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Television and the Autism Spectrum
March 19, 2013Posted by on
Editor’s Note: I am a licensed counselor and have a background in mental health. I am fully qualified to diagnose mental disorders and counsel patients. Having said that, I am writing about the mental disorders of purely fictional characters for this article, not the actors who portray them.
In the last three or four years of television, there have been quite a few characters that fans and critics have predicted fall somewhere on the Autism Spectrum, that controversial range of pervasive developmental disorders as described in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders. Autism has been a lightning rod for controversy worldwide in the past decade, largely due to the expansion of the Spectrum itself as well as a totally false, possibly illegal retracted article linking the MMR vaccine to the development of Autism in toddlers. The three conditions generally considered part of the Autistic Spectrum include Autism, Asperger syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS for short). Traits of the Autism Spectrum are wide-ranging and unique to individuals, but generally include behavior such as limited desire for social interaction, repetitive behaviors and interests, and an overall lack of certain communicative skills.
In the glory days of 80s and 90s sitcoms, the weird or quirky character would often become the breakout star of a television show. Think Latka on Taxi, the enigmatic foreigner portrayed by legendary comedian Andy Kaufman. Other examples include the highly popular Kramer (Michael Richards) from Seinfeld, whose antics and shtick became so beloved that audiences were discouraged from applauding when he walked on set during filming. Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe from Friends would be another example of the quirky sitcom character. Latka, Kramer, and Phoebe share a lot of traits – they were often separated into their own story away from the main group, each was an audience favorite, and each were defined by their quirky character affectations, so much so that audiences began to anticipate their behavior before it even happened (which somewhat led to their downfalls as characters in later years … think about just how wacky Kramer got in those last two seasons of Seinfeld).
The quirky, off-beat sitcom character still exists on television in the 2010s. Fox built an entire show (New Girl) around Zooey Deschanel, for example. Deschanel is often seen as the height of “adorkable,” a marketing term used primarily to ground the actress amongst her fans to seem more accessible. I don’t think Deschanel’s character, Jess, fits into the Autism Spectrum, however. I feel the same about Ty Burrell’s Phil from Modern Family, who is the quirkiest, funniest cast member on that sitcom (and also the lead actor, despite what the Emmy’s or the show itself will say). Burrell and Deschanel both share common traits with Kaufman, Richards, and Kudrow, however. All of them are gifted comic actors with great physicality.
In other recent sitcoms, there are a number of characters who fall into the quirky role, but these characters are, to me, a bit different than the breakouts established in the 80s and 90s shows, and even on New Girl and Modern Family. The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon, skillfully played by Emmy winner Jim Parsons, Community’s Abed Nadir, also wonderfully played by Danny Pudi, and Bob’s Burger’s Tina Belcher (voiced by Dan Mintz), are three characters whom fans and critics have speculated fall somewhere onto the Autism Spectrum. There is also Brick Heck from ABC sitcom The Middle, but I don’t watch that show regularly, so I am unable to speak about it with any sense of authority. What Sheldon, Abed, and Tina have in common is an almost painful adherence to their own individual routines, diminished or a lack of social skills, and continual problems communicating effectively with others around them.
Sheldon is the fussiest of the three aforementioned characters, and also the most easily diagnosable. It is clear to me that Sheldon has Asperger’s syndrome. Sheldon’s interests include comic books (of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge), trains and model trains, science fiction (be it in novel, television, or film format), and his work (theoretical physics). Sheldon models himself largely after the character of Spock from Star Trek, the half-human/half-Vulcan science officer who is logical, effective, highly intelligent, and of indisputably high character. In the first few seasons of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon served largely as a sidekick and comic foil to the other, more self-aware characters. Sheldon’s traits have always been quirky and the actor has played him with a physicality that must be seen to be believed at times (a moment that pops into my head almost immediately includes Parsons jumping randomly through a child’s ball pit in a Chuck E. Cheese-like establishment). But Sheldon has also been portrayed as having continual problems relating to or communicating with others, even his own best friends. For example, although Sheldon is a high respect physicist at the top of his field, he is an absolutely boring, dry, and ineffective teacher. He can’t establish good communicative function with students, and is roundly mocked for even trying.
In later seasons of the show, Sheldon serves largely as the main character, where he has been just about as effective as when he was more of a side character. I haven’t watched much of the current season of The Big Bang Theory (four or five episodes – I’m saving it until the end of the season when I can just marathon it all), but from 2010 to 2012, Sheldon grew in a positive direction as a character, which I was happy to see. Too often sitcoms get stuck in a rut with their characters, and once-unique character behavior can often feel rote and predictable as a result. The show gave Sheldon a love interest in the form of Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler (an incredibly funny Mayim Bialik), and this has allowed Sheldon to step outside of his comfort zone continually since her introduction. While Sheldon has obviously struggled to balance the welcomed, expected routine of his personal life with the interference from an outside love interest, the show has been able to balance the two fairly effectively, essentially keeping the formula from getting stale.
When Community debuted during the fall of 2009, I had no idea it would grow into the cult show that it is now. NBC’s constant threats to cancel the show came off almost as a dare to an incredibly vocal but small fan base. It seemed like instead of axing the show altogether, NBC merely chose to fire the primary voice behind everything/show-runner (Dan Harmon, who is apparently notoriously difficult for studios to work with). Although the cult seems to have faded somewhat since the heady days of season two, Community is still almost feverishly worshipped online by fans and critics. Abed Nadir, the film and television-obsessed student with the general lack of normal social skills, became the adored fan-favorite break-out character. A show that was originally about a lawyer (Joel McHale’s vain Jeff Winger) going back to college to get his job back turned into a show primarily consumed with deconstructing various classic pop culture tropes from film and television.
Abed is a bit more difficult to define from a clinical perspective. His personality traits are incredibly unique, and there isn’t really any other character on television like him. He has been obsessed with ABC’s (now TBS’s) Cougartown, a show which debuted during the same season as Community. He also became obsessed with its fictional BBC counterpart, Cougarton Abbey. He then became obsessed with science fiction show Inspector Spacetime, an obvious parody of long-running cult show Dr. Who. Abed is highly analytical, has few close friends (Troy is his closest, and first, friend), and is incredibly emotionally reserved. He often misreads social cues, much like Sheldon Cooper. He is also very Spock-like in his words and actions. I don’t see Abed as having Asperger’s like Sheldon, however. Abed is much tougher to diagnose. In addition to his aforementioned quirks, Abed outright seems like he lives in a fantasyland much of the time, with scenarios often playing out in his head like short films. He also makes use of what he calls the Dreamatorium, a room where he plays out fantasy scenarios and imagines an “evil” version of himself (who, like the evil Spock on Star Trek, has a goatee).
Bob’s Burgers, an animated Fox sitcom that debuted during the winter of 2011, also features a character who may or may not fall somewhere on the Autism Spectrum. Tina Belcher, the oldest of titular Bob’s children, continually writes fan fiction (which she often deems to be “erotic”), is obsessed with certain body parts on other people (particularly butts and the touching of butts), and is nerdy and awkward to the height of hilarity. She cherishes items like her horse dolls, and indeed sees horses as magical. She often imagines herself as the friend of something that should decidedly not be able to have friends, be it an animatronic shark or her leg hair. Tina doesn’t fit in with Abed and Sheldon in one particular way, however – she desires a normal teenage life, including love interests and romance in general, and she seeks out strong friendships, be it with people or the previously mentioned animatronic shark puppet.
Tina’s behavior is often confusing and odd to her siblings Gene and Louise (who blame “puberty”) as well as her parents, though they oftentimes do what they can to indulge her quirks. Louise, Tina’s younger sister, is often the catalyst for adventures on the show, and it is usually Louise’s meddling in Tina’s life that makes the show so interesting (such as last week’s episode where Louise tried to get Tina back together with love interest Jimmy, Jr.). Linda, wife of Bob and mother to the three Belcher children, also tends to be a catalyst for Tina’s eccentric behavior, such as when she recommended her daughter read her friend-fiction aloud to her classmates during lunch to win her friends back. Bob is usually a bit more reserved in indulging Tina’s behavior, often citing concern for his eldest daughter’s feelings. Bob lived through awkward teenage years as well (and even had a Judd Nelson phase, complete with up-turned collar) and genuinely wants to spare his daughter any extra embarrassment she might suffer during the cruelest years of life.
Of the three characters primarily discussed today, Tina of Bob’s Burgers is clearly the most “normal.” She is, however, not without her routines, quirks, and social misadventures. Abed is childlike some moments, near emotionless and reserved others. His wacky adventures and desire to play out his life like a movie with best friend Troy are often the highlight of Community’s best episodes and moments. Sheldon Cooper has been the definition of a break-out star on The Big Bang Theory, with actor Jim Parsons winning multiple Emmy’s for his performance. After observance of significant runs of these shows, I have found that each character noted here shares some form of character trait overlap. Each has had multiple episodes dedicated to exploring the routines, randomness, and interactions of these characters with the world around them. Each also seems to me to fall onto the Autism Spectrum in some way, shape, or form. I find this to be an important development in 21st century television. In the past, a character just needed to be quirky for quirky’s sake (this is still the case with a few shows, such as the mentioned New Girl and Modern Family). With characters like Sheldon, Abed, and Tina, television shows now seem to have genuine reasons for characters behaving the way they do. That’s more than ok with me, and TV is much better with these characters as a part of it.