Welcome to another episode of Understanding Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Today, we continue on with season 2, covering episodes seven through twelve. We see Sheldon’s difficulty getting along well with others, as well as navigating certain social situations such as gift giving and dates. Let’s take a closer look.
Penny touches Sheldon’s food and all hell breaks loose. Penny–a fairly easy going character that is highly social–takes an onion ring off Sheldon’s plate. In Penny’s world, this is no big deal; friends share food all the time, so why should this be different if she is trying to be friends with the guys. Not everyone appreciates this social custom, and Sheldon is one of those people. However, he does not react as you or I would. See, we would just tell Penny “hey, hands off! Get you own.” That would be the end of it. Sheldon can’t do what we can. He ends up throwing away all the onion rings that Penny touched and that were touched by the one Penny took (she put back the one she took when the other guys freaked out). Sheldon takes it further by giving Penny a “strike” for violating his social rules, which leads to a prank war.
Sheldon’s lack of theory of mind contributes to his poor social skills and reactions. He does not always understand other people’s motives or how his reactions are not appropriate. Everything must be a certain way; his way. Change is difficult for him to accept, even when people are trying to make friendly connections (we also learn that Penny’s first strike was for violating his email policy regarding cat humor, which was another attempt of friendly contact by Penny).
This episode is centered on Howard and Leonard. However, we do see a glimpse of Sheldon’s struggles with humor. When helping Howard fix the fallen Mars rover, Raj makes a joke about AAA. Sheldon adds in that “you have to be there with the car when help arrives” (paraphrasing). Raj gets the joke and comments “oh, snap!” To which Sheldon replies “snap what?” Sheldon was making a factual comment on Raj’s previous remark. It either did not occur to him that Raj was mocking Howard, and that his comment was adding on to the ridicule, or he did not understand Raj’s appreciative complement of the joke. Either way, this moment highlights Sheldon’s struggles with non-literal communication, something many individuals with struggle with, at least consistently.
Sheldon tries everything he can to ensure that Leonard and Dr. Stephanie end up a couple. While he does succeed in helping Leonard achieve this relationship milestone, he fails to recognize social conventions. For instance, he interrupts their candle-lit date, shows up at the movies, and engages in attempts to escalate the relationship by “helping” Leonard appear as the “alpha male” of the apartment. Sheldon’s Theory of Mind deficits contribute to these struggles. He cannot perceive the independent thoughts and feelings of others the way you and I can. Since everything in his world revolves around him and his own feelings, he cannot let Leonard’s relationship naturally evolve because he worries that it won’t evolve, and that is unacceptable to him.
This episode centers on Leonard and his new relationship. However, we do see Sheldon’s hypochondria (not autism related) and inappropriate social interactions, most notably in his question to Dr. Stephanie “I trust Leonard satisfied you sexually last night?” Sheldon does not understand how or why this is inappropriate to ask since he heard Leonard “ask repeatedly last night.” Many people with autism lack some sort of impulse control or social communication “filter.” They often speak before careful thought of words because they lack understanding of the implications or ramifications of their words. This issue stems from an inability to think outside of one’s self.
Another episode that centers mainly on Leonard, with Sheldon as a side story arch. Penny tells Sheldon she got him and Leonard Christmas presents. The social conventions of gift giving are difficult for Sheldon to understand. He comments, “you haven’t given me a gift; you’ve given me an obligation.” Sheldon sees gift exchanges as a non-optional social convention. Furthermore, he sees it as strictly a monetary value exchange. He treats the gift exchange as such until he realizes Penny’s gift to him transcends dollars and cents; a good lesson that he never seems to learn from.
We don’t see much clear evidence of autism in this episode. We see Sheldon struggle with “trash talk.” Many people with autism struggle with figurative language. The non-literal use of language is confusing. Sheldon demonstrates this by taking back “fat momma” remarks in the case the obesity is due to a medical condition. When Raj tells Sheldon that there are no exceptions in trash talk, Sheldon replies that there are boundaries (including his boundaries in the realm of figurative language).
This episode highlights a key point that will be discussed in future posts. That is that autism isn’t always on display for the world to see. There are times of day or situations where autism does not make itself clearly visible in an individual.
We see a few examples of autism in these episodes, most of which stem from the same deficit. We also see how autism is not on full display 24/7. In future posts these topics will be explored in more detail. Stay tuned for future episodes in the series covering Season 2 as well as sarcasm and Theory of Mind.