Television stereotypes of Asperger's syndrome

Summary 
Gregory House and Sheldon Cooper are popular television characters. They are from the shows House and The Big Bang Theory. Both characters are brilliant scientists. But they are often mean and uncaring to the people around them. They reject close relationships with other people. Some fans of the shows suggest the characters might have Asperger's syndrome. I do not think this is correct. I believe the shows are just using old stereotypes. Both House and Cooper are examples of the "nutty professor" stereotype.
Posted by: 
Charlie Goodman on 15/12/2011
Actor Hugh Laurie as the television character House. He has an intense and unfriendly expression.
Actor Hugh Laurie as his television character House.

Hugh Laurie as TV character House.

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

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.

Relationships

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.

Diagnosis

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.

Readers comments (4)

I am not sure whether fans hate Sheldon Cooper. For me its more exasperation at his self-centredness and a mixture of empathy and sympathy for his ignorance/breaking of social customs.

I agree with Dr Cuddy House seems like a jerk. Most doctors are professional and treat patients well. However i have met a few like House. They seem to take their frustrations out on me. Unfortunately they didn't seem to have the special talent to diagnose illness like house. The character Kramer from Seinfeld seems to be based on someone who might have Asperger's syndrome. He fancied himself as a professor but fell way short of the mark.

So are you saying that Jerry Lewis had Asperger Syndrome?

I cant speak for Cooper due to never having seen the show. However, House like the writer of this article and I, are logical thinkers. We don't possess traits found with normal human behavior such as empathy and remorse. We are more prone to the lone genius or the manipulative savant. We don't require the need for constant human interaction like most. However when we are forced to work in group positions, House being a good example, we get what resources we can from them and toss them aside until they prove useful again in the future. The closest thing we develop to a friendship is a symbiotic partnership with another until their usefulness draws to an end. Granted that does not mean we cant form long term friendships with others. Sometimes we find an individual or group who we find has prolonged use or knowledge that can be of use and we develop a bond with that person(s) similar to a friendship.

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