2x02 | Sherlock Holmes & Autism

Sherlock Holmes is possibly the most-adapted character in the world. Different interpretations of his stories and personality abound. In recent years, autism advocacy groups and fans of the BBC’s modern adaptation have claimed that Sherlock Holmes is on the autism spectrum.

But not everyone agrees with this diagnosis or believes it’s a positive thing. It is, of course, impossible to diagnose a fictional character, especially one created during a time when so little was known about autism. The original author of the Sherlock Holmes stories was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a trained doctor. His writing contains detailed and accurate descriptions of medical diagnoses and he was one of the first to describe the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome. Could he also have unknowingly been one of the first to describe autism? Let’s look into it.

My name is Lenore and I’m The Victorienne.

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Just a note before getting started: I’ll be using mostly identity-first rather than person-first language because that’s what I’ve been taught autistic people themselves prefer. Sherlock Holmes has been interpreted onstage and onscreen countless times, and it’s the nature of adaptations that each is slightly different. No two actors will play a character in exactly the same way, so this episode will mainly stick to the original source material, though even within those stories the character varies.

So, what makes people think Sherlock is autistic? For one, his scientific and investigative knowledge is vast, but he doesn’t seem interested in much else. Having this kind of special interest is one of the most common characteristics of autism. In the first Sherlock story published, "A Study in Scarlet", the narrator Dr. Watson is astounded by Sherlock’s immense knowledge of chemistry and crime, along with his complete lack of interest in literature, philosophy, astronomy, and politics.

When it comes to this specific interest, Sherlock goes all out, working almost non-stop for days at a time, before slumping into a near-comatose state. This has led some to believe Sherlock has bipolar disorder rather than autism. The days when he is most absorbed in his work appear to be manic episodes, and the days when he barely moves appear to be depressive episodes, but it still doesn’t quite match up with bipolar disorder. Sherlock’s mood swings are directly related to whether or not he has an interesting case at the time, not based on brain chemistry.

Sherlock Holmes is famously a drug-user, which is often seen in people with bipolar disorder. The big difference here is that he uses drugs during his low moods, not during his supposedly manic episodes, which would fit the bipolar category more. Also, research has shown that autism is linked to an increased risk of substance abuse and bipolar disorder is a common misdiagnosis for people on the autism spectrum.

Sherlock’s powers of deductive reasoning are also said to be a possible sign of autism. Sherlock is highly observant and seems to have a unique way of taking in sensory input, which is a characteristic of autism and something which can lead to sensory overload. 

Another argument for Sherlock being autistic is his lack of social graces. He’s portrayed as having difficulties in social interactions and it seems that Watson is his only friend. During conversations, Sherlock often closes his eyes or looks around the room rather than at the other person. He’s in his own world. We see this in some modern portrayals of other detectives. On the TV shows Criminal Minds, Bones, and Monk, characters who are no doubt inspired by Sherlock Holmes all come across as autistic, especially in their social interactions.

Sherlock, like numerous other possibly-autistic characters, is seen as cold, aloof, and emotionless. This is one of the reasons that some people think we shouldn’t try to diagnose Sherlock this way. A harmful stereotype of autistic people is that they’re robotic and lack feelings or empathy, but that’s just not true. They have emotions just like everyone else, but they express them differently, which can lead people to see them - incorrectly - as sociopathic. The BBC’s modern adaptation of Sherlock has been criticized for one of its most popular lines, in which Sherlock claims he’s a "highly-functioning sociopath". The character is portrayed as having characteristics of autism, so labelling him a sociopath could be damaging.

In the later stories, published in the 1920s, Sherlock is notably more emotive. In the recent Netflix adaptation of the Enola Holmes book series, Sherlock is warmer and friendlier than he’s usually portrayed, which is more in line with those later stories. Because of this, the Doyle estate is actually suing Netflix, saying this portrayal of Sherlock is copyright infringement, since those final stories still aren’t in the public domain. I think this goes to show how central being cold and aloof is to the Sherlock Holmes character.

Aside from furthering the stereotype that autistic people are emotionless, another problem with labelling Sherlock as autistic is the stereotype that they’re all asexual and don’t desire companionship. Plenty of autistic people want and have healthy relationships. Sherlock was originally portrayed as being uninterested in romantic entanglements. In more recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations, it seems like Sherlock and Irene Adler have always been set up as love interests. But when the stories were first adapted for the stage, it took a little while for Doyle to be convinced that a romantic storyline between Sherlock and Adler would be a positive addition. 

Another issue people take with diagnosing Sherlock with autism is because of the "autistic savant" trope. The first time most people were aware of this type of character was the 1988 movie Rain Man, and that’s still how a lot of people imagine autism to be. A nerdy guy who’s awkward in social situations and has low emotional intelligence, but who’s tolerated because he’s some kind of genius. Labelling Sherlock as another autistic savant could narrow the view people have of autism. 

However, some autistic people like that Sherlock could be considered autistic. He’s a heroic character, accomplished in his field, and celebrated for his intelligence.In Mark Haddon’s novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time", the narrator - who has Asperger’s - enjoys comparing himself to Sherlock as he tries to solve his own mystery. The book’s title is even a reference to a line from one of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Some of the most vocal supporters of calling Sherlock autistic are autism advocacy groups. And some psychologists have argued that Doyle’s writings could be useful in studying how autism was seen in the past. It’s possible Doyle knew someone with those traits and it helped him develop the character.

The main inspiration for Sherlock Holmes was Dr. Joseph Bell, a pioneer in the field of forensic pathology. He was one of the first people to use scientific evidence in crime solving and he had impressive deductive reasoning skills like Sherlock. Bell taught surgery at the University of Edinburgh and Doyle was one of his students. Doyle even worked as Bell’s clerk for a time, recording medical cases the same way Watson records Sherlock’s criminal cases.

Bell sometimes worked with the police and in 1888 he was brought onto the Jack the Ripper case. It’s said that Bell did have a suspect in mind but that name has never been released to the public. While Sherlock’s powers of deduction were inspired by Bell, his personality was not. Bell was said to be warm and sympathetic in temperament.

Sherlock’s less favorable characteristics were most likely taken from Dr. Brian Charles Waller. Waller was a lodger living with Doyle’s family who may have had a romance with Doyle’s mother. Waller gave himself the title of "consulting pathologist", which likely inspired Sherlock’s "consulting detective" title. Waller was said to have been bossy, arrogant, and always certain he knew the answers.

We’ll never know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s full intentions as he constructed the Sherlock Holmes character, but I can certainly see how people would interpret his description as fitting somewhere on the autism spectrum.

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Thanks for listening.

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