No body’s robot boy: Against aspie supremacy

Missy Cooper (Sheldon Cooper’s twin sister): I’ve lived my whole life dealing with the fact that my twin brother is, as Mom puts it, one of God’s special little people.

Sheldon Cooper: I always thought I was more like a cuckoo bird. You know, a superior creature whose egg is placed in the nest of ordinary birds. Of course the newly hatched cuckoo eats all the food, leaving the ordinary siblings to starve to death. Luckily for you, that’s where the metaphor ended.

Missy Cooper: I thought it ended at cuckoo. 

Transcribed from season 1, Episode 15 of The Big Bang Theory, “The Porkchop indeterminacy”. Full episode transcribed here.

Many readers will recognize Sheldon Cooper as a main character in the popular CBS show The Big Bang Theory. He also appears in the spin-off Young Sheldon, a prequel to The Big Bang Theory. This second series explores Sheldon’s childhood and adolescence.

One of Sheldon’s most distinguishing and obnoxious traits is his belief that he is  “a superior creature,” forced to live among inferior beings. Of course, the show does not present Sheldon’s supremacist beliefs in a fully serious manner. Sheldon may think himself a superior genius, but others, such as his sister Missy, dismiss him as “cuckoo”. In this essay, I engage with the allure that supremacist beliefs like this have for autistic white men, like Sheldon and me, and how they represent a barrier to solidarity with other autistic or otherwise marginalized people.  

The writers and producers of The Big Bang Theory did not choose to give Sheldon an autism diagnosis and have denied that Sheldon is intended to be autistic. Nonetheless, I, like many other autistic writers, interpret Sheldon’s character as autistic. By claiming that Sheldon is portrayed as autistic in The Big Bang Theory and in Young Sheldon, I do not mean to suggest that these programs provide a sensitive or realistic portrayal of autism. Rather, Sheldon Cooper is an example of a recurring character type that scholar Malcolm Matthews calls “autistic techno-savants”

According to Matthews, the autistic techno-savant is commonly portrayed as a character with “limited to impaired social skills, limited empathy, and rigid adherence to routine, accompanied by superhuman abilities in science, memory, or mathematics”. As Matthews notes, media depictions of autistic techno-savants are based in a “stereotyped cultural understanding” of autistic people. In light of this, I interpret Sheldon Cooper’s character as being shaped by stereotypes of autistic people, such as, notably, the myth that autistic people lack empathy. The representation of autistic techno-savants echoes an ideology that disability activists have called “aspie supremacy”. 

“Aspie supremacy” refers to an ideology that posits that a subset of autistic people are superior to, not only other autistic people, but all other people. In many ways, aspie supremacy aligns with the “stereotyped cultural understanding” of autism that Malcolm Matthews describes in his discussion of autistic technosavants. Essentially, aspie supremacy posits that some autistic people are endowed with the traits of autistic technosavants – outstanding abilities in memory, logic, mathematics, or science. These traits are highly prized in a global economy dominated by digital technologies, and this context provides fertile ground for aspie supremacist claims to superiority and dismissal of others. 

Disability studies scholar Anna De Hooge traces aspie supremacy back to the work of Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger. Working in Nazi-occupied Austria, Asperger was one of the first researchers to use the term “autistic”. In his work, Asperger sought to highlight the capabilities of a subset of autistic children who he argued were valuable to the Nazi state. Here is a translated excerpt from a 1941 paper by Asperger, in which he argues that the work he and his colleagues have done with autistic children was effective and important. Asperger specifically points to some of the children’s successful integration into the Nazi state as evidence of their program’s effectiveness: 

From innumerable reports and visits, also from letters from the front, from soldiers’ visits we know how many of our former children, including very difficult cases, entirely fulfill their duties in their professions, in the armed forces, and in the [Nazi] party, not a few among them in eminent positions. This is how we know that the success of our work is worth the effort (Translation quoted from Herwig Czech’s article “Hans Asperger, National Socialism, and “race hygiene” in Nazi-era Vienna”)

In this excerpt, Asperger boasts that his practice is successful at what it sets out to do: to identify and diagnose troubled children and help them develop into adults who do important work for the state. Not mentioned in this excerpt are the children who Asperger and his colleagues considered to be too troubled to be of value. As historian Herwig Czech’s account makes clear, Asperger and others considered those children incapable of successfully integrating into society and recommended they be institutionalized or exterminated.

Malcolm Matthews points to research by Hans Asperger as the “early roots” of how Sheldon is portrayed. Indeed, the character of Sheldon Cooper, as represented in Young Sheldon, resembles the children described in Hans Asperger’s accounts of autistic boys. In a 1944 article titled “Autistic Psychopathy in Childhood”, Asperger described a boy named Fritz with mathematical abilities that were extraordinary for his age. Despite his intellectual strengths, Fritz’s school deemed him uneducable. Asperger wrote about Fritz’s social difficulties: “He never got on with other children, and, in fact, was not interested in them”. The combination of advanced mathematical abilities and an apparent lack of emotion or empathy gives Fritz a robotic quality.

In Young Sheldon, Sheldon is portrayed in a manner similar to how Asperger portrayed Fritz. From boyhood, the character of Sheldon is portrayed as a physics prodigy who seems thoroughly uninterested in most forms of social interaction, particularly with other children. Sheldon’s peers find him weird, boring, and obnoxious, and Sheldon dismisses them as intellectually inferior. Hence, Young Sheldon and The Big Bang Theory present Sheldon in a manner that shares many similarities with how Asperger presented certain autistic boys like Fritz: intellectually gifted but unempathetic and socially inept. In this way, Sheldon and other autistic technosavants often seem more like machines than humans.

The lack of empathy and interest in others that autistic technosavants display is likely grounded in misrecognition of autistic emotions and sociality. Asperger interpreted Fritz’s apparent social isolation as stemming from a profound lack of interest in others. However, later in the article, he acknowledged his difficulties understanding Fritz’s inner state. He wrote, “The boy’s emotions were indeed hard to comprehend”. Nonautistic people often find autistic emotions and social behaviors difficult to interpret. In particular, autistic people are often wrongly assumed to be uninterested in and unempathetic toward others. The autistic technosavant’s robot-like qualities serve as a poor representation of the inner state of an autistic person. This robotic-like quality, nonetheless, accurately captures the way some autistic people fashion ourselves to survive in a neuronormative world. When we adopt such mannerisms, we often simultaneously draw on and promote aspie supremacy.

Aspie supremacy, as it exists today, echoes Asperger’s descriptions of giftedness and converts them into claims of superiority. This ideology is alluring to me and other autistic white men precisely because it offers powerful validation in the face of our marginalization. Indeed, Sheldon’s claim to being “a superior being” in the excerpt above is a direct response to his sister noting that their mother calls him “one of God’s special little people”. Missy Cooper’s comment alludes to a shared perception that Sheldon is abnormal and difficult.

Malcolm Matthews argues that autistic techno-savants like Sheldon Cooper offer a potentially powerful reframing of disability and marginalization. He writes that, in the case of the autistic technosavant, 

…disability is no longer a cautionary tale nor is it a margin by which cultural normativity might be measured and validated. Instead, autism begins to function as a prototype to which those seeking authority in a technocentric era must necessarily conform.

In other words, Sheldon Cooper does not present his differences from nonautistic others as a problem but rather suggests that his difference is the basis of his superiority. As an autistic person, it is hard not to find such statements alluring and even validating

It is important to note, however, that autistic techno-savants are not simply characterized by their autism. They are also characterized by their whiteness and maleness. White male privilege is key to ensuring that others recognize the autistic technosavant’s value and tolerate his often rude behavior.

Neurodivergent scholar Anna De Hooge argues that autistic people of other races and genders “are not awarded the same lenience as white men when it comes to atypical behavior”, including hurtful behavior that reflects a belief in one’s own superiority over others. Writing about another autistic techno-savant, Sherlock Holmes, Anna De Hooge comments on the character’s portrayal in the BBC television series Sherlock:

Sherlock is in the habit of delivering long monologues in which he decodes the interactions of non-Aspie people, with each other and with objects, deducing them down to tidbits of underlying, often practical information. He does so with a signature lack of kindness, common in Aspie-coded characters.

Sherlock Holmes is famous for his impressive observational and deductive abilities as well as his often rude and arrogant behavior. 

It is no accident that autistic technosavants like Sherlock Holmes and Sheldon Cooper are nearly always white men. Malcolm Matthews writes 

Sheldon Cooper and other portrayed autistics and autistic techno-savants serve to reinforce a pervasive visual rhetoric of whiteness as equated with intellect, logic, digital technologies, and as the key physical characteristic of a misunderstood human being condemned to tolerate the “lesser” beings who inhabit a cultural territory that he has marked off as his own

As an autistic white man, I recognize this way of seeing the world, aspie supremacy, in my own thinking and actions. I am given space to engage in behaviors intended to demonstrate my intellectual superiority to others, and I have often availed myself of the opportunity.

For example, in a previous essay, I recounted how, as a first year college student, I directly challenged my ethnic studies professor’s teaching. My professor asked all students in the class to read Ronald Takaki’s award-winning book A Different Mirror and write a reflection about it. I hastily dismissed the book and decided to hand in a methodological critique of A Different Mirror, arguing that the author should have used experimental psychological methods. In my essay, I wrote about how my dismissal of the book was made possible by my socialization into white ignorance:

Instead of reflecting on why I thought I knew better than Ronald Takaki and my ethnic studies professor, I headed to the library and found some experimental psychological research on implicit bias that better conformed to what I believed constituted “proof” of racism. For my assignment, rather than engaging with the ideas in A Different Mirror, as the class had been assigned, I wrote an essay about how the experimental studies I found at the library provide “better proof” of the presence of racism in U.S. society than A Different Mirror.

As I have reflected more on my behavior in my ethnic studies course, I have come to realize that it is enlightening to look at my actions through the lens of aspie supremacy. My actions undoubtedly reflected white ignorance, and, in this way, I am just like other white people. Nonetheless, my actions were unusual, even among my white male peers. 

During my many years teaching at the college level, I rarely experienced a direct challenge from my students, like the one I made of my ethnic studies professor. Undoubtedly, my whiteness and maleness shielded me from being challenged by my students as frequently as colleagues who are not privileged by race or gender. I, an educated white man, embodied the stereotype of a professor for them. 

Nonetheless, I can recall two instances where students did challenge my approach in ways that reminded me of myself. Both were white male students who I suspected to be autistic. They both believed they had found a better approach to the subject matter than the one I provided and argued strenuously in favor of their ideas. Neither student did anything I considered overtly offensive. Just as I had in my ethnic studies course, they showed a level of engagement with the ideas (if not the assigned materials) that far surpassed their peers’. Nonetheless, I felt that their persistent disagreement was grounded in overconfidence in their own knowledge and a lack of appreciation for my hard-earned expertise. Recognizing myself in them, I was endlessly patient. 

I think it is important to consider neurodivergence in explaining my and these two students’ behavior. Many nonautistic white men might suggest that they would never do what I did in my ethnic studies class or what my students did in my class. My experience suggests this is probably true. However, white male students do not have a reputation for arriving in ethnic studies classes eager to learn about the workings of white supremacy and their complicity in it from their female professors of color. Indeed, my white male peers are equally ignorant of how white supremacy has shaped our and others’ experiences.

However, as an autistic person, I differ from nonautistic white men in the degree to which I comply with implicit social norms. Most students are unlikely to disagree with an instructor directly, since to do so is a socially risky maneuver, one that might result in the instructor seeing them unfavorably. Hence, even if nonautistic students disagree with what the instructor is teaching, they are unlikely to make their disagreement known to the instructor. As such, most classrooms appear to operate according to an implicit hierarchy that positions the instructor as the infallible source of knowledge, and the student as the recipient of their knowledge. Hence, a student challenging the legitimacy of an instructor’s knowledge is an unusual and risky move, one that might very well be experienced as inappropriate or rude by the instructor and other students in the class. 

De Hooge writes that, in thinking about autistic white men and aspie supremacy, “a distinction needs to be made between psychological disadvantages that do impede privilege, and inconsiderate or harmful behavior reconstructed as the quirks of a misunderstood man”. In other words, De Hooge calls for nuance in how we understand autistic white men’s behavior, as it might reflect marginalization or privilege.

My own experience suggests that teasing apart marginalization and privilege in the life of an autistic white man is no simple matter. My behavior in my ethnic studies class was likely experienced as inconsiderate or harmful by my professor, since my argument dismissed her expertise and reflected my white ignorance. For that, I must be accountable. 

However, we might also consider how neurodivergence could have played a role in my decision not to do what my ethnic studies professor assigned and instead to critique the book she chose. This is especially important to consider given that my behavior does not seem neuronormative. Like other autistic people, I am often uneasy with neuronormativity, or the set of norms that govern how we are supposed to think, feel, and act in order to be perceived as “normal” or “sane”. As an autistic person, I experience the physical and social world more intensely than nonautistic people do, and, as a result, our priorities often differ with respect to what is appropriate, urgent, important, necessary, or just. 

Neurodivergent scholar Marianthi Kourti describes the tension autistic people feel between our ways of being in the world and “neurotypically created societal structures”. Kourti writes 

Autistic people’s, often unconscious, resistance to the reproduction of social structures is, in my mind, both a core tenet of the autistic disposition and difficult to conceptualise. I believe that this autistic resistance to structures, which may be curbed throughout one’s lifetime both intentionally and unintentionally, is key to understanding the autistic disposition as it is manifested in the social world.

Thus, according to Kourti, autistic people tend to struggle against societal structures, whether or not their resistance is intentional, conscious, or politically savvy. For example, in a previous essay, I reflected on how my autism makes compliance with norms of conventional cis-heterosexual masculinity difficult for me.

Autistic people are frequently punished for our inability or refusal to go along with neuronormative social norms. These social consequences are the primary reason that, as Kourti notes, the autistic tendency to violate social norms “may be curbed throughout one’s lifetime”.

As I have already mentioned, compared to other autistic people, autistic white men are given greater leniency to behave in ways that violate social norms, and, hence, we may be especially likely to act in ways that others perceive as abnormal or rude. Our white male privilege protects us, to some extent, from the need to mask or curb our autistic traits. However, I do not wish to suggest that autistic white men should mask or curb their autistic traits simply because the things we do are things only autistic white men tend to do. Rather, we need to look past the kneejerk desire to punish violations of neuronormative social expectations and consider the potential importance of the autistic tendency to struggle against neuronormativity.

As a way of exploring this idea, I will put forth a hypothetical situation. In the same semester that I took introduction to ethnic studies as a first year college student, I also took a course in music theory. The course’s curriculum featured almost exclusively European and white North American composers and musicians, and in this way is (or, at least, was) doubtlessly similar to other courses offered at other institutions. Today, I recognize that this approach to the subject matter is historically grounded in white colonizers’ views of themselves as intellectually superior to those they subjugated. At the time, I accepted the curriculum as a normal part of my educational experience. I did not challenge it. 

However, having now spent years wrestling with my white ignorance, I now recognize that my music theory instructor’s approach badly needed to be challenged. One bold student willing to challenge a white supremacist curriculum could have had real impact, including spurring the instructor to reconsider the way the course implicitly positioned white music, musicians, and composers as superior.

Had I challenged the curriculum in my music theory course, I doubt that I would regret it. I regret what I did in my ethnic studies course. The difference lies not in whether or not I complied with neuronormative social norms but rather in the degree to which my actions challenged white supremacy and white ignorance. In my ethnic studies course, I acted out of white ignorance. In the hypothetical situation, my autistic disposition might have been channeled to challenge white ignorance. 

I believe that, when used strategically, the autistic willingness to push back against societal structures can present powerful opposition to oppression. The challenge for autistic white men lies in understanding our own identities more complexly, including wrestling with our privilege and embracing our autistic emotionality. As much as we desperately wish nonautistic others would understand and appreciate our autistic selves, we must also recognize that others wish that we understood and appreciated them as whole people. 

Aspie supremacy is alluring to autistic white men, precisely because it offers a more validating portrayal of autism than that offered to us by a neuronormative society. Aspie supremacy presents neurodivergence as valuable or admirable, for example, through autistic technosavant characters like Sheldon Cooper and Sherlock Holmes. However, I believe autistic white men should reject aspie supremacy and many of the qualities of the autistic technosavant. Instead, we should seek a way of being in the world that embraces our whole autistic selves, including our autistic emotionality and sociality. We should also wrestle with our white male privilege and strive to be in solidarity with people struggling against the oppressive systems that we benefit from.

Ultimately, aspie supremacy seeks validation from the wrong source: from those who support and maintain the status quo. Aspie supremacy does not pose serious opposition to ableism, racism, or sexism. Instead, the ideology suggests that autistic white men are well-suited to performing certain types of labor in an ableist, racist, sexist world, so long as others are able to overlook our machine-like qualities. I, however, am no body’s robot boy.