When I was a child, I watched the film What about Bob? For those who have seen it, you may recall a scene where Bob tells the little boy that he likes to pretend he has Tourette Syndrome so he can get away with shouting obscenities. The pair of them jump on the bed swearing at the tops of their voices – and in the censored TV version I watched years later, they tell the father that it’s because they have Buddy’s Disease.
Buddy’s Disease has never been a real diagnosis. In fact, it’s not anything. It does not exist outside of this bizarre form of censorship that I think everyone raised an eyebrow at. For me, the removal of the words Tourette Syndrome implied that Tourette’s was in fact the obscenity that needed censoring and, therefore, it was something to be ashamed of. Furthermore, calling it a disease made it sound like something contagious. And I’d like to know whose bright idea it was to call it the idiotic ‘wholesome’ Buddy’s Disease. I’m still not sure if they did this because they thought the topic was risqué or if they were worried about offending people who actually had Tourette’s.
The first time I saw that movie was in 1991 – coincidentally, the same year I was diagnosed with Tourette’s myself. It was a dark secret that even I wasn’t expected to understand. And I don’t think the media were comfortable with exposing it to the public.
Jump ahead to 2007 when the Le Petit Tourette episode of South Park first aired on television. South Park…featuring Tourette’s? Surely, that must be offensive! One of my friends confessed that the whole time he was laughing at the episode, he felt guilty and worried I would be upset over it. I surprised him: I had laughed too. In fact, to this day I can’t think about certain lines from that show without choking with laughter. And at least amongst the Tourettics I know, all of them who happened to like South Park also found it funny. I would venture to say that, on the whole, the only people who really found it offensive were those who found South Park offensive in general.
In fact, even the Tourette Syndrome Association admitted that the creators of the show had done their research. Yes, it was a great vehicle to throw as much foul language into a show as possible, but…the writers also took the time to open people’s eyes to the seriousness of the condition. The more respectable character Kyle insists on the wrongness of mocking or mimicking real Tourette’s sufferers. There is a scene where he sits through a group therapy session for Tourette’s patients and the patients explain the variety of tics they have. I found myself watching open-mouthed because I have personally said many of the things those animated patients told Kyle. ‘Most people say they don’t even notice’ – said while blinking furiously, snapping fingers and going Ding! Sound familiar to anyone?
The show in no way glorified Tourette’s. It wasn’t a scandalous exploitation documentary intended to shock and dismay. It actually went beyond the stereotypes and taught people a little bit about a serious subject…but it made a lot of people laugh in the process. Most importantly, it made me laugh at myself. This was not accomplished by What About Bob? South Park may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the fact is: we have come a long way.
Was something happening in our global consciousness in 2007? Because that happens to be the same year that The Big Bang Theory premiered on television.
I did some searching online for people’s views on the character of Dr Sheldon Cooper, as I felt certain he would have caused some controversy. For anyone who doesn’t know, Sheldon very obviously has Asperger’s Syndrome (although the writers have refrained from ever stating this outright, so as not to turn the programme into a laugh-fest at something people can’t help), is asexual, and suffers from extreme Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. As with South Park, I think the writers must be doing some heavy research, because I regularly relate to Sheldon. In fact, my husband and I often point out each other’s Sheldon-isms. We think they’re sweet.
I was surprised to find that most people were more bothered by the stereotypical nerd angle to the show than anything else (which I will confess hadn’t even crossed my mind, because I do know people like that, and I’ll just admit it right now: I actually cried when Data died in Star Trek: Nemesis).
Within the autistic world (of which I am part), it seems a great many of us approve of having such a character on mainstream television. Why? Because at last we’ve moved beyond Rain Man! Sheldon is eccentric. Sheldon is frustrating. Sheldon is often embarrassing. But Sheldon has friends, he has a stable job, he even finds a girlfriend as ‘different’ as himself – Sheldon has a life. Which is something I was been led to believe over the years is not possible for autistics. The actor Jim Parsons himself has expressed the view that Sheldon accepted his differences a long time ago and takes pride in them, used them to get where he is in life, and is treating his assimilation into ‘normal society’ as a sort of scientific experiment. Sometimes, he surprises himself by relating to the ‘ordinary’ people around him.
The important point is: Sheldon is not someone you feel sorry for. Like many of us, he sometimes feels frustrated at being different from most people around him – but only because he wishes more people were as gifted as him. He never thinks of himself as the odd one. And why should he when we can see that everyone around him is just as ‘special’ in their own way, even the so-called girl-next-door? Sheldon is never diagnosed or expected to take medication to change who he is. And most importantly, he’s not crazy – his mother had him tested.
What fascinates me is that some autistics seem to have a problem with laughing at Sheldon’s OCD – because it’s something people ‘suffer’ from, a true discomfort and anxiety and therefore not a respectful subject for humour. Well I have OCD too, and every time Sheldon knocks three times on the door I laugh…sympathetically. I find it endearing. I think there is an element of laughing with the character, because while not everyone has OCD, everyone does have some little neurosis, some ritual, some degree of irrationality hardwired into our brains.
Rain Man was released in 1988. What About Bob? Came out in 1991. It is now the end of 2012. That means it has been 24 years since Rain Man and 21 years since Bob. Between the two, it’s been about 22.3 years, and (forgiving this further allusion to South Park) that means it’s time we started being able to laugh at these things.
Why do we need to take our diagnoses so seriously all the time? There is a time and place for everything. Sometimes it’s right to be serious. Sometimes we need people to understand that we are in pain and need help. But other times, we need to stop dwelling on that pain and just try to enjoy life! If all we do is concentrate on the grief, we will ruin ourselves. We will miss all our inner beauty lying alongside the darkness. We will miss all the good things that surround us. I say laughter is the best medicine. When we take our anxieties too seriously, we give them the power to take over our lives. When we learn to see the absurdity in them, they lose a little of that power, and that’s the first step to overcoming them.
These television shows are waking up the public to diagnoses I was once given without explanation, to hold inside like a terrible secret I should be ashamed of. They have either made it acceptable to open up about these things or they are a reflection of a shift in our society. A shift for the better. In a world with characters like Sheldon Cooper, being autistic is a bit like being American or English or Spanish. It’s like a citizenship. It’s not automatically a disease. And it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. But it does mean that sometimes you run into people who don’t speak your language, and that’s when the chaos starts.
And it turns out the humour lies in that chaos. Rather than reject it on the grounds that it’s ‘offensive’, why not embrace the change in perspective? Not everyone is going to go out and read a book about the reality of a neurological condition. But whole nations will watch a popular extremist television programme. Why not let the world peek into our lives in whatever way they can, until before anyone realises what’s happened, we have a society that accepts these diagnoses without judgment? Why not accept ourselves?
In 1991, watching that film scene while consumed with unjustified shame, I could not have predicted how far we would have come in 22 years. Perhaps the medical system still hasn’t improved much, but when I see these ‘outrageous’ TV shows that never would have been allowed when I was a child, back in the days when Tourette’s was a dirty word, it does leave me wondering: where will we be in 2024?
Hopefully, somewhere good.