“You can’t sit there; that’s my spot!” yells The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. As his crew of scientist friends (Leonard, Raj, and Howard) and neighbor Penny grimace, groan, and begrudgingly acquiesce, Sheldon haughtily takes his place.
Periodically, throughout the show’s 12-season run, Sheldon would explain why he chose his spot. In the winter, he said, the seat was “close enough to the radiator to remain warm, and yet not so close as to cause perspiration.” In the summer, he continued, “It was directly in the path of a cross breeze.” It also “faced the television at an angle that was neither direct, thus discouraging conversation, nor so far wide to create a parallax distortion.”
Sheldon Cooper — on The Big Bang Theory and its spinoff Young Sheldon — has become one of the most well-known, non-specifically identified autistic individuals in pop culture. Reifying the myth of autism being a (white) male-dominated diagnosis (the perceived 4 to 1, male over female occurrence of autism).
And so, many people base their limited understanding of autism on stereotypical and demoralizing male representations such as Sheldon (be he young or old) or Benedict Cumberbatch’s BBC iteration of Sherlock Holmes.
While I admittedly also have a favorite spot on my couch that takes many sensory variables into account and a gloriously organized mind palace that rivals Sherlock’s, I think it is past time to change the world’s narrow and often damning perception of autism and what it means to be autistic — especially what it means to be an autistic woman.
If these fictitious men can be exceptionally rude and yet lauded and applauded for being intelligent and direct (and pull in large numbers of viewers for their respective shows), then a real-life double exceptional high-achieving autistic woman should expect that level of acceptance and acknowledgment, too. But why don’t I?
Historically, most autistic voices, regardless of gender, have been filtered through neurotypical researchers and medical voices and perspectives of what autism is by how it presents extrinsically and by how it affects them personally or professionally as neurotypicals.
Allow me to dispel the myths and misconceptions about the autistic lived experience by sharing my own story as one example of female autistic life.
Though some autistic-adjacent individuals (i.e., parents/relatives/friends/doctors) of autistic children may argue that I am nothing like the institutionalized non-verbal autistic person in own their lives, I posit that my autistic voice can still speak with more informed double empathy and authority than neurotypical scholars who have only learned by reading books and conducting research studies.
Likewise, while some autistic-adjacent individuals (such as parents of autistics) have heightened insight into the challenges of autism through living with and/or loving an autistic, I can affirm that the internal experience of autism is much different than how those nearby experience it externally and it also feels different than the way autism is described and recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
To quote directly, the descriptions for diagnosing autism in the latest version of the DSM, such as being characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, including deficits in social reciprocity, nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, and skills in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships” is me at my worst after being consistently traumatized by others telling me I’m weird, different, or that I need to change.
I can communicate and I can interact, though I do not have the same physiological and emotional benefits of socialization as most neurotypicals might experience through group activities. I am drained by navigating the social mores that are unspoken and seemingly always changing based on the situation, context, and those individuals involved. I dislike fakery, small talk, and the little white lies that others may find acceptable or even socially necessary for obtaining favor, winning friends, and influencing people. I like the truth, no matter how hard it is to offer or accept.
I have found that this is not a shared preference nor favorable concept.
In addition to communication deficits, the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder requires the “presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities. Because symptoms change with development and may be masked by compensatory mechanisms, the diagnostic criteria may be met based on historical information, although the current presentation must cause significant impairment.”
Yes, I have patterns of behavior, and I like structured routines to get through my day. That is not what is important to point out here. What is problematic is that it is well known that autistics, especially females, have to mask their autism to safely navigate the world, so much so that this descriptor made it into the diagnostic manual.
This masking or social camouflaging also leads to the underdiagnosing of women autistics because we have perfected the acceptable (enough) female persona expected by society. Do we see the problems here?
First, autistics should not have to mask to feel safe in their being. Second, autism is not male-dominated. Third, it is not a white middle-class disorder. Beyond female autistics, autistics of color are even more under-diagnosed and mistreated in society. I shouldn’t have to tell you that this is unacceptable.
What’s the solution? To begin, listen to autistic voices. Do some research. Challenge your own misconceptions. Be an ally to autism communities. Accept us for who we are and give us space to be wonderfully neurodivergent in this neurotypically-slanted world. And most of all, don’t sit in my spot!