Sherlock Holmes: scientist, chemist, violin enthusiast—and undoubtedly the most famous detective in literature. His eccentricities are many, his knowledge profound, and his knack for solving crimes inexplicable. And yet, his social inadequacy and his experience with matters of the heart prove that Sherlock Holmes isn’t an expert in all areas of life. In fact, upon further scrutiny, his knowledge proves to be quite specialized, serving the specific purpose of helping him to solve crimes as a consulting detective. The extent to which this is true is especially apparent when, in A Study in Scarlett, Sherlock reveals that he didn’t know that the earth revolved around the sun. How could this be! Surely a genius such as Holmes would know this most basic of facts . . . but the knowledge does nothing to help him solve a mystery, and so he promptly purges this knowledge from his mind, lest it take up space for more meaningful knowledge (like which reagent is precipitated by hemoglobin, and nothing else).
It has been widely speculated that Holmes’ character has ASD or the now somewhat obsolete Asperger’s, and it’s a simple matter to see why. He has highly specialized interests, difficulty relating to others, and will talk at length about topics that seem to interest only him (without him realizing he’s the only interested party). The fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and not an actual person adds difficulty to the question of diagnosis. However, I think it would be hard to make a concrete diagnosis anyway, especially given the incredibly diverse nature of ASD. Is Holmes autistic, or does he merely have personality “quirks”? It brings to mind the discussion about who decides what neurodivergent is (hint: it’s not the neurodivergent).
I stumbled upon an interesting article after completing the reading. Author Susan Loftis warned that although talking about Holmes as having ASD may seem like a positive notion at first, it could feed into tropes about autism that perpetuate harmful stereotypes:
Furthermore, the presumably redemptive fiction of the autistic hero often proves oddly dehumanizing: even as his incredible feats of deduction are praised as a work of genius, Holmes is objectified by his beloved Watson, who constantly compares the brilliant sleuth to machines and repeatedly describes him as “inhuman” (2014).
We talked about this when discussing Raymond in Rain Man. It seems authors and film makers struggle with the problem of how to represent autism with a character that doesn’t play into tropes and stereotypes, while simultaneously making it clear that the character is autistic. I guess it might be too much to ask to consult with actual people with ASD /sarcasm/. Though to be clear, I’m not trying to put Doyle in the hot seat. Asperger’s wasn’t even a thing when he created Sherlock Holmes, so playing off of the stereotypes of Asperger’s wasn’t even possible, not on purpose anyway. Still, current media has formed a template of sorts and Holmes happens to fit into quite nicely. He’s the detective savant; aloof and cold, and just a little too familiar with crime. How long will such an individual be satisfied with merely solving crimes? It’s this sort of mindset that adds to the troubling and harmful notion that those with ASD are dangerous and cold-blooded, a sort of mystery in itself. “The other characters dwell on Holmes’s autistic traits as symbols of mystery and exoticism, thus casting the character with autism as a puzzle in need of a neurotypical solution” (Loftis). It’s at this point that people stop viewing neurodivergent individuals as human, and start to objectify them in their fascination.
Loftis is pretty critical of the portrayal of Holmes as having Asperger’s. I think her comments are justified, but I also feel that it is still important to keep trying to get it right. Though the dangers of stereotyping are many, representation in media and literature is still vital.
Loftis, S. (2014). The autistic detective: Sherlock Holmes and his legacy. Disability Studies Quarterly, 34. http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3728/3791