Sherlock, Autism, and the Cultural Politics of Representation
It is a surreal, validating experience to find oneself reproduced in the writing of another; this is doubly true when such a miraculous happening is rare. Thus, before considering the social matter of representation, there is a simple, yet powerful emotional significance to the experience of finding oneself in a work of literature. While there are political consequences to representation that go beyond the personal, one must always remember that the humanizing realization that one is not alone is more than an abstract societal benefit conjured up by academics – it is a matter of personal importance.
Autistic people (here, identity first language is used instead of person first language is meant out of respect for the Autistic community, which generally objects to person first language) hunger for this kind of representation; too often, offensive perspectives on Autistic ways of being color the media representation we receive. Autistic characters are presented as infallible angels who are too innocent for their own good, malevolent monsters who ruin the lives of everyone they touch, socially clueless monsters who cannot help but treat everyone around them with disdain, or superhuman savants ripped straight from the frames of Rain Man. Autistic people are everything, it seems, except people. Autistic characters are denied complexity of representation on the grounds that somehow, Autism negates humanity – people marked by Autism become window dressing on the display of neurotypical existence, or parodic assemblages of amusing idiosyncrasies, or the source of morally uplifting tropes – the term “inspiration porn” comes to mind.
Autistic writers have done a great deal of work to change this situation for the better. While Autistic people have crafted original prose dealing with Autistic identity, a more curious phenomenon arises out of the production of fan texts that reflect the possible Autistic identities of established media icons. The present paper explores what fan parlance calls the “Autistic!Sherlock” headcanon, which imagines the legendary fictional detective as an Autistic person. This phenomenon raises questions that existing fan studies literature about fandom only partially answers. First, why is fanfiction such a popular vehicle for generating representation? Why does fanfiction such a useful a mode of expression for those who seek to increase the representation of a marginalized group in the media? Why do authors choose to work in fanfiction rather than “original fiction”? Maybe this is because of the potency of the meanings offered by existing characters. If creating a headcanon for a character is, in part, the observation and classification of traits in relation to an existing character, then there must be some significance to the idea that understanding that character in a specific way has some bearing on the original work that changes the way in which we interpret it.
Perhaps this change of interpretation is the motivation for the use of fanfiction in generating representation. Fanfiction is often an interpretative medium. It both analyzes the source, and clarifies elements of that work that only become present upon examination. One of the most potent examples of this comes from one of the earliest examples of modern fanfiction itself: the products of the early Star Trek fandom. While the first forays into Trek fanfiction engage largely in the sort of storytelling seen during the series’ truncated five-year mission, a subset of the emerging body of literature focused on the possibility of a romantic and deeply sexual relationship between James T. Kirk and Spock. Decades before such romances became the subject of prime-time dramas, fanfiction authors and their readership anticipated a widespread, if only partial, destabilization of heteronormative discourses on romance.
“Destabilization” is the best word to describe the work that developing Autistic headcanons of Sherlock Holmes performs on societal beliefs about disability. For a society that views Autistic existence as something to be cured, or as a malevolent being that “steals” children and replaces them with changelings, any texts that challenge this dogma are the physical artifacts of a radical act of reimagining. Writing fanfiction from a perspective informed by autism on a personal, experiential level creates a weapon that combats not autism, but the dangerous and often deadly ideologies that tell us to combat autism. On a very important level, writing fanfiction becomes a matter of life and death.
Sherlock Holmes fans produce a great deal of fanfiction that imagines the titular detective as an Autistic person. One of the features shared by the fanfiction that this text examines is that their examination of Autistic ways of being is mediated not only by the specifics of the popular semiotics of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon, but by the characters’ larger personalities. Autism becomes an way of explaining for Holmes’ existing traits, as well as a source of new ones. Further, many of the selections considered here engage issues beyond the “Autisticness” of Sherlock Holmes.
“Shipping” and Autistic Discourses of Romance
One issue that bears special significance is the issue of sexuality; those fan texts that intersect Autistic identity and the practice of “slash,” or the fan highlighting of male homoromantic and homosexual subtext into an explicit character relationship. The term itself comes from the labeling conventions of early Star Trek fanfiction, where a slash between the names “Kirk” and “Spock” denoted sexual content, while an ampersand denoted simple friendship. While the mass media fount of discourses about Autistic people portray an enforced asexuality, fanfiction presents an opportunity to counter these insufficient notions of Autistic sexuality, and present a more panoramic view.
Goldenheartedrose’s slash fanfic Acceptance portrays a Sherlock befuddled by the love he feels for John Watson and his canon wife, Mary Morstan. It does not, however, present Sherlock as somehow blissfully unaware of sexuality as a human experience: “‘I don’t want you to fuck me,’ Sherlock had said when John told him that he loved him. John had actually choked on his tea as he tried to respond to that. He blinked hard. ‘I didn’t ask-‘ ‘No, but that usually follows the words ‘I love you,’ in my experience'”
Sherlock’s response to the idea of his longtime comrade-in-arms admitting his romantic feelings demonstrates a lack of adherence to social norms displayed by Autistic people (and, in the BBC television series on which this fan text is based, by Holmes himself). Sherlock’s awareness of the nature of most human romantic relationships as being concomitantly sexual, however, demonstrates that the Autistic experience that Goldenheartedrose wants to portray is one in which awareness of social expectations is spectral, rather than binaristic. Sherlock can know that people have sex without always expressing it at the most opportune times, and this can be understood by the neurotypical characters as something other than an aberration to be corrected – John takes every care to validate Sherlock’s fear that his demisexuality will bore John, causing him to leave: “‘Sherlock, you will always be enough’”.
The sensory descriptions of sexual activity in Acceptance truly establish the text as an Autistic romance. Rather than relying on vague, aphoristic language to refer to the sensory experiences of coitus, Goldenheartedrose writes an “Autistic-friendly” series of sex scenes, favoring specific sensory descriptors, such as the texture and temperature of John’s lips, or the feeling of scar tissue. While there is a danger of overstating this case, one could reasonably argue that fan texts such as Acceptance operate as a sort of instruction manual for sexuality for Autistic people (and anyone else befuddled by the sensory experience of sexual activity). They fill a teaching role left vacant by a popular media that erases Autistic sexuality.
Another of Goldenheartedrose’s works, “Enraptured,” describes the phenomenon of “stimming” – engaging in self-stimulating, often repetitive behaviors such as spinning, rocking, or hand waving. Stimming is often negatively portrayed – it is something trained away in childhood with phrases like “quiet hands” and other tools of behavior modification. Sherlock, on being discovered in the act of stimming by John, reacts from a perspective informed by these negative attitudes about stimming – Sherlock responds, “with a hint of sarcasm, ‘By all means, stay and watch the Freak.’”. Here is a Sherlock much more invested in the politics of neurodiversity – and a John whose attitudes about autism are more complex than in Acceptance, who reacts with surprise and alarm (comparing stimming to masturbation, in terms of the shame Sherlock expresses upon being detected) rather than an initial curiosity. His attitudes shift when Sherlock explains that his shame comes from the wish that his parents had expressed to institutionalize him in childhood, and his subsequent fear that stimming – rather than the human head kept in the freezer – would be the trait that drives John away. John and Sherlock work toward a solution that preserves the detective’s privacy.
An author’s end note explains Goldenheartedrose’s ideas behind her framing of stimming, and the process by which John and Sherlock each develop ways to come to a greater understanding of it. John is presented as a typical doctor, “who [would] have treated few, if any Autistic adults,” who makes his discovery based on a “frank talk” rather than through research because of the “pathological” nature of medical understandings of autism. The great care taken to establish John as a socially conscious practitioner, who works to combat his own attitudes rather than Sherlock’s autism, come both from Goldenheartedrose’s own experiences as an Autistic person, and from an experience with medical ableism that correlates with that identity.
Sherlock as an Autistic Child
“A Lesson in Mortality” by compos_dementis, deviates from the trend established by the first two works examined here, in that it portrays a much younger, less verbal Sherlock: “Sherlock, six years old, has only just begun talking a few months prior, but he knows enough words to communicate his needs and desires. The rest, he can accomplish with body language, which he uses now by looking up at his older brother in distress.”
Sherlock is learning an early lesson about death from his elder brother, who takes patient care to explain why a “bird, lying motionless in his hands” will not move. Sherlock’s diction reflects his limited verbal expression – rather than the monologues for which he is renowned, most of his speech is in short, clipped sentences: “Why?,” “Will you die?,” “Can we go inside now?”. The social implications of this text feature are twofold: Sherlock’s limited verbality being understood as a function of age, this could either be an attempt to create more diverse Sherlock portrayals, or a problematic linking between non-verbal communication and immaturity.
In terms of Sherlock Holmes as a character, reading him as a child gives us an opportunity to humanize him. Seeing Sherlock Holmes perplexed by the very thing that will establish him as a cultural landmark grants a level of depth that contemporary portrayals eschew in favor of the competent, savvy figure that, for all his foibles, is ultimately successful. From an optimistic reading, we can see “A Lesson in Mortality” as an example of fanfiction supplementing the lacunae left by canon.
The text’s focus on Sherlock’s childhood, however, exposes one of the problematic gaps in contemporary autism fiction: specifically, the lack of fiction centered upon Autistic adults. Focusing for a moment on the childhood of Sherlock Holmes, the text lapses into another of the disquieting tropes of autism fiction, in which stories ostensibly about Autistic people become about their caretakers. In this case, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft fills the role of caretaker, who patiently tolerates Sherlock’s questioning, and utters a “sigh […] when Sherlock says things that are out of line”. Mycroft speaks more, he placates Sherlock; ultimately, Sherlock’s concern for the bird is an Autistic problem that requires a neurotypical solution.
It would be naïve to imagine a revolutionary spectrum of Autistic representation on which Goldenheartedrose’s Acceptance is on the radical end and compos_dementis’ “A Lesson in Mortality” is on the conservative end; this logic ruthlessly ignores the greater relationship with the source material that enriches “Lesson.” Still, the text serves as a reminder that, while it would be satisfying to ascribe some sort of uniform political goal to autism headcanons, not all Autistic!Sherlocks are created equal.
When Fanfiction Falls Short
One last sample embodies this complicated reality: WolfKomoki’s “Disabled but not incompetent” [sic], a coming out story in which, similar to “Enraptured,” Sherlock’s Autistic idiosyncrasies lead to difficult conversations between he and his flatmate. The primary difference, however, is that, unlike in the aforementioned work by Goldenheartedrose, WolfKomoki does not shy away from diagnostic labels. Another locus of variation is in the medical knowledge attributed to Dr. Watson. Rather than Goldenheartedrose’ insistence on realism, as to the experience of general practitioners with Autistic adults, WolfKomoki envisions a John Watson with his equivalent of Sherlock’s deductive stance – “doctor mode” in the author’s parlance – that enables him to diagnose Sherlock on sight . The differences embody a somewhat utopian attitude toward diagnostic labeling, in which being labeled “Autistic” has no consequence, save for momentary awkwardness.
The text’s engagement with one of the trademark Autistic experiences – the shutdown – is of particular interest. Sherlock, coping with a “sensory overload,” uses a stim as a coping mechanism. While this carries a level of realism, the way in which the observation of Sherlock’s repetitive behavior is the only trait observed before John “diagnoses” his partner reduces autism is reduced to a series of traits, rather than something that can only be understood holistically. At times, the text generalizes excessively, remarking that “any Autistic hates the city”. This, as well as the use of a reference to computers to understand a shutdown, indicates a dependence on traditional autism tropes.
The strength of “Disabled but not incompetent” is that it explores the possibility of understanding disability as something so mundane as to be literally unremarkable: when John realizes that Sherlock also has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and exclaims to the effect, the famed sleuth remarks in dull surprise that he must not have told the physician. While the fic description discusses the possibility that Sherlock would conceal his neurodivergence, the opposite appears to be the case – Sherlock accepts himself as different, and does not understand what all the commotion could possibly be about.
WolfKomoki’s work straddles the various realities of autism discourse and Autistic living. It engages in essentialist discussions of Autistic experience, but also presents disability as something fully unremarkable. Diagnosis becomes classification without consequences, but it remains uncertain whether this is a utopian reimagining of disability as a meaningless category, or an uncritical erasure of the real and incredible danger that disabled people face due to the ideologies that construct them as such. No work is unproblematic, but “Disabled but not incompetent” half-heartedly engages multiple opposing discourses about disability (and specifically autism) to the point that the tone is confused, rather than even-handed.
Fanfiction that depicts Sherlock Holmes as being “on the spectrum” diversifies Autistic representation in the media, in that each fanfic, no matter how it engages Autistic existence and associated issues, creates an image of autism that is not bound by what society thinks about autism. However, simply because these works generally challenge societal norms regarding autism, does not mean that offensive or harmful media representation do not come out. Authors’ ideas of autism as a phenomenon are shaped by the already society’s views about autism.
However, just because the driving idea of these fan works is the idea that Sherlock could be Autistic, does not mean that these texts exist solely to explore autism. Diversifying the available representations of autism means more than creating an army of stimming Sherlocks. It creates a space in which Autistic being is seen with all of the elements of life. Because of this, it combats the belief that the life of an Autistic person is somehow incomplete, or somehow is “swallowed up” or “consumed” by autism. Autistic people can have sex, have relationships, and feel love like anyone else. Contemporary media would argue otherwise, and it is in that respect that fanfiction has a very important role in shaping how people see Autistic people.
Coming to explore Autistic identity, however, is not merely a matter of representation for its own sake. It is bound up in the emotional reality that surrounds difference in a society that does not value it. While it may be an oversell to make such a statement about fiction that, on a basic level, imagines famous characters engaging in novel (and often saucy) situations, engages and challenges the self to confront the possibility of other selves. At that level, diversifying Autistic representation becomes a process of expanding human horizons.
 For the purposes of this article, multichapter fanfiction titles are formatted under the same conventions as those for books, and “oneshot” fanfiction using the conventions for short stories.
Bascom, Julia. “Quiet Hands.” Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking. Ed. Julia Bascom. Washington D.C.: The Autistic Press. 2012. Ebook.
Coppa, Francesca. “A Brief History of Media Fandom.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities In the Age of the Internet. Ed. Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers. 2006. Ebook.
Compos_dementis (pseud.). “A Lesson in Mortality.” Archive of Our Own. 7 March 2014. Web.
Goldenheartedrose (pseud.). Acceptance. Archive of Our Own. 12 January 2014. Web.
—-. “Enraptured.” Archive of Our Own. 13 April 2012. Web.
Gross, Zoe. “Metaphor Stole My Autism: The Social Construction of Autism as Separable from
Personhood, and its Effect on Policy, Funding, and Perception.” Loud Hands: Autistic
People, Speaking. Ed. Julia Bascom. Washington D.C.: The Autistic Press. 2012. Ebook.
Grossman, Lev. “Foreword.” Fic: Why Fanfiction is Taking Over the World. Ed. Anne Jamison. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc. 2013. Ebook.
Kras, Joseph. “The ‘Ransom Notes’ Affair: When the Neurodiversity Movement Came of Age.” Disability Studies Quarterly. 30:1. 2010. Web.
WolfKomoki (pseud.). “Disabled but not incompetent.” Archive of Our Own. 2 March 2014. Web.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
This was a very interesting presentation. Having an adult son with AS, I have wondered about Sherlock. With respect for the clinicians, their views are convincing, although I would like to see the studies to which they refer. Brain studies differ from behavior/symptomatic study. Medicine is disease oriented, and using scans to diagnose is time and financially prohibitive. I have never seen the BBC Sherlock as I am in the US. The mental health systems have significant differences. In the US licensed psychologists (LMFT/PhD) and licensed Masters level professional counselors (LPC), as well as Masters in Social Work (LMSW/LCSW) are permitted to diagnose. It would be interesting to have a panel discussion on the “Elementary” Sherlock of CBS, hearing from a cross-section of diagnosticians using the DSM-V.
I, too, would like to see more exploration of this particular linkage between the Sherlock Holmes character and the idea of autism, but I’d hate to see the conversation limited to the paradigm of diagnosis, or made open only to those who can “diagnose” or “identify” a patient as having AS. Certainly, there should be room for the community of people like your son (and I, as someone else’s adult son with AS) to comment on the ways in which we see ourselves (or don’t) in certain media representations.
As an aside, the BBC Sherlock is on Netflix, and sometimes runs on PBS. I think you’d find Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock might remind you quite a bit of your son.
This is a really interesting article that raises and addresses a good topic. Well done and please keep up the hard work!
I delight in Sherlock; I see him as one of a growing collection of positive depictions of Asperger’s on television. Mr. Holmes, Sheldon Cooper, Temperance Brenneman on “Bones”, Spencer Reid on “Criminal Minds”, Abed Nadir on “Community”–all positive, and three of them have the preface “Dr.” before their names.
Here’s another one: Rebecca Blithely from the CBC’s Strange Empire, which you can easily find online, and who also has Dr. before her name, albeit as a result of some, shall we say, unique circumstances.
I delight in Abed, not so much in Sheldon, mostly because of the way in which the others treat him as some kind of alien creature. Granted, Sheldon doesn’t help his own case that much, but we could chalk that up to the writers.
It’s interesting to see a version of Sherlock Holmes that I can kind of relate to.
Sherlock Holmes is an autist and has Abergers. This is what makes him an excellent detective.
Certainly, you could say it’s a quality determined by the character trait of “detective,” but I feel as though Sherlock experiences more than just the positive “Aspie-traits.” He’s not portratyed, usually, as very adept at reading non-material cues from people, especially in series 1, he has extreme difficulty forming close relationships, and more than that, the people around him do not always treat him in the sense of a “person.”
THANK YOU for writing this. As a person who has a friend on the spectrum and who loves Sherlock, I have thought of these questions before but thought there would be no dialogue. I have shared this article with several people on the spectrum and a part of the Baker Street Irregulars society. Again, well done.
Although this was an interesting article, I’m very disappointed to see that you didn’t cite the fanart. That’s extremely rude and really not cool at all. Posting someone else’s art without permission and credit is a major faux pas. When using someone else’s art (intellectual property!), you need to ask the artist’s permission; if permission is granted, you must give credit where it’s due. Posting other people’s art without asking their permission and crediting them is absolutely unacceptable.
The first image is from reapersun on tumblr; reapersun even says in their FAQ that they do not allow reposting of their art. The second image is from emmycroft on deviantart. It’s not okay for post that without giving them credit and asking permission. Although I couldn’t find the source for the third one, it looks like it’s a piece by reapersun that’s been cropped. Again, reapersun is never okay with people reposting their art. Because I couldn’t find a source for the last image, I suspect it’s also been cropped.
This is inexcusable. Although there’s not a way for me to contact emmycroft, I’ve contacted reapersun to let them know you’ve stolen their art. Please fix this and avoid posting art without credit and the artist’s permission in the future. Thank you.
Thank you for letting me know – I’m going to edit this post to rectify the situation.
I greatly enjoy and often identify with the BBC show, Sherlock. Not only is the series well written and powerfully executed, it shows a friendship that transcends the confines of neurotypicality and variations in the human experience.
I am glad that this figure, whether the books or the show is used as inspiration, allows so many to learn to appreciate themselves and their lives, and reduce the stigma of mental differences.
He’s as much an autistic as he is a high functioning sociopath – something he describes himself as but also clearly isn’t.
I think this is more of a self imposed term that doesn’t actually have grounds in reality. When you look at the criteria of sociopathy, it goes quite against Sherlock’s actual character arc throughout the show.
Sherlock is definitely autistic. He shows so many signs of it… Obsessive interests, the way he stims, his difficulty with expressing empathy but the way that he obviously cares very deeply about certain people, the way he focuses and processes information, his picky eating, the way he got sensory overload and had a bit of a meltdown in The Hounds of Baskerville, his confusion about some social norms…. EVERYTHING.
Holmes was a fictitous character. End of, really.
A badly misplaced, simplistic take on a complex subject that deserved better.
S Holmes on TV is a series of short programs of fictional character from a BBC script writer, not to be mixed with diagnosis.
Actually they are the product of a nineteenth century doctor (Conan Doyle) who also had a naive belief in the supernatural.
While watching Sherlock I noticed an unusual familiarity with him psychologically and I am schizoid. Lo and behold my suspicions may very well be correct.
Thank you for this interesting essay. Even though i’m someone who has been diagnosed with asperger’s i’d like too voice my opinion a little. Even though i don’t see ‘labeling’ Sherlock as someone on the spectrum, i of course want to note that accurate representation is important.
Terrific article. Sherlock represents the disabled person’s place in modern life. He, proving himself valuable, turns weakness int strength through emotional force.
As the wife of an Aspergian, I have always seen Sherlock and John’s relationship in that way. Well, at least in the Mark Gatiss world. Watson even remarks to Lestrade that Holmes has Aspergers’ in Hound of Baskerville.
But esp. the instances when John is coaching Sherlock “a bit not good,” and his own handling of some of the social faux pas that occur, remind me of a natural reaction of the partners and loved ones of Aspergians.
There are a few fanfictions that write Sherlock as being diagnosed (or perhaps mis-diagnosed) as a sociopath when he was younger, to which he uses the diagnosis as an excuse later in life to distance himself from everyone else. I always loved that theory and thought it was very well thought out on the fanfic writers’ parts. Sorry I can’t remember which specific stories they are, but I’m finding it to be a rather common theme (almost fanon, in a way.) I feel like the writers of the show have already subtly addressed the fact that he really isn’t a “high functioning sociopath” by way of the events that took place in Reichenbach. Would a sociopath fake his own death in order to protect his friends? I really don’t think so, and I think we were supposed to realize that by the end of the episode. Personally, I just got lost in the terrible sadness that IS that episode and haven’t really “learned” much other than never to watch it alone again, but…yes, either they will spell it out for us in season three (or later) or we’re just supposed to be smarter than Sherlock in this case and realize that, like John has said, he is the most human being we have ever known.
This article is very interesting in that it explores two seemingly taboo ideas– taboo in the sense of main-stream media, anyway: autism and fan-fiction. I won’t try to pretend that I know much about fan-fiction or autism for that matter, but this article struck a chord with me as I have a 17 year-old autistic stepbrother who loves to read and loves even more to write fan-fiction. While I’ve only dabbled in it, ultimately deciding to “leave well enough alone”, my brother writes chapter after chapter of fan-fiction for almost every book or series that he reads. In knowing this, as I read the above article, it seems that while there is an emphasis on autistic persons being written into fiction through fan-fiction, there is more to the story than that. From what I’ve read, my brother does not write his “disability” into his work, so much as use his work as an outlet for his overly-stimulated, brilliant mind. Thus, fan-fiction, besides opening a whole new world for autistic readers, is also a therapeutic way for the autistic (and non-autistic) person to explore ideas further, in a contained way.
It’s often been suggested that Sherlock Holmes is an Aspergian autist. To anyone familiar with the condition, the evidence really just jumps out at you.
For example, autistic people often have trouble expressing emotions, particularly empathy, but, unlike psychopaths, do possess them. Hyper-awareness, which Holmes clearly has, and obsessive behaviour toward one interest with little interest for much else (in Holmes’ case, solving mysteries) is also pretty textbook for autism.
Aspergians don’t have the emotional acuity Holmes does, though – he can interpret a fleeting facial expression and understand how passion drives people, which people on the spectrum often have difficulty with. On the other hand, he does seem blissfully (though perhaps selectively?) unaware of how he affects others. I don’t think he’s actually Aspie.
An interesting study. Well done. I especially enjoyed reading your analysis “Sherlock as an autistic child.”
Thank you for exposing us to the challenges that people on the Autism spectrum face when portrayed in the media. As media consumers, we are extremely limited in our understanding of autism. Fan fiction can definitely be a medium through which our schema of a mental disorders can be modified to more accurately represent the reality. I’d also like to thank you for informing me that person-first vocabulary does not apply to those on the Autism spectrum, because it will prevent any future faux-pas I could commit when addressing an autistic person.
Very interesting to dive into a different side of fanfiction. Many people hold it in a negative light, or trivialize its use. I deeply enjoyed hearing of the success writers have received for entertaining more marginalized subjects. For many, fanfiction and social media serve as oases from a society that so often turns a blind eye. To accurately represent oneself and nonetheless find support is a wonderful thing.
Really well done article; thanks for the hard work.
I particularly appreciate your presentation of fanfiction as a way of exploring themes and ideas that can’t be properly addressed in mainstream media. Fanfic gets a lot of disrespect, but it exists for a reason; it fills a need. Understanding the limits and confines of neurotypical classifications, approaches, and prejudices is just one facet.
Sherlock is a fictional character, yes. But why do we consume fiction, if not to learn about ourselves? Sherlock and fanfic are excellent lenses for exploration.
Really interesting article (although I have to say I found some of the sentences a bit convoulted.)
I had heard of the Holmes/Watson fanfiction, but not Austic Holmes, though I’d theorised it myself, so thank you for sharing, it’s a very interesting discussion.
I have done a far article looking at the more common theory of Autism/aspergers allegory in Sci-Fi.
I would love it if you ould check it out, I was considering writing a longer version for here. http://glipho.com/francesca-turauskis/the-aspergers-allegory-in-science-fiction
This was a fascinating article especially since I do enjoy how authors characterize familiar figures through the medium of fanfiction. I particularly was struck by the careful analysis of disability that was infused throughout.
It is heartening to hear that great strides have been made in the overall representation of autism. As a huge fan of Sherlock, I am glad that it is part of the foundation for creating realistic, human representations. Shattering stereotypes is important at all levels, but I am especially happy that it applies to this show and that people are noticing. Sherlock, or it’s head writer Steven Moffat, tend to get a lot of flack for representation of women and other demographics–but this is one place where I hope everyone can agree he (and the other writers!) succeeded.
A very interesting article, however there were a few place of grammatic inconsistency that messed with the flow of the article as a whole.
I love how you presented this connection between a genre of literature/writing and a prominent social issue. These types of articles are the ones that need to be promoted and read on a wide scale, if for nothing else, just to inform the general populace of important issues they may not be aware of.
Fan Fiction itself is a category of writing which gets trashed a lot, even though it is perhaps one of the most influential forms of writing available, especially today. The point you brought up about fan fiction giving all types of people the ability to explore issues on both large and small scales, is a very valid one. Popular culture can bring people together, and when combined with fan fiction, can become a powerful force for social change. When looking at your article, its just as important for people who don’t have Autism to read as it is for people who do. I think you raised valid points about social issues and stigmas surrounding Autism and you were able to justify your argument with the exceptional connection to a popular mode of writing/self-expression. Ultimately, it makes your article, and what you have said within it, more relatable to a wider, more varied audience.
Sherlock has far better characterisation on those with autism than the cliche examples, particularly the film Rain Man. Always find it annoying that some people think of autism as Hoffman’s character, considering autism is varied.
This definitely brought up some interesting points to the fan-favorite series and which made me think a bit harder about not only how Sherlock himself is presented here, but also how autistic people are presented in all of pop culture.
Fascinating article! Thank you!
Clearly well-researched and I loved both concepts but you should have included fanfiction in the title– I was sold when I heard about Sherlock as an autistic representation but when you added in the fanfiction element I was doubly intrigued. Fanfiction is the sad step-sister of the media-verse and to see it getting some recognition for anticipating and developing trends is long overdue.
I must admit I never considered Sherlock to be autistic. If anything I saw him and Sheldon from ‘Big Bang Bang Theory’ as more reclusive and somewhat aspergerish.
I find your exploration of Sherlock’s capacities to be intriguing. I’ll be sure to take your observations into account when the new season comes around.
The most interesting part of this article for me was the section describing autistic sexuality. I definitely agree that more media out there need to portray autistic people as “just regular people” (much like we are working on adding a variety of ethnicities and sexualities into modern t.v. programs).
I enjoyed this article very much. The fanfiction references were most welcome; it’s so rare to see it analyzed. But most of all I really enjoyed seeing an article that talked about Sherlock as a potentially autistic character. I’m autistic, and I’ve always seen myself in Sherlock Holmes; consequently it’s very disappointing to me when I hear people say things like “No, he can’t possibly be autistic”. So it was a great delight to find this article on my first visit to this website. A most excellent introduction to the community, thank you very much.
Thank you for taking the time to post this. While i only really relate to his awkardness in social situations, the writers/show will always be special to me because I was unaware I had ASD. Not until I heard it mentioned and did a month of obsessive research did my life begin to make sense. I was diagnosed a few months ago. It’s all so surreal that I never heard Asperger’s mentioned until last year (I’m 29). Life is still difficult but I feel free now and not so alone in the world.
What an excellent article! Truly awesome. I’ve never been one to dive into fan fiction, though I’d certainly have enjoyed writing it in my teens years if I’d known more about it.
This is such an enlightening article for me. I agree completely with the author–diagnoses such as autism are fair too frequently misrepresented, and often by people who don’t have real knowledge on the subject. Sadly, this invites people to assume it’s all right to also make diagnoses on others as well, or tell others what they think they have. Instead, the fan fiction the author speaks of can allow a platform for people with autism to address and represent autism in the manner they experience of it or wish to show it. Fiction then becomes an incredibly important tool.
Thank you for this article. Not only is it well written and thought provoking, it was, for me personally, vindicating. I am the mom of a 14 year old boy who is somewhere in “the spectrum”-I spent his whole life defending off well-meaning, but annoying and hurtful friends and relatives who wanted me to “fix him” so that he would meet their social and behavioral expectations of what is “normal”. Im not that kind of mom. He is who he is, like I am who I am and the people who need fixing are the ones who want to do the fixing. By the way, I just started watching Sherlock and it never occured to me that he was autistic, maybe because its normal for me through my son.
Thank you for this article; I’ve been thinking rather critically about Sherlock lately as I get into the show, and this was a really important and eye-opening piece for me to read.
This was a really useful article. I think you made a slightly sweeping statement though when you suggested that the media portrays autistic people as dimensionless (not the term you used but you get what I mean) – in fact I cringe when I see hapless ASD individuals volunteering for the UK reality tv show The Undateables. To me that’s just sheer exploitation. Programme production is an art and it takes a skilful producer to produce something authentic and helpful. I don’t believe the media is entirely composed of heartless ignorant b*******s.
But I love that you helped me understand the autisticsherlock headcanon.
Thanks for sharing your article!
Reading your article was an educational experience. I can see your connection with autism in reference to Sherlock Holmes, the fanfiction and the stereotypes enforced. Your points gave a new perspective on a forgotten aspect of popular culture. Well done.
A great piece! I’m glad that you recognize the autistic community in such an understanding manner 🙂
As someone who suffers from mild autism and having a brother with severe autism, I can definitely see every point you have in this post and I have wondered the same about characters on multiple shows.
This was really well written and really informative! Representation, who is represented and who is doing the representing, is always something that needs to be considered in the media. Do you think that the fact that the BBC producers, or even the writers of fanfiction, don’t always claim that Sherlock is autistic is a detriment to representation? Especially in terms of the television show itself, do you think that it might be a way to appeal to a certain audience without actually having to alienate another portion of their audience? (The show could also be seen to do this with the homoerotic tension between Watson and Sherlock, and the phenomenon I am describing would be similar to queer-baiting.)
This is a fine article. I’ve never watched Sherlock, but considering that the show displays him as possibly being on the spectrum (and to me having those traits are great even without confirmation) I must now see it.
This is a well thought out and fascinating article. My sister has autism, so I have often wondered about Sherlock Holmes and various other characters. Thank you for writing this.
This is a very interesting piece of work. I agree that fanfiction has assumed a necessary role today as a device to analyze, re-imagine and explore in greater detail existing characters and aften fan literature has impacted the original itself, season 3 of Sherlock being the best example. Your observations with regard to the depiction of autism in fanfiction are also very illuminating. A lovely read!
My brother has Autism, more appropriately called Asperger’s. When my mom saw the first episode of BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ she immediately said that she liked how they were finally identifying Sherlock as Autistic. This article touches on some very interesting topics about representation of Autism in television. Loved the examples of how they are represented most of the time, if at all. Great article!
Your selection of different works is thoughtful and I think you gave me a real sense of how powerful the impact of ‘Sherlock’ the show can be. Unfortunately I feel the showrunners are more than willing to show a lot of common/stereotyped autistic characteristics without ever using the label (just euphemisms like “socially awkward”) or doing research, since they seem to have a willingness to give labels without demonstrating character or write actions without giving it a label based on what suits them for representation (foremost in my mind is the opposite treatment of “lesbian” Irene and “heterosexual” John with regards to Sherlock).
Don’t be insulted if you’re not a fan of Elementary, but the Sherlock on there gives more more hope of representation, even if his character is different. (It’s also got a better track record of representation in general, e.g. a transwoman playing transwoman Mrs. Hudson, albeit a rare guest star.) Most recently, they cast Betty Gilpin as a “self-described neuro-atypical” woman who will clash with Sherlock in values and be his love interest. This sort of role is great! And commonalities with Sherlock are pointed out as them being two “odd but gifted people navigating life on their own terms.”
I loved this article. As an activist and a theatre artist, representation of the marginalized is something that’s very important to me. I’m currently writing a play in which the main character is Autistic, and I’m attempting to represent humanity within the character via the various intersections with other forms of identity the character has-he’s also queer and black, of lower class, all different parts of the human experience, just like being an Autistic individual. Do you have any thoughts on the representation of Autistic people onstage? This article has given me plenty of food for thought, and I’ll definitely be referring back this article often as part of my play crafting process.
Thanks for this. I learned a lot there. I’m not autistic myself, but I’ve had some limited contact with autistic persons. I’m also not a fanfiction person, and confess that I’m not immune to a certain amount of snobbery toward the genre. But what you have here is a really thoughtful, well researched piece that really illuminates the intellectual accomplishments of which fanfic is capable.
As someone on the spectrum myself I found this article very interesting. I have never seen Sherlock. I had heard that he was an asexual character, but never about him having Autistic traits.
Thanks for this well-written and interesting article. I had no idea so much fanfiction depicting Sherlock as autistic existed. It makes me wonder about other characters who’ve been interpreted as autistic even if the diagnosis isn’t canon.
Interesting essay. I know several adults who, when we talk about them being autistic, this among people who know them, refer to them as having “degrees of” or “being on the spectrum at different points.” Trying to understand how they act, sometimes impulsively, takes a moment to understand. That more people than I would have ever thought are leading lives with autism in degrees, is just something to contemplate.