Sheldon Cooper is one of the main protagonists from hit TV Show, ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Whilst he was never actually Diagnosed in the show’s lore, the show’s Co-Creator, Bill Prady, has said Sheldon “couldn’t display more traits” of Asperger’s. His character is commonly associated to Autism by Neurotypical viewers, and harmful stereotypes have been created because of this.
But this Essay is not to speak on whether those Stereotypes are true, or harmful. This is to Explain why Sheldon Cooper is a helpful asset in educating on the harm of Functioning labels.
What are Functioning Labels? Functioning Labels are a part of the current diagnosis process, assigning an Autistic individual with one of two labels – High Functioning, or Low Functioning. These are based solely on an outside view of the Autistic individual and are based on harmful stereotypes of whether someone appears ‘Normal’ or ‘Autistic’.
You can see clearly in that statement where the issue lies. There is no Autistic look. Anyone can be Autistic, just some people require more physical support, and other require less. Another problem in this system is that more AFAB Autistics are classed as High Functioning, due to the fact we seem to Mask more effectively than AMAB Autistics.
So now that you understand functioning labels, it’s time to explain the harm they can do. How are Functioning Labels Harmful? Functioning Labels are commonly used to deny support to an Autistic individual. Whilst a ‘Low Functioning’ Autist might receive a box of Stim Toys at school to help in regulating emotions, a ‘High Functioning’ Autist may be told that they just need to ‘focus more’.
So when a stressful situation comes, and the ‘High Functioning’ Autist reaches a Meltdown, they do not have the tools to calm themselves, and then get chastised for causing a scene and distracting others. But these labels do not just harm the Autistics on the ‘High Functioning’ end of the scale.
A ‘Low Functioning’ Autistic may be denied the ability to complete further education or pursue a full-time career, because a psychologist diagnosed them as ‘Low Functioning’. This Individual may be perfectly capable of caring for themselves, and just need certain accommodations, like earmuffs, or short breaks. But because they are ‘Low Functioning’, they might be pushed to pursue a ‘simpler’ job, like working at a grocery store.
This person could be denied an ability to have a family because once again, a medical certificate has proclaimed they are ‘incapable of caring for themselves’.
Why Sheldon Cooper helps Abolish these Stereotypes. Sheldon Cooper is what a Neurotypical would immediately consider ‘High functioning’, but it is clear that he also needs considerable support, and those same Neurotypicals also point that out. He struggles to make friends, as seen in both ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and its Prequel, ‘Young Sheldon’.
He says many insensitive things under the belief of honesty and gets into frequent trouble due to his poor understanding of social cues. So, it is interesting that a Neurotypical is so quick to ‘diagnose’ him as ‘High Functioning’, when he clearly needs support.
That is because these labels are not about whether the person can function, or what support they need. It’s about how they appear. Do they stand with T-Rex arms? Poor Posture? On their Toes? Do they fit this Ableist image our Society has created for an Autist? Sheldon doesn’t.
That’s why a Neurotypical viewer would be so prompt in calling him ‘High Functioning’. He doesn’t fit idea of a ‘Snotty Nosed, Messy, Fat child’ They think of. He looks like them. But he’s not. He’s autistic and ‘High Support’. He needs considerable support. Perhaps not in the way of Stim Toys and Aids to help him, but in the way of navigating day-to-day life comfortably.
What are Support Labels? Support Labels are the proposed replacement to Functioning Labels. They set out to do what psychologists intend with Functioning Labels. But instead of reducing someone to how they appear, they simply advise how much support a person might need.
Sheldon Cooper is a High Support individual and that is because he needs considerable help to make it through a day safely. Not physical support, but mental. He needs his friends to help him unwind at the end of the day, he needs everyone to sit in the correct chair, he needs to be able to talk about Science and Star Trek.
Support Labels mean he would be able to access this without worry. Because every Autistic Individual requires different levels of support, and different types of support.
In Summary, Sheldon Cooper is a helpful resource in education on the harm of Functioning Labels because despite being ‘High Functioning’, is also accepted as needing a great amount of support. Because he is a mainstream representation of Autism, (whether good or not), using him to explain why Support Labels are the better solution would reach uneducated audiences in a way they could understand.