Tag Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Schweda Analysis 3: Baskerville

After our discussion last Monday, I decided to further research the term “savant” in relationship to autism and Sherlock Holmes.  To begin with the absolute basics, Meriam-Webster defines the word savant as either “a person who knows a lot about a particular subject” or “a person who does not have normal intelligence but who has very unusual mental abilities that other people do not have”.  With his unique detective skills, Sherlock Holmes clearly fits the first definition however I’m not 100% sold on the second part. It’s hard to clearly define “normal intelligence” but Sherlock Holmes has at least the basic functions to make it in the real world without a strong dependence on any sort of assistance (besides splitting rent with Watson, although that’s not a completely unusual circumstance).

From there, I decided to research the autistic savant. The Wisconsin Medical Society states that “the combination of Autistic Disorder + extraordinary special abilities + remarkable memory is the autistic savant”. I think it is very important to note that savant skills are not limited to autistic persons, nor are all autistic persons savants.  Therefore, I do not think it is extreme to label Sherlock Holmes as only savant rather than autistic, since they’re separate entities. Last week I found an article in the Huffington Post that suggests viewing Sherlock Holmes as an “autistic savant” can harm society’s (already poor) understanding of autism:

“If people are lead to regard Holmes as the autistic archetype, then it minimizes the full range of behaviors that people with ASD exhibit. People with autism won’t be seen as needing understanding and support, instead they’ll be expected to be geniuses with a quirky forthrightness unencumbered by social inhibition, when the reality is far more complex.”

As I stated last week in my comment, Sherlock Holmes is well known for his quirks and sometimes peculiar behavior but there’s no evidence that the writer intended for this to be signs of autism (especially since the diagnosis didn’t exist when the original stories we have read were wrote). I think it is important to repeat my observation from last week.  If the general public begin to associate Sherlock Holmes’ behaviors with what they think is ASD, they won’t understand the entire spectrum.  Instead, they’ll associate quirks and seemingly odd behaviors with autism without understanding the full diagnosis.

In conclusion, after reading both short stories, I think it’s safe to say Sherlock Holmes is a savant.  However, concluding he’s on the autistic spectrum has the possibility to invalidate the actual diagnosis in real people with ASD.




Week Four Review

Hard to believe that we have been together a month already.  The midterm is looming–only two weeks away–and on this front, there is important news: the class unanimously voted to write a take-home essay instead of a sit-down exam, so we changed plans accordingly.  I will know more about the take-home essay by next week, but I am anticipating a short essay (6-7) with a choice of writing prompts.  Hope this sounds good.

With Sherlock Holmes on deck, we started with a two-minute mystery supplied by Donald Sobol (see Writing Response 3)  The goal was to test all of your observational powers and demonstrate the lasting appeal of the detective genre.  Congrats to Dan and Heather, both of whom were correct in solving the crime.  I also suggested that savant-like observational skills is part of a stereotypical depiction of autism, a character type that is based on Sherlock Holmes but shows up again and again, particularly in young adult works with autistic characters (see Curious Incident and Colin Fischer, for example).  From here, we moved to the central argument of the class: namely, that when we diagnose fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes with autism, we reveal and reinforce stereotypical understandings of the neurodevelopmental disorder.  Being extraordinarily observant is only one part of the stereotype. In her outstanding critical article and the Sherlock Holmes autism diagnosis, Sonya Loftis fleshes out the stereotype more fully. It includes:

  • Savant observational skills
  • Obsessive interest in a narrow subject
  • Social cluelessness
  • Emotional distance

We then broke into groups, with each group examining one of the subareas above and finding a) Two examples that reinforce the stereotype and b) one example that seems to complicate it.  Our findings are compiled below:


Sherlock Holmes displays his savant observational skill at least twice. The first time we noticed it was when he was able to tell that the get away horse had one new shoe and three old shoes. This can be found at the beginning of Chapter Four:

“There’s no room for a mistake,” he answered. “The very first thing which I observed on arriving there was that a cab had made two ruts with its wheels close to the curb. Now, up to last night, we have had no rain for a week, so that those wheels which left such a deep impression must have been there during the night. There were the marks of the horse’s hoofs, too, the outline of one of which was far more clearly cut than that of the other three, showing that that was a new shoe. Since the cab was there after the rain began, and was not there at any time during the morning — I have Gregson’s word for that — it follows that it must have been there during the night, and, therefore, that it brought those two individuals to the house.”

The second time we noticed it was when he realized that the pills – the pills he had never seen until after that moment – were the murder weapon and then proceded to demonstrate what the pills did. This can be found in Chapter Seven:

      “And there was nothing else?” Holmes asked.

“Nothing of any importance. The man’s novel, with which he had read himself to sleep was lying upon the bed, and his pipe was on a chair beside him. There was a glass of water on the table, and on the window-sill a small chip ointment box containing a couple of pills.”

Sherlock Holmes sprang from his chair with an exclamation of delight.

“The last link,” he cried, exultantly. “My case is complete.”

“I will now cut one of these pills in two,” said Holmes, and drawing his penknife he suited the action to the word. “One half we return into the box for future purposes. The other half I will place in this wine glass, in which is a teaspoonful of water. You perceive that our friend, the Doctor, is right, and that it readily dissolves.”

“This may be very interesting,” said Lestrade, in the injured tone of one who suspects that he is being laughed at, “I cannot see, however, what it has to do with the death of Mr. Joseph Stangerson.”

  • Ability to determine that Watson served in Afghanistan. ““How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.” “How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment” (6).
  • “I wonder what that fellow is looking for?” I asked, pointing to a stalwart, plainly-dressed individual who was walking slowly down the other side of the street, looking anxiously at the numbers. He had a large blue envelope in his hand, and was evidently the bearer of a message. “You mean the retired sergeant of Marines,” said Sherlock Holmes. “Brag and bounce!” thought I to myself. “He knows that I cannot verify his guess” (12). Sherlock correctly observes that the man was a retired sergeant.

Our one complication was that contrary to Watson’s thought that he wasn’t knowledgeable about literature but Sherlock proves that he is. His focus is not so narrow as to be only observational when it comes to crime and crime solving – Sherlock Holmes has other interests as well.


“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” (p 9)

  • He doesn’t care about the “facts” in the statement above. Also, he impatiently interrupted midway through a conversation.

“Well done!” said Holmes in an encouraging voice. “Really, Gregson, you are getting along. We shall make something of you yet.” (p 27)

  • Normally, you’d make it clear that you were “joking” about something, but Holmes said it in an encouraging voice meaning that he truly meant what he said as a compliment which another person wouldn’t consider a compliment.

” How on earth did you know that?”I asked in astonishment. “Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself. “The question now is about hemoglobin. No doubt you see the significance of this discovery of mine?” (6-7)

“Have you read Gaboriau’s works?” I asked. “Does Lecoq come up to your idea of a detective?”… ” It might be made a textbook for detectives to teach them what to avoid” (11-12).

(Watson compliments Holmes)

My companion flushed up with pleasure at my words, and the earnest way in which I uttered them. I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty. (p 18)

  • Holmes was “blushing” at the compliment, meaning that he realized he was being complimented, which is a normal reaction to a compliment like that.

“‘I  have no time for trifles”, he (Sherlock) answered brusquely; then with a smile, “Excuse my rudeness. You broke the thread of my thoughts; but perhaps it is as well”. (12)


  1. p. 6 (CR) “No; he is not a man who is easy to draw out, though he can be communicative enough when fancy seizes him.”
  2. p. 9 (CR) “I was on the point of asking him what work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one.”


  1. p. 10 (CR) “Leaning back in his arm char of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts that possessed him…”

The two proofs show the negative stereotype about being on the autism spectrum, emotional distance in particular. The first proof is Stamford talking about Holmes and how, essentially, he is a tough nut to crack, unless talking about something that interests him. The second proof is Watson describing an encounter where he was uncomfortable asking any further questions because he knows Holmes would react adversely.

The complication shows that Holmes expresses himself through music, and in the presence of other people.


Our first textual proof is in the passage where Watson is describing Holmes’ limits, claiming “he appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century”, and our second textual proof was that he know over a hundred kinds of pipe and ashes by heart. As a bonus, we also found he has a habit of walking around London scoping out different kinds of dirt, which can be related to his crime solving and investigations

Our complication is that Watson claims that Holmes has no knowledge of Literature or Philosophy, but quotes a French Philosopher in chapter 6.

Follow Up Discussion
In our following discussion of the text, we talked about the above issues at length.  I introduced two more possible complications that make the easy diagnosis of Holmes as ASD just a little murkier:   They are as follows:

  • The unreliable narrator. John Watson (especially in the television series Sherlock) displays symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  His own deviation from the neurotypical norm, in other words, cancels out our immediate assumption that he, as narrator, is our NT stand-in.
  • Criminality.  The Mormons are the real villains of the story (Jefferson Hope is a largely sympathetic criminal).  Doyle shows them to be greedy, lustful, murderous, and controlling.  Doyle was certainly playing on popular opinion (even in England) particularly after the sinister events of the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1857.  To stretch things a bit, if the Mormon followers are considered “crazy” by mainstream Protestant Christians, then there is a link here between criminality and neurodivergence.  Holmes himself (again, especially in the television series) is always on the cusp of criminal activity.  In other words, the poorhouse (which gives way to the state mental asylum) is filling up quickly: the poor, the insane, and the criminal are all housed there.

Lastly, one student asked a very good question last night: Are we supposed to be seeing these characters as autistic, or not supposed to be seeing them as autistic?  My answer was to suggest that while viewing Sherlock Holmes as an autistic character could be empowering to ASD individuals and community (what a character!) , there is also a peril in seeing autism only as it is depicted in the character of Sherlock Holmes and his many, many imitators.  Until next week.

Marriage, Analysis Two

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].

Fricke, Analysis 2: Sherlock Holmes

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


Also interesting: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/magazine/06diagnosis-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1