Oliver Hetherington-Page says his experience of autism doesn't fit the pop culture mould

I'm not Sheldon Cooper.

I am, however, autistic, which means I'm constantly compared to him.

This is ironic because according to the producers of The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper isn't actually autistic.

And yet my autism is constantly compared – and seemingly failing to live up – to this fictional character.

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Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) is obsessed with trains and can recite the periodic table.

I can't stand public transport and the only thing I can recite is musical theatre lyrics.

It's a constant battle to be seen as truly autistic and not simply just "weird".

The Big Bang Theory first premiered in 2007 and since then has earned critical acclaim, seven Emmy Awards and a spin-off series focused on a young Sheldon Cooper.

The show focuses on "socially awkward" physicist Sheldon and his equally socially awkward roommate and fellow physicist Leonard (Johnny Galecki) and the complications that arise when the "conventionally attractive" and "normal" girl Penny (Kaley Cuoco) moves in across the hall.

It's a fairly conventional setup for a sitcom, but what made The Big Bang Theory unique was that very quickly fans of the show read Sheldon Cooper as autistic.

For many autistic people including myself, this finally felt like progress.

We were finally seeing ourselves on screen.

Jim Parsons as Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory.

Parsons's character Sheldon Cooper plays a central role in The Big Bang Theory.(

Supplied: The Big Bang Theory


He was rule-based with strict-ridged thinking and a lack of social niceties and he was the hero.

But slowly over time, it became apparent that while the creators were very happy to code Sheldon with autistic characteristics, they weren't willing to actually do the work to make Sheldon a three-dimensional autistic character.

Instead, they fell back on the old lines like "we choose not to diagnose our characters".

This is all well and good, but when your audience – both autistic and non-autistic alike – is diagnosing them, it doesn't matter whether the creators choose to or not.

This is where I come in.

A young man leans against a wall.

Hetherington-Page says the arts aren't always accepting of people on the spectrum.(

Supplied: Oliver Hetherington-Page


At the height of The Big Bang Theory, I was in high school and had recently received an autism diagnosis.

While Sheldon was surrounded by a group of friends who might see him at worst as "slightly odd" or remark "that's just Sheldon being Sheldon", I was surrounded by high schoolers who saw me – a young man that loved musicals, could list every Best Picture winner off the top of his head and regularly wore pants made out of beach towel – as more than just "slightly odd".

In high school teenagers don't just go, "That's just Oliver being Oliver".

My difference wasn't a punchline in a sitcom but a line that was very likely going to get me punched.

And it wasn't just in high school.

In the years that followed, people still didn't see me as authentically autistic.

Sheldon Cooper had so completely dominated the popular consciousness idea of autism that it even affected my career in the arts.

Despite the fact, there is a long list of autistic people in the arts: Dan Aykroyd, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Tim Burton, me, the image of the Sheldon Cooper computer-nerd-autistic-person persists. 

'We spend our lives acting normal'

I have a theory as to why people on the spectrum are drawn to the arts.

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We spend our lives "acting normal" and studying human behaviour trying to figure out why people do things.

When the point of art is to recreate life back at an audience it is actually quite a useful thing to do.

While autistic people are drawn to the arts sometimes the arts aren't always excepting of people on the spectrum.

When I first started university, I wasn't in a rush to tell people I was autistic considering my less-than-ideal high school experience.

But then a lecturer, who is also a prominent member of the Queensland theatre scene, gave me feedback on my final assessment, telling me to "read the room better".

You wouldn't tell a person in a wheelchair to stand up straight but telling someone with a disability that limits their ability to pick up social cues, how they should interact in a social setting, is totally fine apparently.

About 18 months ago, two years after the incident, I ran into that lecturer at a theatre event and we spoke about the feedback over a beer.

He said that while he suspected I was on the spectrum he wasn't certain, and he thought the correct response was to treat me like I was not autistic.

On the other hand, telling people I'm on the spectrum hasn't always been the best.

Later in my university career, I applied for an internship working for a children's theatre company touring through Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), which I didn't get.

When I asked why I didn't get the job I was told by my lecturers, "You were one of the better applicants, but we just felt with your issues that perhaps you wouldn't be the best fit".

Oddly enough, while it sucked at the time, not getting that internship led me to Indelibility Arts, a disability arts company, which put me onto the path to creating The No Bang Theory, a musical cabaret of dating disasters to diagnosis that aims to bust the myths of what autism "looks like".

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And while it may have all worked out for me, I know it easily could have gone very differently.

This lack of understanding of autism often leads to a lose-lose situation.

If you don't tell people you are on the spectrum, they don't give you the support you need. But then if you do tell people they make assumptions based on Sheldon Cooper.

Popular culture has always shaped how people are perceived by the world and autism is no exception.

Before The Big Bang Theory, there was Rain Man, now we have The Good Doctor and Atypical, all of which are problematic in their own ways.

My mission in life is to use my drama skills and insight to educate people about autism and hopefully save someone else from going through everything I went through.

I'm not Sheldon Cooper. I'm not the stereotype. I'm Oliver Hetherington-Page and that's enough.

Oliver Hetherington-Page is a Queensland University of Technology Drama graduate. 

The No Bang Theory was made possible by Arts Queensland and will have its world premiere, as part of the Undercover Artists Festival on September 16 before going to the Wynnum Fringe in November. 

ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the contributions and achievements of the 4.4 million Australians living with disabilities.

from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-09-15/w...