The Problem With 'Young Sheldon'

I have a 12-year-old son who is on the Autism spectrum. He's high-functioning and in a mainstream class at school. But like a lot of people with Autism, he struggles with the social cues and conventions most of us take for granted. It can be almost impossible for him to initiate a conversation and he has a tendency to only want to talk about whatever subject he's currently following.

His favorite television character is "The Big Bang Theory's" Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons). I will sometimes describe my son as a little Sheldon Cooper and it's an apt comparison. As he's gotten older, my son has used Sheldon Cooper as a learning tool about how best to handle complex emotional issues. He sees a future for himself in Sheldon Cooper that for all of its challenges is also filled with hope. Over the years Cooper has found close friends, worthwhile work and even someone to share his life with. What more could anyone want out of life?

The problem is that no one associated with "The Big Bang Theory" has ever admitted publicly that Sheldon Cooper is squarely on the Autism spectrum. Their preferred explanation is that Sheldon Cooper is just a self-centered jerk who only cares about himself. The writers and producers of the show seem to feel that "labeling" Sheldon limits the character and would somehow lead to a deep dive on Autism.

I'd argue that one of the creative challenges for the show in recent seasons is their unwillingness to confront Sheldon's very obvious diagnosis. But for the most part, "The Big Bang Theory" has managed to gloss over the problem in a way that at least seems plausible.

But the question of Sheldon's diagnosis is front-and-center in the premiere episode of "Young Sheldon," the new Fall CBS series that follows Sheldon Cooper during his childhood school days in Texas. I'm not going to wade into a full-blown review here, but the pilot is sweet and at times funny. 

And yet, there's something unsettling about watching young Sheldon intellectually humiliate his teachers while standing out from the other students in a way that is just painful to watch. The show is molded in a way that argues Sheldon is a hopeless social case because his intellect leaves him socially stranded from his peers. And there's certainly some truth to that. But watching the episode, it's also clear that there is something more fundamental about young Sheldon's inability to fit into social norms. He's not just oblivious because of his intelligence, he clearly can't grasp the social cues that most of us take for granted.

I don't expect "Young Sheldon" to confront a possible Autism diagnosis head-on. Given the timeframe of the show, it was common for children to be undiagnosed and thought of as just being "a bit off." But there is a way of acknowledging the larger issue of being an undiagnosed kid without becoming a moody "Movie of the Week." Not referencing the issue in any way just reinforces the notion that children like Sheldon are socially tone deaf and emotionally blunt because they are just self-centered jerks.

Autistic children deserve a better portrayal and so does my son. He thinks of Sheldon Cooper as a hero and it's time the character started acting a bit like one.