Welcome back to another episode of Understanding Dr. Sheldon Cooper. We continue our examination of autism through the life of Sheldon in season 2, episodes 13-18. In these episodes we find difficulties in making friends and change. Let’s have a closer look.
Sheldon wants time on a high tech computer to run simulations, only to be told that Kripke only lets his friends use the machine. Sheldon decides to befriend Kripke. This would not be much of an issue to you or me; however, Sheldon has great difficulty making and keeping friends (his current friends have every reason to abandon ship). He creates a questionnaire to for his current friends and develops a “friendship algorithm” to aid him in his quest.
Making and keeping friends are difficult endeavors for people with autism. Yet, they are not impossible tasks. Some individuals find greater success than others. Some find success only after years of trial and error. And some never quite get the hang of it. Sheldon appears to fall in the middle.
The episode begins with highlighting a problem many people with autism have; that is, a problem with change. Sheldon is very particular with his restaurants and movie snacks (e.g., Icee versus Slurpee, Red Vines versus Twizzlers). Change is difficult; it lacks proven effectiveness and disrupts order.
As the episode progresses, we see Sheldon lend Penny money. Penny is clearly upset by this arrangement, as she prides herself on getting by on her own. Sheldon fails to see how borrowing money from people, especially him, can be upsetting. While this is not unique to autism, it does highlight the inability to perceive or hypothesize the feelings of others.
The episode’s focus is on Leonard and his mother’s visit. Not much is shown here concerning Sheldon and autism other than sticking to schedules. Leonard’s mother insists it is time for him to show her his lab since he said he would do it at 1:00 PM. Sheldon jumps in to agree with Leonard’s mother, insisting that it is 1:00 and, therefore, time to show her the lab.
Sheldon adheres to strict schedules throughout the show (something we will look at in depth with future episodes). Schedules and structure are important to many on the autism spectrum. Improvisation is the enemy. Many teachers will combat this issue by using visual schedules of the day’s events, and giving students as much time as possible to know of and prepare for a change in schedule (surprise fire drills are a special education teacher’s nightmare).
The guys enjoy paintball in this episode. The key moment where we see autism come in to effect is when Penny accidentally shoots Sheldon’s couch cushion with paint balls. The cushion has to be dry cleaned and comes back good as new. However, this change deeply affects Sheldon and his routines. Flexibility in change of environment is the same as a change of daily schedules; that is, there isn’t much wiggle room. For many people with autism it isn’t just what happens when during a day, but also where the activity takes place.
The guys are going to San Fransisco for a conference–via the train (click here for the episode where I briefly covered autism and trains). Sheldon forgets his flash that contained an important paper he was going to give to another scientist during the conference. He perseverates on his miscue the rest of the trip, ultimately trying to get Penny to help him by emailing him a copy of the paper. Perseverating on failures, past events, or interest areas is a common social and mental trait of those with autism. We see this come up in various ways with Sheldon throughout the series.
The guys help Penny with her hair accessory business. There isn’t a particular example of autism in this episode. Sheldon just comes off as weird. And that’s the thing; sometimes people with autism just come off as a little strange. This is most likely due to deficits in Theory of Mind. People with autism are often in their own world and do not think that their behaviors or attitudes are different from the people around them because they cannot understand how other people have thoughts and feelings that may be different from their own. However, not all “weird” behavior or traits stem from autism. People are allowed to be “weird.” Being “weird,” therefore, is a human trait and does not exclusively belong to autism.
I hope you enjoyed the brief run-downs of these episodes. You will notice that many of the future episodes in this show highlight the same traits of autism. I will give more detail and explanations on these traits little by little as more examples from the show pop up. Stay tuned for the next episode where I will continue through season 2 of The Big Bang Theory and Dr. Sheldon Cooper.