Friday, September 30, 2011

Big Bang Theory, Model Trains and Aspergers and Autism

Many people love Big Bang Theory, the hit show about four scientific "nerds" and their relational and other challenges.

One of the key characters is Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a unique individual whose life is dominated by rigid devotion to a byzantine set of rules and routines--a signature characteristic of Aspergers Syndrome.

That, plus an interest in trains (both model and prototype).

One of the lesser-known aspects of some people with Aspergers or Autism is a fascination with trains. According to the National Autistic Society of Great Britain, a number of children with autism are attracted to trains because they like how trains are arranged in lines, how cars are connected, and the orderly and predictable nature of railways.

Thomas the Tank Engine is a special favourite for many children with autism; the friendly faces on the locomotives and cars helps them learn to express their own feelings and emotions.

(I wrote about this connection between autism and trains in 2009 on this blog; read it here.)

The show's producers deny that Sheldon has Aspergers, but they say they've been asked about it so many times they're aware of the subtext. When actor Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon, was asked the question, he told Variety that "the writers say no, he doesn't  . . . [but] I can say that he couldn't display more facets of it."

(You can read an interesting article about Big Bang Theory and Aspergers and Autism in Slate Magazine.)

And now Sheldon's interest with model trains was more fully explored on Sept. 29 (see photo above). I didn't get to see the show, but comments on at least one model railroad forum seemed mostly favorable.

That said, I'm divided on whether or not Sheldon's fascination with trains helps or hurts the hobby. The fact that Sheldon is such a sympathetic character helps--he's sort of a man-child, a person who would certainly drive you crazy, but not because he is intentionally mean.

At the same time, the mention of model railroading on the show might also confirm in the minds of some that "playing with trains" is for those who are socially awkward, sort of nerdy, not completely well-adjusted.

In the end, it doesn't matter what people think--if you enjoy model railroading, all power to you. And it helps to remember that it's just a TV show. But TV, as we know, plays a pivotal role in shaping attitudes and opinions. In the end, who knows how this particular show, and this particular character, will affect the image of model railroading?

(Let's not forget that we've been down this road before; Gomez Addams used to regularly blow up his O guage model trains; read my post about it here and watch the explosion. Of course, that was a more innocent black-and-white age.)

Then again, we're better off than our friends who build and fly model airplanes. We just have to worry about a fictional character on a TV show; they have to deal with the real-world fallout from the recent attempt by Rezwan Ferdaus to fly a model airplane into the Pentagon. As one headline puts it: Model Airplanes A New Terrorist Weapon?

All things considered, I'd rather have Sheldon Cooper on my side.


  1. If you think 'Big Bang Theory' could make model railroading look bad, there's a 'Robot Chicken' sketch you won't like called "Next stop lonley-ville"

    I don't know what we Aspergers people see in trains. I however, like the disorderly aspects of railroading, such as manifest trains, much more than the orderly straight lines and stuff.

  2. I would have thought that Sheldon had an OCD (Obsessive–compulsive disorder), knocks on Penny's door 3 times, favorite seating spot, take away food place routine, anal about hygiene, touching his food etc etc.

  3. I would not say that Big Bang Theory put model railroading in a good light. As you say, it is just a TV show, though. And Sheldon did put an N gauge locomotive in his mouth.

    A good friend of mine has an autistic son who *loves* trains. He used to come to my house and spend all his time in my train room. I would run every engine I had, one at a time, and he was delighted. It was a pleasure to do that for him.

  4. People with Aspergers Syndrome and Autism don't automatically find trains fascinating. Their interests in things are just like anyone elses; a limbic response to something aesthetically and conceptually pleasing. The difference, is that their interests tend to be more intense, to the point of obsession.

    An intense interest is neither a positive identification nor symptom of the syndrome. It's more of a side effect.