Johnson- Analysis 2: Sherlock Holmes

When I was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes I was in elementary school, but all I knew about him was that he was some kind of outstanding detective, and the best in the business. I never got too into his stories or anything like that, so growing up that’s pretty much all I knew about him. As I began reading “A Study in Scarlet”, I quickly began questioning Holmes and his personality. The part of the story that really caught my attention was towards the beginning when he was first introduced to Watson and seemed to have magically known (with no prior knowledge) that his “new friend” had just recently returned from Afghanistan. How does someone just know that? I was instantly skeptical, thinking that someone had told him, or since we are reading this book in a class based on autism in fiction that possibly this incident symbolized a special ability that Holmes possessed.

As I continued reading, I paused to do some side research. There were some instances regarding Holmes’ personality that could have been indicators that he was on the spectrum. Immediately I wanted to see what other people had to say about that. All I typed in to Google was “Sherlock Holmes autism” and of course a million sources popped up. However, most of those sources had to deal with the TV shows created about the fictional character. Still curious, I clicked on a few diverse links regarding the TV show and saw that people seemed to be torn on whether or not to diagnose a fictional character with autism or not. Then, I decided to dig a little deeper. I typed in “How can we tell that Sherlock Holmes had autism?” and I got similar results, but a few different ones. The one that caught my eye was a search title that read “Sherlock Holmes- Autism!!??!”. This turned out to be a blog-like site where people could state their opinions on whether or not Holmes was on the spectrum. I was intrigued, so I decided to read what people had to say. Many people were certain that he was on the spectrum, while others said they had never thought about his behavior as autistic behavior. Some people were completely against the idea saying that since the medical term “autism” wasn’t even in existence at the time the stories were written, there is no way he could be autistic. Others even pointed out that their teachers had taught them in school that Sherlock Holmes was autistic, so therefore they believed it was absolutely true with no questioning of it.

Deciding to throw my own opinion into the mix, I think it’s possible that Holmes could have been on the spectrum given that he did illustrate symptoms of autism through his detective work, and outside of it as well. However, I do think in some ways it is a long shot to say that certainly the author of the stories was trying to make readers see that there was something wrong with Holmes, and that he was different and excelled at different things for a reason. The idea is very interesting to think about, and I wouldn’t doubt that the author of the stories didn’t make Holmes’ character the way he did just for pure entertainment.




3 thoughts on “Johnson- Analysis 2: Sherlock Holmes

  1. Amanda R

    I’m a huge fan of the show Sherlock and of the show Elementary – both are TV shows about Sherlock Holmes. When we got this assignment I instantly thought of the most popular quote from Sherlock: “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research”
    Sherlock says this to a cop who calls him a psychopath. Because of this, autism never crossed my mind, because I had sociopathy in my head. Like you, I did some googling of my own. I came across an article in which a doctor says that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes was most likely a primary psychopath, which is:

    “A primary psychopath usually gets his or her defining characteristics as a result of a combination of genes, brain connections, and environment, said Fallon. This type of person doesn’t typically respond to punishment, fear, stress, or disapproval, and often lacks empathy. Most primary psychopaths, Fallon added, mimic emotions and understand them cognitively, but do not feel them.”

    That seems to be similar to the Holmes we have read. Additionally, I happen to be reading The Sociopath Next Door by Dr. Martha Stout and what she says about sociopaths also seems to describe Holmes. Such as the need to “win” and the lack of empathy. So what is the difference between psychopath and sociopath? Well, the two seem to be used interchangeably. Neither are in DSM-5, instead both are officially called “antisocial personality disorder.” So the next question would be – what is the difference between autism and sociopathy?

    That question brought up loads of articles. People with antisocial personality disorder share some similar characteristics with those with autism, as the article below says, “Aspects of their [sociopaths] behavior may superficially resemble autism.” But when you break it down, they obviously aren’t the same. As the article and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual states, “Autism Spectrum Disorders are characterized by impairments in communication and social interaction… Only a minority of individuals with autism spectrum disorder live and work independently in adulthood.” Whereas sociopaths are incredibly independent and look down on others who need help from others.

    I can’t say whether or not Holmes is autistic or a sociopath. It’s hard enough to diagnose a real person, diagnosing fictional character is nearly impossible. But he does have some traits similar to both autism and sociopathy.


  2. Haley

    Like you, it has been forever and a day (since middle school) that I read or talked about Sherlock Holmes and seeing this on the reading list after knowing the direction of this class, it all started to make sense. I don’t want to jump in and diagnose, but I think there is something interesting going on here. Sherlock, who needs to be incredibly intelligent and focused for the stories to work, is portrayed as eccentric and odd and someone hard to live with, according to Stamford. It seems that this is the case frequently, that those who are incredibly intelligent can’t possibly be anything but eccentric, mildly sociopathic (as another commentator wrote), and strange. Even without any knowledge of the spectrum, writers and other such character creators seem to have had this preconception of people who are neurodivergent.

    That being said, I can easily see how Holmes could be classified on the spectrum somewhere given how he is written. His tendency to only know about what interests him, his intense focus, his peculiar sense of how to do things and such seems to make him a candidate.

    I think that the television shows have picked up on this as well, though I have no authority or credibility as I have never seen them. I googled and came up with the same results and it is quite the hot topic among Sherlock fans and readers. I think that comment you mention, about someone saying that autism wasn’t recognized so therefore how could he have been autistic, is interesting. I think it goes back to what I talked about above – the term may not have been there, but clearly Doyle and other writers had an idea of what kind of person they wanted to write for a specific part. Autism as a word may not have existed, but individuals with autism certainly did.

    I think it would be most interesting to know is others on the spectrum would value his being labeled as on the spectrum. Sherlock Holmes is so very iconic and I wonder if that is comforting or disconcerting. What kind of representation is Holmes to those who possibly relate? I would like to know.


  3. racheltrisch

    I also had a similar experience being introduced to Sherlock Holmes. I was familiar with his name, and I knew that he was a character in famous mystery novels, but other than that I did not have too much background knowledge on him.
    As I read “A Study in Scarlet”, it became clear to me that Holmes was not the average detective. The author describes him as being, “A little queer in his ideas-an enthusiast in some branches of science.” And this immediately jumped out at me because of our studies with ASD. One of the indicators that someone may be on the spectrum include being overly-enthusiastic or obsessive over certain subjects, so this line was one of many that led me to believe that Sherlock may be an autistic character.
    Like you, after reading that particular section, I started doing some research of my own on this character. There were several interesting articles and blog posts discussing this topic, but one that particularly caught my eye was an article published on Psychology Today entitled, “Did Sherlock Holmes Have Asperger’s Syndrome?” Since we now no longer classify Asperger’s syndrome as a separate disease, but rather an area on the spectrum, I decided to check this article out.
    In this article, the author goes over the many traits that Holmes exhibits that have led others to question whether he is an autistic character: his remarkable memory and observation skills and his inability to relate to other people. However, what I found most interesting about this article was a question posed by the author: “How did Conan Doyle manage to craft this character over 100 years ago, considering that the Austrian psychiatrist Dr. Hans Asperger didn’t show up to propose the syndrome until 1944?” The article then goes on to describe different characteristics of the author himself that may have indicated that he was actually drawing on characteristics he himself had, such as his tendency to over-achieve and his dedication to his work. He also cites that since he had been a physician, he was frequently exposed to all different types of people, both neurotypical and neurodivergent.
    It is very interesting to see the traits of Sherlock Holmes that reflect the characteristics of ASD even before Asperger’s or the spectrum had been used in medical practices. These were not considered diagnosable disorders, yet here is a character who still fits many of the characteristics for ASD despite not being recognized in medicine. I can only imagine how helpful and comforting it may have been to individuals during this time to see themselves reflected in a character who was not only able to live an exciting life despite of his disorder, but how it actually helped him become successful. I think this may be part of the reason why his books are still popular to this day. Even though we have come a long way in the recognition and acknowledgement of ASD, many protagonists in movies and literature are still neurotypical people. There are so many people in the world who are on the spectrum or may struggle with other mental health issues, and it is reassuring to see those who share our characteristics reflected in literature.




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