“If Big Bang Theory aired on a Monday, you could count on more than a few parents bringing their kids in for an Asperger diagnosis on Tuesday,” writes John Elder Robison, who wrote the best-selling Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s in 2007:
The tipping point in the mainstreaming of Asperger’s arrived in 2007 with the high-functioning, haughty and hilarious theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper and The Big Bang Theory. As the show was a hit, winning two Emmy Awards for actor Jim Parsons in the process, characters with symptoms resembling Asperger’s syndrome poured out of our television screens and infected our brains: Dr. Dixon on Grey’s Anatomy, Max Braverman on Parenthood, Abed on Community, and seemingly countless others. Almost overnight, Asperger’s had become a shorthand TV trope used to explain and excuse a character’s maddeningly inconsiderate genius.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s a decade before these portrayals started cropping up, and for the longest time, I was alone, the only Aspergian I knew. Not anymore. In the span of just six years and countless utterances of “woof!” Asperger’s has gone from being unknown to being ubiquitous. And I don’t just mean on TV: Asperger diagnoses in the real world have skyrocketed in that same stretch of time.
The uptick in Asperger cases led to some mild hysteria. People started getting scared. Wild accusations and stupid questions were bandied about. Do televisions cause Asperger’s? What about its programming? Is there a vaccination I can have? What about lead supplements? No one knew. But we insiders did know this: If Big Bang Theory aired on a Monday, you could count on more than a few parents bringing their kids in for an Asperger diagnosis on Tuesday.
And so the CDC swooped in to do studies, and legislators convened. Time passed. Optimists hoped TV bigwigs would police the situation on their own. Finally, the American Psychiatric Association sprung into action. “We can solve this problem,” they effectively said. “It’s so simple: Let’s get rid of Asperger syndrome!” And they did just that. May 18, 2013, with the publication of the fifth edition of the APA’s industry-standard Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), was the last day that Asperger’s existed as a distinct psychiatric classification. From that day forward, any newly diagnosed patients who would have previously been classified with Asperger’s syndrome would be designated with the tag of Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, the rejiggered catchall category for autism and other pervasive developmental disorders.
Just like that, Asperger’s was gone. You can do things like that when you publish the rules. Like corrupt referees at a rigged college football game, the APA removed Asperger’s from the field of play and banished the term to the locker room of psychiatric oblivion. Their new and improved DSM went on sale two months ago, and shrinks everywhere lined up to buy it. Meanwhile, my 2007 memoir about living with Asperger’s is now deemed diagnostically obsolete. (Luckily, consumers don’t know that!)
Linking to Robison’s article, Kathy Shaidle describes Asperger’s as becoming “the Pluto of mental illnesses,” Robison himself writes that “TV is now forced to adapt to this new, Asperger’s-free reality.” But do they really? As the enormous Wikipedia-style “TV Tropes” Website points out, long after Sigmund Freud’s pioneering concepts have been rendered increasingly anathema amongst modern-day mental health professionals, all psychology remains Freudian on fictional TV. Similarly, I suspect Asperger’s will remain a popular shorthand on television for quite some time to come.