Sheldon Cooper is autistic

The physicist Dr. Dr. Sheldon Cooper is one of the main characters in the comedy series The Big Bang Theory. He lives with his colleague and friend Dr. Leonard Hoffstatter in a flat-sharing community in California. Other important people are the astrophysicist Dr. Rajesh Koothrappali, the engineer Howard Wolowitz, and Sheldon's neighbor Penny.

Sheldon Cooper is not only intellectually gifted, he also meets the diagnostic criteria * of congenital Asperger's syndrome. This profound developmental disorder from the autism spectrum is described according to ICD-10 (F84.5) by the following criteria:

  • Qualitative deviations in mutual social interactions

  • Limited, stereotypical, repetitive repertoire of interests and activities

  • No general development delay

  • The language is not lagging behind

 

The qualitative deviations in social interaction are evident in Sheldon's lack of empathy, his apparent disinterest in the opinions and feelings of his fellow human beings, and in his difficulty in understanding humor and sarcasm.

Sheldon's activities are compulsively organized in every detail. Deviations from the routine put him in great tension, which is why he always tries to impose his processes and rituals on his environment. Also characteristic of Asperger's Syndrome are his special interests and his detailed knowledge of natural sciences, science fiction and model railways.

The last two diagnostic criteria (lack of general and linguistic developmental delay) serve above all to differentiate Asperger's syndrome from early childhood autism (so-called Kanner autism). The fact that Sheldon impresses with clearly above-average intellectual (IQ of 187) and linguistic abilities supports the diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome.

 

Sheldon grew up with a twin sister in a family belonging to the American middle to lower class. Neither his parents nor his sister appear to have shared his intellectual talents and scientific interests. There is ample evidence that from the start he was considered an eccentric, both inside and outside the family. Sheldon's father apparently could not do anything with the son, who did not share his interests (football and hunting), and withdrew from him disappointed. It can be assumed that his attractive sister, who is presumably popular in the peer group, did not necessarily seek close contact with her strange and difficult brother.

 

Sheldon remained an unspecified Granny and his mother, Mary, as primary caregivers. Mary spoiled her son on an orally regressive level, cooking him his favorite food (pasta and sausage) and mothering him when he was sick. In return, however, she demanded that him subordinate him without contradiction to her conservative-religious system of norms and values ​​and punished deviations and contradictions with harsh criticism. Thus, Sheldon with his interests and intellectual achievements could not be accepted by her and feel loved because of his true self.

 

In the omnipresent awareness of being different from everyone else, of not really being accepted by them and of not belonging, Sheldon withdraws his repeatedly disappointed relationship wishes from his fellow human beings and seeks fulfillment in his own intellectual space, where he achieves top scientific achievements and himself in fantasized about the role of the superheroes of his comics and computer games, who were admired by everyone (precisely because of their otherness).

He repeatedly uses his intellectual superiority to suppress repressed self-doubts, often at the expense of others whom he offends with his narcissistic self-exaggeration.

 

A secret unconscious attempt to secure the longed-for loving attention of his caregivers is for Sheldon (according to the early experiences with his mother) the role of the sick. The repressed desire for care is expressed as manifest hypochondria (ICD-10: F45.2):

  • Persistent preoccupation with the possibility of suffering from one or more severe and progressive physical illnesses

  • Persistent physical ailments or prolonged preoccupation with their physical phenomena

  • Interpretation of normal or general body perceptions and symptoms as abnormal and distressing

 

In the event of an actual illness (e.g. a cold), Sheldon reacts excessively regressively and demands maximum care and attention from his caregivers. Here, too, he demands adherence to a detailed procedure (preparing chicken soup, rubbing the breast, singing the cat dance song), which corresponds to the need for routine and stereotyping of Asperger's autistic person.

 

In terms of psychodynamics and interaction, Sheldon's attempt to standardize contact with other people (roommate agreement, relationship framework agreement) to such an extent that he always has complete control over the regulation of closeness and distance in order not to run the risk of being too close to others becomes clear here to be ashamed and offended, as he has seen again and again since early childhood. This also explains the radical denial of any sexual needs.

 

* In an earlier version of this post I wrote that Sheldon Cooper "suffers" from Asperger's Syndrome. Thankfully, I was advised that people with Asperger's Syndrome do not necessarily have to suffer from this diagnosis. See also here.