Last week’s class discussion touched on the drawbacks of looking to history to find autistic representation. This is especially true with fictional characters. While reading ‘A Study in Scarlet’, it seemed apparent that in the eagerness to find autistic individuals in fiction, Sherlock Holmes has been mislabelled. Although he does exhibit some symptoms of autism, he behaves neurotypically in many other ways.
There is some validity to the argument that Sherlock Holmes is on the autism spectrum; he has been represented in many adaptations throughout history, and in some of these is he ‘more autistic’ than in others (one notable example is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in BBC’s Sherlock). Nevertheless, the original Sherlock Holmes created by Arthur Conan Doyle is not characterised as autistic. This thought prompted me to do a little sleuthing of my own. After reviewing the DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for ASD, I concluded that Doyle’s version of Sherlock Holmes does display some behaviours consistent with the autism spectrum, which are ‘absence of interest in peers’ and ‘highly restricted, fixated interests’ (American Psychiatric Association 2013). Yet these two isolated symptoms do not signify that he has ASD. In fact, ‘A Study in Scarlet’ yields more evidence that Holmes is not autistic than evidence that he is.
Rather than displaying ‘a lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication’ (American Psychiatric Association 2013), Sherlock is lively and animated, ‘looking as delighted as a child with a new toy’ (Doyle 1887). His antisocial behaviour towards Lestrade and Gregson can be interpreted as a reflection of his dislike for them rather than a signifier of ASD. When interacting with Watson, Holmes has no trouble in carrying a ‘normal back-and-forth conversation’ or ‘sharing…interests’ (American Psychiatric Association 2013). The two form a fast friendship, whereas many people with autism have difficulty in establishing new relationships. Though Holmes does have a daily routine (waking early, eating breakfast, and meeting with clients), it is not adhered to so intensely as to classify it as a ritual; he shows no distress at changing this routine when an investigation arises. The symptoms of autism are absent in the majority of Sherlock’s behaviours, thus forming my opinion that this character is not on the spectrum.
Sherlock Holmes may be a popular example of autistic representation due to the way in which he is portrayed in adaptations of the series. It is important to note that while these versions of the character may be on the autism spectrum, Sherlock as envisioned by Arthur Conan Doyle displays very few symptoms of ASD. His methods of interaction and patterns of behaviour are rather neurotypical. Though he is ‘eccentric’ (Doyle 1887) in his interests, this does not equate to him having autism.
American Psychiatric Association 2013, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition: DSM-5, American Psychiatric Publishing.
Conan Doyle, A 1887, A Study in Scarlet. Available from: https://sherlock-holm.es/stories/pdf/a4/1-sided/stud.pdf. [20 September 2016].