Is Sherlock Holmes autistic? The question is compelling, but the difficulties presented by the puzzle that is the savant detective make it impossible to say for certain.
Firstly, Holmes is indeed a fictional character. There are aspects of fiction which need not (and therefore frequently do not) conform to the limits of reality, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s mysteries are not immune to this particular aspect of fiction. Sherlock Holmes was a remarkable man, insofar as he existed in the confines of Conan Doyle’s mind.
Secondly, as we discussed in class regarding both Holmes and Bartleby, autism did not yet technically exist in the minds of Victorian England; it wouldn’t become a valid diagnosis, and therefore a known condition, until the 20th century. For this reason, we know that Conan Doyle couldn’t have been intending to write a specifically autistic character, simply because the idea of autism and all the traits associated with it did not yet “exist” in the public mind.
We are left, therefore, with an interesting point of inquiry that must inevitably have no firm answer. As we discussed in class, there are both supportive and discouraging pieces of evidence for placing Sherlock Holmes on the spectrum. I had all these in mind while reading Hound of the Baskervilles, and found once again that I could reach no satisfactory conclusion. Holmes exhibits some traits commonly identified with autism, to be sure, but the ease with which he appears to navigate social and emotional communication and recognizes emotions in others (particularly in Watson) continues to throw me for a loop. The lack of an emotional disconnect makes me feel that even though we’re looking at a savant, we are not, perhaps, looking at an autistic savant.
I wonder, at times, whether it is Watson’s impressions of Holmes that create this emotional quality to their interactions. Certainly Holmes’s interactions with Laura Lyons, Henry Baskerville, and others in this chapter are much more callous and unconcerned–and yet, Holmes seems almost unable to forgive himself when Henry Baskerville is injured by the titular hound. Though the circumstances were beyond his control and the injury is minor (more shock than anything else), Holmes seems to feel personally responsible for Sir Henry’s condition: “We owe you a deep apology, Sir Henry, for having exposed you to this fright.” he says immediately after the event; later, he comments, “That Sir Henry should have been exposed to this is, I must confess, a reproach to my management of the case . . .”
There are, of course, problems with viewing Sherlock as autistic, as we discussed in class. For one, not all those on the spectrum have savant qualities, and savant qualities are not restricted to those with autism. That autism has been defined by those high-functioning, savant individuals like Temple Grandin and Raymond Babbitt creates a stereotype that has consequences for all those on the spectrum. I look forward to our in-class discussion on this topic, as I find myself stumped on where to go next.
Loftis, Sonya F. “The Autistic Detective: Sherlock Holmes and his Legacy.” Disability Studies Quarterly 34.4 (2014). Web. 3 Oct. 2016. <http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3728/3791>.