Why I Relate to Sheldon From 'Big Bang Theory' as an Autistic Adult
When “The Big Bang Theory” first broke onto the scene, people who learned that I’m autistic would ask, What do you think about Sheldon? Honestly, I became so annoyed by the idea of a comic portrayal of a supposed autistic person that I wouldn’t watch the show, not even to find out whether Sheldon was like me or any of the other people on the spectrum I know. Finally, after several seasons, I watched the show and was delighted. The writers may not confess that Sheldon is fully on the spectrum (saying his mother never sought a diagnosis), but he has too many behaviors consistent with the rest of us, as different as we can be from one another, to say it is not the case (as Jim Parsons himself has suggested) — and not just in broad strokes. It’s his little quirks that get us right, quirks like Sheldon’s spot.
Viewers of the show all know that the far end of the couch in his living room is “Sheldon’s spot,” a place on which he’s put a “state of eternal dibs.” He has trained his friends to keep off that spot and complains if they use it. In one episode, Howard punishes Sheldon for continuing to claim a parking spot at work that he doesn’t use (a kind of work spot) by violating Sheldon’s home spot with a “nude revenge wiggle.”
When Sheldon’s spot was first introduced, I laughed with surprise. I recognized that spot. I establish one wherever I live or work. I associate it with a particular chair as well as its location, and that spot becomes irrationally important to me. I don’t feel comfortable sitting anywhere else: that spot becomes my home base, or what Sheldon would claim is function “0,0,0,0” in a four-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system. No matter where I go, I establish a new spot, just as Sheldon does in Penny’s apartment, Amy’s living room fort, the lunch table at work, or an Arctic cabin during a research expedition.
Sheldon explains the virtues of his spot through its having the perfect sensory environment, telling Penny, “in the winter that seat is close enough to the radiator to remain warm, and yet not so close as to cause perspiration. In the summer it’s directly in the path of a cross breeze created by open windows there.” Exactly.
In my spot, this strange vehicle of a body, which can feel so awkward and separate from my consciousness, is at home. I’ve configured my spot to cradle the body and accommodate its sensory needs (light, sound, temperature, touch) to such an extent that I don’t even have to think about having a body for long stretches of time. It’s often in a place where I can be alone with my thoughts and media, where I can explore, create, and pursue my interests to my mind’s content. Or, as Sheldon would say, my spot “faces the television [or computer screen, in my case] at a direct angle allowing me to immerse myself in entertainment or game play without being subject to conversation.” It’s where I recharge and feel completely at home in a world in which I often feel discomforted and displaced. If someone wants to visit with me, they know where they’ll find me, at my embassy, the seat that is “the sovereign soil of my bottom,” so to speak.
When someone “violates” that spot, it’s tough. At one workplace in particular, I came into the office for some of the week and worked at home the rest of the time. We’d just moved into a new building and there weren’t enough chairs yet for the conference room near my desk. My chair had wheels, and so it was convenient for people to drag it in for meetings. They almost always forgot to return it. I’d come in to work in the early afternoon to find my chair gone. Of course I knew where I would probably find it. I knew coworkers were taking the chair out of convenience and that the chair did not really belong to me. I did not know how to explain to them, or to myself, how important it was that my chair not be moved (or if we’re going to be entirely honest, used). But this was so important that after a number of verbal requests weren’t honored, I sent out an office-wide message requesting that people not use my chair. I stuck a pin through the fabric on the back of the chair so I’d know which one was mine. Since I was sometimes bristly and odd to begin with, people eventually accepted this as one of my quirks. They left the chair alone. Finally, new chairs were purchased for the conference room and the problem was solved.
At the time, I did not know I was autistic; my diagnosis came later in life. But today I often think of Sheldon’s spot as a public expression of something I experience as an autistic, one I can now use to communicate a need in a way people will accept, because they have seen it play out among a group of friends who find Sheldon’s quirks, like his having claimed a spot, irritating and odd but worth humoring because they care about him and his happiness.
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