Asperger syndrome in popular culture

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Asperger syndrome (AS), also known as Asperger's syndrome or Asperger disorder, is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. It differs from other autism spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development. Although not required for diagnosis, physical clumsiness and atypical use of language are frequently reported.[1][2]

Television and film[edit]

Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory[edit]

Actor Jim Parsons, who portrays Sheldon, speaking at Comic-Con.

Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is a theoretical physicist at Caltech with an IQ of 187. He is noted for his adamant refusal to believe any other human being may match him in intelligence, nitpicking over ostensibly trivial scientific minutiae in his favorite popular culture or in the 'real world', and virtually no socialization. It has been asserted that Sheldon's behavior is consistent with Asperger syndrome, or an Asperger's/OCD co-morbidity,[3][4][5] but the writers have stated that they did not use Asperger syndrome as a basis for the character, but instead thought of his actions as "Sheldony".[4] Series co-creator Bill Prady stated: "We write the character as the character. A lot of people see various things in him and make the connections. Our feeling is that Sheldon's mother never got a diagnosis, so we don't have one".[3] Prady also allegedly told Alan Sepinwall of the New Jersey Star-Ledger that "calling it Asperger's creates too much of a burden to get the details right."[6]

In an interview, Jim Parsons noted the writers' response, but added that, in his opinion, Sheldon "couldn't display more traits" of Asperger's.[4][7] Parsons has read John Elder Robison's memoir Look Me in the Eye about his life with Asperger syndrome, and said that: "A majority of what I read in that book touched on aspects of Sheldon." He also stated that "the way [Sheldon's] brain works, it's so focused on the intellectual topics at hand that thinking he's autistic is an easy leap for people watching the show to make."[8]

Donald Morton & Isabelle Sorenson of Mozart and the Whale[edit]

Arguably the most realistic and sympathetic portrayal of Asperger's put on film to date, Mozart and the Whale is a romantic comedy that tells the story of two people with Asperger syndrome. Donald (Josh Hartnett) runs a small self-help group for people on the autism spectrum who are more affected by their autism than he is. Isabelle (Radha Mitchell) is referred to the group by her therapist. Mozart and the Whale is a fictional account, using characters loosely based on the real-life relationship of Jerry Newport and Mary Meinel (now Mary Newport).

Max Horowitz of Mary and Max[edit]

Mary and Max' is a 2009 Australian clay-animated black comedy-drama film written and directed by Adam Elliot and produced by Melanie Coombs. The voice cast included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Bethany Whitmore, with narration by Barry Humphries.

Inspired by her friendship with Max, Mary studies psychology at university, writing her doctoral dissertation on Asperger syndrome with Max as her test subject. She plans to have her dissertation published as a book; but when Max receives a copy from her, he is infuriated that she has taken advantage of his condition, which he sees as an integral part of his personality and not a disability that needs to be cured. He breaks off communication with Mary (by removing the letter "M" from his typewriter), who, heartbroken, has the entire run of her book pulped, effectively ending her budding career. She sinks into depression and begins drinking cooking sherry, as her mother had done. While searching through a cabinet, she finds a can of condensed milk, and sends it to Max as an apology. What follows, is the gradual development of an unusual friendship.

Mary Horowitz of All About Steve[edit]

The lead character of this movie shows numerous traits of Asperger Syndrome.[9]

Oskar Schell of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (film)[edit]

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a 2011 American drama film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer, directed by Stephen Daldry and written by Eric Roth. It stars Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Max von Sydow, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, and Zoe Caldwell.

Abed Nadir of Community[edit]

Danny Pudi by Gage Skidmore.jpg

Abed Nadir (Danny Pudi) is a young, seemingly emotionless, Palestinian/Polish-American pop-culture enthusiast who aspires to become a director. While like Spock, Abed has emotion and sympathy for his new friends, he is very analytical and speaks with a rather detached and emotionless tone, as well as with a distinct straightforwardness lacking a mental filter, leading some of his friends to suspect he has Asperger's. In contrast to The Big Bang Theory, the mention of Asperger's is explicit: in the first episode, multiple characters voice their hypothesis that Abed meets the criteria for the syndrome.

Dr. Spencer Reid of Criminal Minds[edit]

The character Dr. Spencer Reid, portrayed by Matthew Gray Gubler, shows numerous traits indicative of Asperger's, namely his lack of social skills and his tendency to ramble about certain topics, among others. As such, he does not do well in social situations, sometimes unintentionally scaring others or causing people to lose hope about their situations. His tendencies were referred to autistic by a criminal early in the show's run. The character shows strong connections with his friends and loved ones and normally gets emotionally hurt when a friend leaves. His strong connection with certain people is also apparent when a love interest whom he had fallen for was murdered in front of him the first time they truly met (having only previously communicated through letters and phone calls due to a stalker), causing him to greive the death more than his boss grieved over the loss of his ex-wife. He also showed a strong connection to a young autistic boy whose parents were kidnapped. Gubler confirmed that the character does, in fact, have Asperger's syndrome, along with possible minor schizophrenia.

Sherlock Holmes, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock[edit]

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes, as the 60 distinct writings (four novels and fifty-six short stories) of Arthur Conan Doyle that were about him have depicted him, has occasionally been described as having traits associated with Asperger's syndrome.[10]

The BBC series Sherlock explicitly connects its incarnation of the character to Asperger's. The episode "The Hounds of Baskerville" contains the following exchange:[11]

Lestrade. I suppose he likes having the same faces back together. It appeals to his...his...
Dr. Watson. Asperger's?

Max Braverman and Hank Rizzoli of Parenthood[edit]

The AS of Max Braverman (Max Burkholder), the 15-year-old son of Adam and Kristina Braverman, serves as one of the central storylines of the NBC drama Parenthood, introduced in the first episode featuring Max's parents dealing with his diagnosis.[12] In later seasons, the series develops another AS storyline through the character of Hank Rizzoli (Ray Romano), an adult who discovers his own placement on the spectrum late in life.[13] Series creator Jason Katims has a son diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, and also drew inspiration for Hank from men he personally encountered who only learned of their own condition through the diagnosis of one of their children.[14]

Det. Sonya Cross of The Bridge[edit]

The female lead character of the TNT show The Bridge, Det. Sonya Cross of the El Paso Police Department (played by German actress Diane Kruger opposite Mexican actor Demián Bichir as Det. Marco Ruiz of the Chihuahua State Police), has AS. While it's not openly stated in the show, Sonya's Aspergers diagnosis is specifically acknowledged by the show's producers, and the production team includes a specialist on AS as a consultant, Alex Plank, who has AS himself.[15][16][17][18][19] The TNT show is based on the Danish/Swedish show of the same name, starring Sofia Helin as Saga Norén of the Malmö, Sweden police and Kim Bodnia as Martin Rohde of the Copenhagen, Denmark police. Here, the writers have stated "we have not said she has Asperger's, if we did we would have to follow the diagnosis exactly", and they have not wanted any official input by experts for the second or third seasons.[20]

Adam Raki of Adam[edit]

Adam Raki (Hugh Dancy) is a shy and isolated young man with Asperger's syndrome living alone in Manhattan after his father died. Because of his condition, Adam has difficulty communicating with others and likes to escape into his love of space exploration. Beth Buchwald, a character played by Rose Byrne, is a school teacher and aspiring children's book writer, moves into the apartment above Adam's and they strike up an awkward friendship. One night, Beth is shocked to find him trying to clean her apartment windows suspended from the roof of the building in a spacesuit. Beth takes a liking to Adam despite his oddities. Adam hopes for a relationship, but the first attempts are uneasy due to his fear of social interaction. Eventually he breaks out of his routines enough to be able to date Beth.[21]

Emily Deschanel plays Dr. Temperance in the TV show Bones.

Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan of Bones (TV Series)[edit]

The lead character of this procedural crime drama, forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan, is based in part upon an "Aspie" friend of the show's creator. Due to the show being network rather than cable, however, creator Hart Hanson chose to leave Brennan's AS (or even that there is some kind of condition) unmentioned.[12]

Dr. Eugene Porter of AMC's The Walking Dead[edit]

Dr. Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt) from The Walking Dead possesses many behavioral traits associated with Asperger's Syndrome and other Autism Spectrum Disorders. He is socially awkward and he often uses pedantic speech in everyday conversation. Eugene also seems to possess exceptional knowledge and expertise in a few highly specialized areas of science. In a November 2014 Access Hollywood interview, actor Josh McDermitt was asked if his character Eugene Porter has Asperger's. McDermitt replied "I don't want to address that" indicating that Eugene's condition is one of the "secrets of the show." [22]

Dr. Gregory House of House, MD[edit]

Dr. Gregory House, M.D. — typically referred to simply as House — is the title character of the American medical drama House. Portrayed by English actor Hugh Laurie, he leads a team of diagnosticians as the Head of Diagnostic Medicine at the fictional Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital in New Jersey based on Yale-New Haven Hospital.[23]

Hugh Laurie as Gregory House in the TV drama House M.D.

House's character has been described as a misanthrope, cynic, narcissist, curmudgeon and Sociopath, the last of which was named one of the top television words of 2005 in honor of the character.[24] He is the only character to appear in all 177 episodes and except for Wilson's brief appearance, is the only regular character to appear in the season six premiere.

House frequently says, "Everybody lies", but jokingly remarked he was lying when he said it.[25] House criticizes social etiquette for lack of rational purpose and usefulness.[26] Dr. Cameron states in the first episode of the first season "House doesn't believe in pretense ... so he just says what he thinks".[27] In the season three episode "Lines in the Sand", he explains how he envies an autistic patient because society allows the patient to forgo the niceties that he must suffer through.[26]

In the same episode, Dr. Wilson suggests House might have Asperger syndrome, which is characterized by a number of traits found in House, such as difficulty accepting the purpose of social rules, lack of concern for his physical appearance, and resistance to change; though he later reveals to House that he does not truly believe this, and that claiming this was a part of a ploy to soften Cuddy's opinion of House.[26]

House is a strong nonconformist and has little regard for how others perceive him.[28] Throughout the series, he displays sardonic contempt for authority figures.[29] House shows an almost constant disregard for his own appearance, possessing a permanent stubble and dressing informally in worn jeans, wrinkled shirts over rumpled T-shirts, and sneakers.[30] He avoids wearing the standard white lab coat to avoid patients recognizing him as a doctor, preferring a shabby blazer or, less frequently, a motorcycle jacket.[29][31]

Jerry Espenson of Boston Legal[edit]

Attorney Jerry Espenson (Christian Clemenson) of Crane, Poole & Schmidt is diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome after having had a violent outburst due to having been passed over for promotion (Season 2, episode 12).[32]

While explicitly said to have Asperger syndrome, his symptoms do not seem to conform to classical Asperger's symptomatology; accordingly, the result received mixed receptions: While some people suffering from the disorder applauded the character's brilliance as a lawyer, others expressed disappointment at the way Asperger's was being represented;[33] in fact, the performance has even been attacked as "exploitative, unrealistic, over the top, and insulting[34]". Despite these claims, Clemenson thoroughly researched Jerry's condition for the role, stating that he was inspired by American professor and autistic activist Temple Grandin and British savant Daniel Tammet, whose works helped him to enter into the spirit of the character.[35]

L of Death Note[edit]

Detective L from the Death Note manga.

The detective L in both anime and manga, displays many characteristics from this syndrome, such as an incredible intelligence and deductive skills, that helps him in his role trying to catch the dangerous mass murderer, Kira. He displays a very eccentric behaviour, always talking in a monotone voice and a very neutral facial expression. Apart from this, L seems oblivious to many social mannerisms, such as looking at people in the eyes, does not care about his hygiene or even his personal image, acting sympathetic in a moment of extreme emotional crisis or sitting over the chair like a toad, which he justifies by telling everyone that increases his level of IQ. Despite this, L is always focused on the case and is a good listener and tends to over analyse every situation, which ironically helps him to come closer to the solution to every situation very quickly

L is always eating sweets, coffee and candies, which helps him concentrate and uses it to increase his brain activity. The character is shown as a guy who does not care about "trivial" details, but catch criminals and resolve puzzles with more clarity.

Other characters in the story that come from "Wammy´s House" (a place for gifted children) have shown very peculiar personalities, just like L, such as Near, Mello and Matt.

Kenichi Matsuyama, who played L in the live action movie of the same name, said that his portrayal of the character is the one of a person who did not ""quite understand other people on an emotional level".

Both Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (the authors of the manga) have never made any declarations about L having Asperger syndrome.

Video games[edit]

River Wyles of To The Moon[edit]

River Wyles, the wife of Johnny Wyles in To The Moon, is diagnosed with a Pervasive developmental disorder, specifically showing traits of Aspergers, namely her intense interest in lighthouses (one of which she befriends and names Anya), her awkward social skills and her strong connection to her sister Isabella and her husband Johnny while avoiding pretty much everyone else. She often awkwardly changes the subject during socialization and is perceived by many of the characters as a loner and an oddball (of which Johnny admits attracts him to her). Her ability to retain information is also shown during a classroom segment, where the teacher asks her for the date Columbus sailed the ocean and she recites the date, island and founding of the island, much to the teacher's surprise.

Her tendency to take phrases literally is also shown when Johnny asks her out to a movie. After watching and waiting for a while, he sits outside the theater doors to wait for River. Just as he gives up hope, River emerges from the movie to ask where he went to Johnny's surprise. He tells her that he was waiting for her to watch the movie which confuses her and she proclaims that they were both watching the movie together before he left the theater, which makes Johnny laugh.

She is also shown to be somewhat clumsy, tripping over Johnny's feet as they dance in the lighthouse on their wedding night. She's later shown as being unable to express her feelings and thoughts to Johnny and tries to convey them to him by crafting endless paper rabbits, going so far as to color coordinate them to trigger memories rather than simply tell Johnny what she's feeling.[36]

See also[edit]


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  2. ^ Baskin JH, Sperber M, Price BH (2006). "Asperger syndrome revisited". Rev Neurol Dis 3 (1): 1–7. PMID 16596080. 
  3. ^ a b "Come up with a new theory: Sheldon does NOT have Asperger's". HuffPost TV. 
  4. ^ a b c Collins, Paul (February 6, 2009). "Must-Geek TV: Is the world ready for an Asperger's sitcom?". Slate ( Retrieved April 14, 2009. 
  5. ^ Soraya, Lynne. "Sheldony or Aspergery?: The Big Bang Theory". Asperger's Diary (Author's Note (08/16/2009)). Psychology Today. Retrieved 16 April 2012. 
  6. ^ Sepinwall, Alan (13 August 2009). "Does Sheldon from 'Big Bang Theory' have Asperger's?". The Star-Ledger. Retrieved 27 July 2012. 
  7. ^ Lyford, Kathy (November 13, 2008). "'Big Bang Theory': Jim Parsons -- 'Everybody has a little Sheldon in them'". Season Pass (Variety). Retrieved April 14, 2009.  Specific video is Jim Parsons interview, part 5. Question is from 03:18-3:31. Answer is from 4:36-6:00. Specific quote is from 5:15-5:20.
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  15. ^ "FX Networks". FX Networks. Retrieved 2014-01-07. 
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  21. ^ "Hollywood and Asperger's". Huffington Post. 
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  23. ^ "House, M.D.". Archived from the original on October 12, 2007. 
  24. ^ "‘Refugee’ Tops ‘Desperation’ and ‘Camp Cupcake’ as Top Television Buzzword of the 2005". The Global Language Monitor. June 18, 2008. Retrieved March 17, 2013. 
  25. ^ Jensen, Jeff (April 6, 2007). "Full 'House'". Entertainment Weekly. pp. 44–47. Retrieved September 12, 2007. 
  26. ^ a b c "Dr. Gregory House". Retrieved April 30, 2015. 
  27. ^ Lowry, Brian (November 15, 2004). "House Review". Variety. Retrieved December 23, 2008. [dead link]
  28. ^ Winters, Rebecca (2005-09-04). "Doctor Is in ... a Bad Mood". Time (magazine). ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved October 9, 2007. 
  29. ^ a b "Control". House, M.D. Season 1. Episode 14. 2005-03-15. 
  30. ^ Challen, Paul (October 2008). The House that Hugh Laurie Built. ECW Press. p. 38. ISBN 1-55022-803-X. 
  31. ^ "Pilot". House, M.D. Season 1. Episode 1. 2004-11-16. 
  32. ^ See p. 7 in
  33. ^ Meyers, Karen, et al.: The Truth about ADHD and Other Neurobiological Disorders, New York 2010, p. 5.
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  36. ^ Freebird Games. To The Moon. Freebird Software.