Television stereotypes of Asperger's syndrome
The television characters Gregory House and Sheldon Cooper have plenty in common. Both are brilliant scientists. They are also characters that fans love to hate.
The characters are from the television shows House and The Big Bang Theory. Both shows revolve around the same simple plot device. The shows concentrate on how the people around them cope with their self-absorbed and often infuriating behaviour.
House is played by Hugh Laurie. He is the misanthrope in a medical drama. Cooper from the TV comedy The Big Bang Theory is played by actor Jim Parsons.
The plot formula for these shows seems to work. The Big Bang Theory is America's most popular comedy. It is also very popular in Australia. House has also been a top television drama both here and in America.
Asperger's syndrome is one of the autism spectrum disorders. Some fans of the shows wonder whether Sheldon and House may have Asperger's syndrome. One reason they think this is because both characters are so awkward.
A signature trait of Asperger's syndrome can be taking an obsessive interest in a single area of knowledge. Another is social impairment. House and Cooper both live for their work. They do not realise or seem to care about what their behaviour means to those around them. They reject close relationships with other people.
It is no wonder the internet is full of pop psychologists rushing to diagnose them. If you set out to create a character with autism, you would probably be happy to end up with either House or Cooper. However having Asperger's myself the notion does not sit easily with me.
House manipulates, belittles and bullies his staff, superiors and only friend. It is not known whether this is because of autism or an addiction to painkillers. But the doctor certainly has a mean streak.
If House is dedicated to solving his patients' illnesses it is not because he cares. It is because he is obsessed with being right. House is compelling to watch. But likeable he is not.
Cooper also has strained relationships. He casually insults the intelligence of his impressively educated friends. This is a man who thinks nothing of grounding insects into his long-suffering housemate Leonard's food. He says he does this for science. He also constantly imposes his will on the friendship group.
I would not want to use House or Cooper as examples of people with Asperger's syndrome. It would encourage others to assume that we must be awful people.
The move to diagnose House and Cooper seems to come from the fans. It does not come from the creators of the characters. House writers addressed the issue in a season three episode. House's only friend Dr Wilson and their boss Dr Cuddy discuss whether he has autism. They reject the idea. Cuddy says House is a jerk. Wilson suggests he wishes House was autistic as it would excuse his behaviour.
The Big Bang Theory has not diagnosed Cooper in the show. Actor Jim Parsons has researched Asperger's syndrome. Parsons says
Cooper could not display more autistic traits. The show's producers take the view that Sheldon's mother never had him diagnosed so neither will they. Clearly Parsons thinks Cooper has Asperger's. Perhaps that influences his acting.
An old stereotype
The truth is probably that House and Cooper's autistic tendencies are accidental. But they are not entirely a coincidence. In my view they are both well-written variations on the old nutty professor stereotype.
I suspect many people with Asperger's syndrome know where that particular stereotype comes from.