet how else does one describe a string theorist who insists on playing Klingon Boggle and Rock Paper Scissors Lizard Spock? A prodigy who experimented with his home's staircases to find the exact variant in height at which his father would trip? Who discourses at length upon the precise parameters of Christmas gift-giving? Or who refers to engineers as "semi-skilled labor"—and is then surprised when they take offense?

"I know all of these guys," attests Discover science columnist and avowed fan Dr. Phil Plait in a phone call from his home in Boulder, Colo. Plait, a former astronomy professor who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, recalls some colleagues who were so obliviously brusque and arrogant that "you'd want to push them into traffic"—and yet who were brilliant thinkers. "Whoever wrote The Big Bang Theory understands geeks."

He's right.

"I had a short-lived career as a computer programmer," admits co-creator Bill Prady on the phone from Warner Bros. Television. "I was a college dropout in New York City, working at a RadioShack, and I got involved creating the FilePro software for the TRS-80 at my friend Howie's place in Brooklyn." That would be Howard Wolowitz—whose name is now immortalized as one of the show's main characters.

The Big Bang Theory updated itself by making its protagonists into physicists and tossing in wheezes like the spherical cow joke—the kind of in-joke that only a science audience would even get. The tangles of equations on Sheldon and Leonard's apartment whiteboard are an actual ongoing problem written for the show by a UCLA physics professor, and there's talk of Nobel physicist George Smoot making a cameo on the show. It's a series laughing with geeks, not at them—and it's humor that finds its perfect vehicle in the geekiest of neurological conditions.

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