The Big Bang Theory, Neurodiversity and the Promotion of Science as Something Worthy of Attention
    By Kim Wombles | May 30th 2011 09:35 AM | 23 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Instructor of English and psychology and mother to three on the autism spectrum.

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    The Big Bang Theory is a great show for promoting both science and acceptance. It's a favorite show in our household, and all three of my children, who are at various spots on the autism spectrum, find something appealing in the show, see some aspect of themselves in the quirky social misfits. My daughters' favorite, though, is Sheldon. Lily in particular adores Sheldon and wants to be like him. She wants to understand his job, what it means to be a theoretical physicist, and how to think like he does. 

    By promoting science and scientists as interesting and fun, this show does a tremendous service in the promotion of scientific literacy. By making these quirky, offbeat characters very real and very approachable, the show also celebrates neurodiversity and makes it easier for children like mine to see that there is a place for them, that they can create strong friendships bound by common interests and learn to be accepting of others' quirks and that others will love and accept them, too.

    We love The Big Bang Theory here and regularly indulge in TBBT marathons, which we've been doing this weekend (season three this time). Lily's passionate about Sheldon and about equations. Many of her drawings are punctuated with E = mc².  Last night, she lit upon the equations in the clip above and is demanding to learn what they mean. She faithfully wrote some of them down on her white board; she still wants white boards as big as Sheldon's and she's still aggravated that in one episode he threw one out the window instead of erasing it. "That was very autistic of him," she said to that. I pointed out that one could say the same of her intense irritation and need to bring it up every time she writes on her own white board , especially given it occurred in an episode she watched months ago. 

    Despite my three children's ASDs and my efforts in the online autism community and in real world volunteering for Autism Speaks, autism isn't something we're steeped in here, not something that controls our every action, but upon occasion the need to understand something about each other and their quirks or about themselves brings up a discussion of autism and how it's defined. It's never an excuse for bad behavior, but it comes in handy for explanation and understanding and increasing empathy for others.

    So now we have F=ma, ma=mg, and her ever favorite equation on her board. And in comes Frankie, who chose to use her board as if it was his woobie.

    (ignore the mess, but somehow laundry, the Wii fit board, white boards and cats blend together)

    In the process of lying on it, he partially erased it. Lily walked into the living room this morning to see her beloved white board covered with the cat and had a bit of a hissy over it, which led to Frank retreating to his basket in a huff and Lil repairing the damage to her board while we talked about the equations and what they mean. She has some serious frustration with c, by the way. It makes no sense to her that c stands for speed of light; sol makes better sense, she says. Hard to argue that.

    Did you notice the transporter in the background?

    I have a feeling we'll be having lots more of these discussions this summer and in the coming years, if her love for science continues (and I hope that it does). We're doing geek camp together this summer and will be indulging Lily's passion for equations and trying to tie meaning to them. We're also going to study astronomy, too, as well as biology. And Lil and I are working through Benjamin and Shermer's Secrets of Mental Math.The kids are looking forward to geek camp, although they insist we must have the weekends off. After all, even Sheldon and the gang stop to play games. :)


    I've often wondered if Sheldon is deliberately on the austism spectrum or if the authors created a quirky character without realising the implications.

    We too love TBBT, and it's one of the few things that gets my other half laughing. I think he might be identifying with Penny a bit ;-)

    (Just realised that makes it sounds like I'm calling him stupid, when I actually meant 'outside the group' (and of course stunningly good looking!)).

    I think the only implication is that in modern psychology everyone is on a spectrum, whereas it used to be autism had a meaning.   Now you might as well replace it with Smurf and it does a horrible disservice to kids and parents dealing with actual autism.

    Therapists are doing more to instill homogeneity and crush individuality than any fundamentalists could ever have to achieve - they have literally stigmatized personality diversity; if they're even remotely different, they want to put kids on some severity line when even 20 years ago it was just a personality. 
    Sounds like the Jantelagen.

    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    And thus we are left with a world without Vikings.  Sure, the raping and pillaging was bad but it took a lot of individual initiative.
    But everybody is on a spectrum. All personalities are fundamentally somewhere in the phase space (or parameter space if you like) of all possible personalities. If you want to maybe criticize that it now seems that everybody is "sick" and the severely "sick" thus get less attention than they should, fine. But be aware of that "sick" is a word, just a word, while putting up spectra at least starts to attempt measurement, however faulty that still may be and always is when pioneering with quantitative methods in any field of science.
    I am high on the Asperger scale - this is just a measurement, surprisingly stable and reproducible like IQ, and it goes hand in hand with certain difficulties and advantages that I enjoy that are absolutely expected from my position on the spectrum. There is nothing wrong with this and I do not feel that such does any harm whatsoever to any "really autistic" kids further along the scale.
    Therapists starting to stigmatize and medicate all the variability down to some favored ideal of the perfect consumer/worker/voter in a given system; well that is dangerous, there we agree. But the mere putting up of dimensions (scales, spectra), although it can obviously be misused, does not necessitate homogenization. It may well be that rational people are only found high up, so we may use the scale to find trustworthy leaders instead of breeding the borg.
    But everybody is on a spectrum.
    If everyone is something, then no one is, right?  "We are all unique"
    It is a spectrum, not a point, right? I know what "being on the spectrum" means, like in "I have three kids on the spectrum", but in fact, we all are, also those on the zero point of it. That everybody has an IQ value and thus is somewhere on the intelligence spectrum does not mean everyone is equally intelligent.
    I am not sure whether your point here is plain being annoyed with that everybody and his brother is now claiming autism because it is fashionable or whether it is more against the usual "We are all unique" and have our special gift mumbo-jumbo. I am totally agreeing on those. But we should not make psychology look bad for finally realizing that the healthy/sick dichotomy was never scientific, that everybody is a brain hallucinating and reacting and that this behavior is only good or bad as judged by the environment it evolved in and that it should be investigated with help of useful metrics properly operationally defined (like IQ being what standardized IQ test measure, period).
    You are correct in guessing my annoyance is with people wanting to label everyone as being something.    It seems like a cynical way for therapists to make more money and understanding illness is impossible if there is no well condition, we are all just varying degrees of un-well..   

    Your point about occupying a place on a spectrum is obviously accurate but confusing for the public, who will instead see being on a spectrum as being on a spectrum that is distinct because it is not a wellness condition - and it is not a wellness condition or we would have no need to name it.  
    Robert Sapolsky talks of psychologists' need to label everything; it's not so much pathologizing everything as it is a need to recognize and categorize different states of being and personalities. 
    I have no argument that there are many consumer-oriented practitioners who label and pathologize in order to keep themselves in business.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Apart from us two probably being on completely opposite sides of a certain spectrum when it comes to whether so called "healthy" is making understanding "illness" possible or actually impossible, I think we should agree that dumbing down the terminology because the uneducated public is afraid of anything that has a name, well that is just precisely what a science site should educate against.
    Anyways, whether it annoys you to death or not, but I am one of those who claim to be on the spectrum. And it is not just some test, but a whole youth of shit that I cannot even now write about without getting into trouble, plenty of therapists I was dragged to, me being kicked out of school - not just a day, but out(!) - and so on. And I do feel that being on the spectrum helps to be rational, being removed from the mud of emotions average people are stuck in. It is an annoying fashion that many pretend to have this bit of weirdness now, much like almost everybody claims to have been unpopular in school. But something being an annoying fashion does not make it totally wrong.
    But you're making the point I made - to many, being on a spectrum is fashionable because it makes their behavior exculpatory, and therapists dilute it further because it makes them essential to more people.    Therapists are not immune from ego.    

    Our insistence on using a word like spectrum is fine and we can insist its meaning is precise while everyone else uses it wrongly, but I tried in vain throughout the 1990s to get journalists to stop using "begs the question" to mean 'demanding that the question be asked' so I would prefer that a condition that can be mild or debilitating not be made so colloquial the people afflicted have to come up with a new term to describe themselves.
    Your last sentence is so important; this is essentially what is happening across the board: the dilution of debilitating conditions so that people throw out sentences like, "Oh, I'm so OCD!" or that they suffer from PTSD so flippantly like these conditions don't render the person who has them seriously disabled. And we're seeing it online dealing with other DSM diagnoses: disassociative identity disorder is the new label people are giving themselves, just as Asperger Syndrome and ADHD became fashionable to self-diagnose with. I have no doubt that many individuals who have self-identified as on the spectrum are indeed on it, but there are others who take on these labels for other reasons and who help to create the quagmire that particular community is in the midst of.
    It creates a quandary. New terminology will only help for awhile; that too will be adopted by the masses and redefined. It's like the piece I just did on Baron-Cohen and empathy: too many people using empathy to mean too many different things rather than focusing on the specific definitions used. 

    Wiio's laws of communication, specifically "Communication usually fails, except by accident" comes to mind. It's discouraging.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    It creates a quandary. New terminology will only help for awhile; that too will be adopted by the masses and redefined.
    The spectrum has become a Sneetch star and a man came along with a way for everyone to have one.   Now people with an actual condition will need two stars - and it will only get crazier from there:
    I hear from both of you a lot anger coming through about that posers take resources away from the "real" cases. No doubt, it must be often extremely frustrating to deal with those far enough along the scale to count as serious in anybody's book. I just wonder whether you may however forget a lot of good that is coming from people being aware of a continuous spectrum where they can find themselves. For example, people actually do recognize their own OCD or ADD tendencies rather than, as in times before, refusing to admit being anything but a healthy boy that never cries or whatever. This alone does a lot of good in terms of understanding and integration to the seriously affected.
    If you guys think that going back to "you are either autistic or healthy with an attitude problem that is your own fault" is the way to go, you will have to explain to me why it is better that kids like me are thrown out of school rather than getting a proper diagnoses plus special classes for the gifted, which should have been the proper response but wasnt't done because at that time, I was not on any spectrum but simply "badly behaved". Today, I would be "on the spectrum" and people would much easier realize that most of my problem was that the dumb teachers bored me stiff.
    Sure, I am not what you call "seriously disabled", but there was enough serious shit going on to count sufficiently, and the aftermath is still disabling us non-disabled in certain ways right now.
    No, there's no anger in my comment. The reality is that there are, indeed, people out there who decide they have DID, for example, and then capitalize on that claim. There are people who take terminology meant to distinguish true suffering and crippling disability and claim they have it, too. Having to check your locks twice isn't OCD. It doesn't interfere with normal functioning.
    I'm not arguing as to whether there's a continuum of personality traits. The broad autism phenotype is recognized in the scientific literature. I have no doubt that my children have autism because of genetic influences. My husband and I, and our extended family members, very much so have traits that mark us clearly as on the broad autism phenotype (BAPpy), but that does not make us autistic. We do not have social or communication deficits that impair our ability to function. Our interests are not so perseverative that we can't go about and do the things we need to do. There's a clear difference. Baron-Cohen argues that you can have two individuals with the same behaviors/traits/issues, and if one is functioning well, he does not need the label; if the other has not found his niche, is not doing well and needs assistance, then the label is needed.

    Let me put it slightly different, there is a distinct problem with people who are not outliers claiming outlier status.  We all have issues that impact our functioning, but the majority of people are able to cope adaptively and function relatively well. It is not helpful to society in general or individuals specifically to assume they have a significant mental disorder when they do not (but perhaps in the DSM-VI, the psychiatrists will have created a special disorder for those individuals).

    Again, there's no anger here. Don't mistake a passionate commitment to not seeing neurological and psychological disorders watered down into meaninglessness as anger.
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    "there is a distinct problem with people who are not outliers claiming outlier status."
    Assuming normal distributions, an outlier is two or three sigma out from the average. There are basically as many scales as you are willing to measure (IQ, autism, OCD, depression, ...). How likely is it that you find any person that is not an outlier on some scale?

    People here on a science site have an IQ that is mostly at least a sigma or two out. Given that brains are complex integrated systems, if one important characteristic is already not normal (in a sense "broken"), how likely is it that on all the other scales these brains are inside two sigma?

    In other words: Dear reader, yes, you are "on the spectrum", welcome, join the club, we all are!
    Gerhard Adam
    I think part of the problem that Hank is indicating is not the existence of a spectrum as much as its use to diagnose every behavior with a built-in "excuse" because it may be classified.

    Obviously behavior is not fixed, so an individual can behave in a variety of ways that at any instant could be "classified" as similar to behavior on any spectrum that one uses.  However, that doesn't make that an accurate assessment.  As you indicated with the standardized IQ tests, we don't expect to see those values changing based on particular situations, despite knowing that people will behave intelligently or stupidly based on particular situations.

    Similarly in this case, where we hear that some kid that heaves a rock through your window suddenly as a half-dozen "classifications" used by psychologists instead of recognizing that he's probably just a kid that heaved a rock through your window.  It's not that classifying is bad, but rather that every action doesn't warrant classification and may not be appropriate without a firmly established context.

    This is similar to the issue of ADHD, where there is a strong sense that it is a diagnosis that is often used to help teachers manage classrooms and bored children, rather than addressing those that may truly have such a disorder.  In general, there is a sense that we simply like naming things and that someone by providing name, it increases understanding.  In that respect, it does a disservice by neglecting those with real disorders, by making it appear that everyone has one (to some degree).
    Mundus vult decipi
    "In that respect, it does a disservice by neglecting those with real disorders, by making it appear that everyone has one (to some degree)."
    There are no "real" disorder. Everybody has all to some degree. It is one of the lessons that one can learn from psychoactive drugs. I can give you a cocktail and tune your OCD or ADD that everybody has from "non-existent" all the way to seriously debilitating, and there is no point at which you would all of a sudden go, ups, now I am over a line that reads "real". We are brains, each on our own balance of chemicals.
    The answer to people using such as an excuse is not to go back to "the good old times" but to plainly stop punishing. Only naive, brute revenge and punishment systems need to be bothered about excuses. Rationally, that a murderer has an "excuse" does not mean we cannot decide to kill him anyway, if that should be the best option given the resources available.
    So, it comes all back to not doing the science that should be done in order to pander to a primitive population that wants to feel the safety of naive dichotomies like healthy/sick, good/bad, ... .
    Gerhard Adam
    You make great points and I have to agree with what you're saying about the boundary regarding "real".  However, I think you would have to agree that the distinction is certainly more clear when we examine the extremes and may become more difficult to differentiate as we approach the center (which becomes the "gray area").

    However, I'm not suggesting punishment or even going back to some older approach.  Instead, I'm arguing that there is a line that we cross where we make a determination that someone requires "treatment" or drugs versus when they don't.  I agree that such a line may be completely arbitrary, but it does exist.  We can certainly agree that some behaviors may be (more or less) "normal", while others may be (more or less) in need of "treatment".  I completely recognize that even these designations may be completely arbitrary.

    The risk that I'm trying to describe is that we don't begin attributing these classifications as a means of deflecting conditions that don't exist.  We know that boredom occurs, but when a teacher fails to recognize that their classroom is boring, I don't want to have such an authority make a determination that a child needs drug treatments simply because they're bored.

    I also agree completely that our neuro-chemistry can be modified quite readily, so it places a bigger responsibility on recognizing when we are modifying something simply to bring it into line with expectations, or whether we are actually "helping" someone with treatments. 
    Rationally, that a murderer has an "excuse" does not mean we cannot decide to kill him anyway, if that should be the best option given the resources available.
    I agree, but my argument is not about the murderer, but rather it is about ensuring that we actually have the murderer before we decide to kill them.  What I'm trying to address is very similar, since I don't want a murderer executed simply because police want to close a case, but rather I want the true murderer apprehended and tried.  In the same way, I don't want people in authority determining what constitutes psychological conditions that require "treatment" simply because it is more convenient.
    Mundus vult decipi
    This discussion has wandered off far. Let's get back to the origin: Should we tolerate repeated scoffing at humans finally starting to realize that they are all irrational animals whose decisions are mainly affected by their position on all sorts of spectra just because of some conservative good ol' days feeling about that the grass was still green when there were "true" autistic ones and the rest that just looks for excuses not to work but is actually "healthy"? I mean here, on a science platform?

    The underlying problem is to do with what is called "new enlightenment": The majority of people indeed do suffer mental illnesses, almost regardless of how "mental illness" is defined! (Especially if starting to take the rapidly changing environment into account, if "illness" is a label applied when the condition impacts how we deal with e.g. our work environment, which obviously depends on the environment! Yes, people are now "sick" that would not have been "sick" in neolithic times).

    Somebody here likes to scoff "so now everybody is sick, eh?", and the answer is: Yes - guess what pal, indeed, when have you lately seen a person that is not suffering from some sort of mental problem that gets more debilitating the older they get? Gosh, just open your eyes while walking down the street or through a mall and look at the faces when they think nobody watches! Most people are not living, they are coping! Depression for example is not over diagnosed, it is rampant! The people here around me in the university are very adept at presenting a professional mask, but most of them hide more mental illness behind it than the chain smoking shoe-fixer down the street.

    On a science site, is it our task to stabilize this system by telling people to just pull themselves together because they are not really sick and that the suffering is nothing compared to the true autistic kids?
    Gerhard Adam
    Well, I have to admit, you're right.  There is a spectrum and people will exist all along it.  I think the point of frustration is based on the idea of excuses for behaviors, similar to the idea that "genes made me like this", or using a lower IQ as an excuse for simple laziness. 

    However, in the end, the spectrum (or multiple spectrums) do(es) exist and an individual's self-diagnosis or use of excuses doesn't change that.  Similarly, bad therapists that enable such excuses also don't help, but they don't diminish the reality of such a spectrum.   I suppose in a way, it is similar to genetics, where we have to consider that just as "genes aren't destiny", neither does a particular placement on a spectrum indicate "destiny" or inevitability either.
    Mundus vult decipi
    This show has been aired on Channel 4 in the UK.

    However, looking at the episode guides, they focussed on relationships, and I was not aware that it had anything to do with science.  Needless to say, I have not seen a single episode.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    And it isn't all the funny, but science people love it, because it stars scientist characters - and then an engineer.   They make fun of the engineer for not having a PhD without realizing that engineers don't need one - if anything, a PhD in engineering makes them look like they don't know anything about engineering because they were in school instead.