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.
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