Anyone who knows me well knows I love the TV show The Big Bang Theory. If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out. And if you’re a parent of a child with social skills issues and you haven’t seen it, you’re really missing out.
It’s a sitcom about a nerdy group of scientists. But it’s less about their work and more about their friendships and the social challenges they face as they awkwardly try to navigate the world.
There’s a lot of speculation by fans that one of the main characters, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, could have nonverbal learning disabilities or . He has significant trouble with social skills. He’s not a flexible thinker. He doesn’t read other people’s social cues well, and he often says things without thinking about the impact on other people. (The show’s creators and cast have downplayed the possibility of any specific diagnosis.)
I started watching the show because I loved how it highlighted nerd culture in a funny and endearing way. Brainy jokes are a huge part of my life.
But I kept watching because Sheldon sometimes acts so much like my older son, Jacob, that it takes my breath away. Like Sheldon, Jacob has social skills issues. When I watch the show, I’m not just laughing at the punchlines, I’m laughing at how ruefully familiar the situations are. And sometimes I’m not laughing at all—I’m learning.
Through the show, I’ve discovered new ways to explain things to Jacob and new ways to understand him. Here are five of my favorite quotes from The Big Bang Theory and what they’ve taught me about parenting a child with social skills issues.
“Try telling him it’s a non-optional social convention.”—Sheldon’s friend, Howard In one episode, Sheldon doesn’t understand why he should buy a birthday present for his friend, Leonard. From Sheldon’s point of view, Leonard doesn’t need anything and hasn’t said he wants anything, so it doesn’t make sense to get him anything. After trying to explain gift-giving in multiple ways, Sheldon’s friends tell him it’s a “non-optional social convention,” which finally convinces him. The lesson I learned: Sometimes I need to create a shortcut to help my son make sense of things other people understand more intuitively. With my son, Jacob, there are times when no matter how much I explain the reason behind a social rule, it doesn’t make sense to him. He needs to know the “why” behind the rule. But sometimes it’s enough for him to know that some things are “non-optional social conventions”—you do them whether it makes sense to you or not.
“Actually, I had him tested as a child. Doctor says he’s fine. Although, I do regret not following up with that specialist in Houston.”—Sheldon’s mother On the show, people have trouble making sense of Sheldon’s behavior. He always tells people, “I’m not crazy, my mother had me tested.” This generates a lot of laughs on the show, but it gets me thinking. The lesson I learned: Trust my instincts and follow up with experts and specialists to get a diagnosis. When my son first started having a hard time in school, some people told us it was a “behavior issue.” Others said he was “too smart” to have anything going on. But I followed my gut and decided to see a specialist so we could identify his issues. Once Jacob was diagnosed, we were able to get supports and service in place for him. The diagnosis also led us (and him) to better understand his challenges, and that’s helped him learn how to self-advocate for the support he needs.
“It occurred to me you hadn’t returned any of my calls because I hadn’t offered any concrete suggestions for pursuing our friendship.”—Sheldon In one of my favorite episodes, Sheldon literally maps out a step-by-step “algorithm” for making new friends. The algorithm includes a decision loop that tells him when he needs to compromise and do something the other person wants to do. The lesson I learned: My son needs direct coaching on how to connect with other kids and make friends. Like Sheldon, my son struggles to make and maintain friendships. He also has a hard time learning to compromise and understand that friendship is a give and take. Until I saw the “algorithm” episode, it never occurred to me that I needed to explicitly teach my son ways to make friends. I can’t expect him to just pick these skills up on his own.
“I have spent my whole life trying to bring order to the universe by carefully planning every moment of every day.”—Sheldon When Sheldon’s regular barber is hospitalized, Sheldon refuses to get a haircut for days. In this quote, he explains why to his confused friends. The lesson I learned: It’s not stubbornness that makes my son perseverate and need a routine—it’s anxiety about the unknown. When Jacob was younger, it was overwhelming to feel like we had to plan every moment of every day to avoid meltdowns. I used to think Jacob was just being stubborn. But once I understood that anxiety was driving his need for routine, I learned to talk things through with him. Now we work to keep open communication with Jacob. We try to let him know when things will be different and give him as much choice as we can to help ease the anxiety. Over time, his schedule has become more flexible.
“Leonard, I am overwhelmed. Everything is changing and it’s simply too much. I need to get away and think.”—Sheldon After Sheldon’s favorite comic book store burns down, his girlfriend breaks up with him and his roommate Leonard says he may be moving out, Leonard asks Sheldon how he can help. Sheldon says he just needs space. The lesson I learned: Change can be really hard for my son to process, and sometimes it’s going to be too much. As a parent, it’s my instinct to want to swoop in and fix everything for my kids. But I can’t always do that. And I can’t always expect Jacob to pick himself up and manage, especially when he’s overwhelmed. What I can do, though, is respect his need for space and time and be available to him when—or if—he’s ready to talk through what’s “too much” for him. It’s a humbling lesson to learn as a parent—one of many the show has taught me.
The Big Bang Theory is now in its 10th season. I’ve watched the characters grow and change alongside my son.
I don’t know how long the show will be on the air, but its lessons will live on in my parenting and in Jacob’s life. In fact, not too long ago, he said something ridiculous and I jokingly said, “You’re so crazy!” As he rolled on the floor laughing, he said, “No, I’m not. You had me tested.”
Learn how watching TV with your child can help improve his social skills. Check out an interview with statistician Peter Flom about what it’s like to have nonverbal learning disabilities. And explore a parent’s view of the overlap between autism and learning and thinking differences.
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