I’m hardly the first autistic person to take an interest in Sherlock Holmes and I’m sure I’m far from the last. Introduced in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, the Baker Street sleuth emerged over sixty years before Leo Kanner’s initial work. Nevertheless, I like many other fans, see many autistic traits in the character. This was further inflated by modern adaptations such as Sherlock and Elementary. These shows (to varying degrees of success) deal with the idea of a neurodiverse Holmes.
The Holmes of Study in Scarlet, his first appearance, is the most eccentric incarnation of the character. Jittery, disorganized and spattered with ink stains, Holmes flies in the face of accepted attitudes to late Victorian work ethic. He would later become milder in the subsequent short stories but examples of unusual habits remain. Man with a Twisted Lip has an interesting example of this. Before falling asleep, Watson observes Holmes sitting cross-legged on a pile of cushions and lighting his pipe. Watson then wakes early in the morning to see Holmes sitting in the same position, having solved the mystery. This points both to Holmes’ unusual methods and his seemingly boundless energy when engaged in a task.
Holmes and Empathy
Sherlock presents Holmes as frequently insulting and often oblivious to the feelings of others. This is often played up for comic relief. Since the Cumberbatch incarnation is the most often cited in arguments for Sherlock Holmes’ autistic traits, this has unfortunately played into stereotypes surrounding autistic people and empathy. Moreover, Holmes is not as ignorant of social signals in the books. On the contrary, he is courteous when receiving guests and although prone to backhanded comments, seldom insults people to their faces. His disdain is generally reserved for those who misuse their power, such as possessive stepfathers and badly behaved aristocrats. In other words, he seems more irritated by arrogant, superior behaviour than his screen incarnation’s disdain for people he deems intellectually inferior.
His habit of erratic conversation seems less about being oblivious to etiquette and more because of a varying attention span. This combined with his tendency to focus on nothing beyond his interests, sometimes makes him short-tempered. Observe the following extract from A Study in Scarlet, when Watson asks how Holmes came to a conclusion causing the detective to snap at him.
‘ When I looked at him he had finished reading the note, and his eyes had assumed the vacant, lack-lustre expression which showed mental abstraction. “How in the world did you deduce that?” I asked. “Deduce what?” said he, petulantly. “Why, that he was a retired sergeant of Marines.” “I have no time for trifles,” he answered, brusquely; then with a smile, “Excuse my rudeness. You broke the thread of my thoughts; but perhaps it is as well.’
It seems that Holmes only seems to become irritated when his focus is interrupted. Which is something I’m sure many readers identify with!
Sherlock Holmes’ Autistic Work Ethic
Holmes comments in the first novel “I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end.” Indeed, Watson later observes “Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.” I’ve heard interesting theories that Holmes’ erratic approach to work is meant to set him apart from the regimented day-to-day Victorian work schedule. Others have read these traits as evidence of bipolar disorder.
However I feel his symptoms may well describe executive dysfunction or losing the energy to remain verbal. Interestingly, his advice to Watson is surprisingly open and communicative “You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be alright.” With this in mind, we might simply say Holmes is describing running out of ‘spoons’ and needing to recharge.
Given his issues regarding attention, it is very possible Sherlock Holmes is autistic with co-occurring ADHD. This would certainly explain why he experiences for profound burnout. It also presents a possible explanation for Holmes’ drug use and misuse. His use of cocaine (legally prescribed by medical professionals in the 1890s) is consistent with autistic issues surrounding addiction. However, it’s also possible that he is using a stimulant in an attempt to self medicate his ADHD. This method would provide temporary relief but with even more crushing dips in mood, worsening his executive dysfunction.
Holmes and special interests
With regards to Holmes’ deductive methods, we might say his career as a detective is a natural consequence of pursuing special interests. Watson notes that Holmes did not ‘appear to have pursued any course of reading which might fit him for a degree in science or any other recognised portal which would give him an entrance into the learned world. Yet his zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me.” Watson proceeds to explain Holmes has considerable knowledge of subjects such as chemistry, anatomy and botany but very little in the way of philosophy, literature or astronomy (he famously believes the sun revolves around the earth until corrected.)
Holmes supports this in Study in Scarlet, believing there is finite space in the brain for knowledge. He claims to only learn what is relevant to his work as a detective. However, this isn’t consistent with the text as he later accumulates more knowledge on politics, art and literature as the series continues. The more plausible argument, to me, is that Holmes pursued crime solving as a career as it allowed him to channel his special interests into a living.
My first exposure to Holmes was the 2008 Guy Ritchie film with Robert Downey Junior. I instantly clocked the character as autistic. The scene where Holmes meets Watson and his fiancé, Mary Morstan is an excellent example. The scene begins with Holmes opening his pocket watch before experiencing an overload of sights and sounds in the restaurant. Not only is it a perfect depiction of sensory overload, it implies Holmes’ many deductions are a coping mechanism to help deal with over-stimulation. Additionally, Downey Jr’s Holmes seems to have difficulty maintaining eye contact, frequently staring above people’s heads when addressing them. When his petty analysis of Mary causes her and Watson to leave, Holmes stays to dine alone. While this is a justified reaction to his behaviour, I think many readers can recall being in a similar situation.
In conclusion, I’ll note something interesting about Holmes and neurodiversity. In the tv shows and recent films, Holmes’ traits are portrayed as a price to be paid for his intellect. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say Holmes is portrayed as ‘wrong’ or ‘broken’ in any way, there is a certain amount of focus on the tragic cost to his personal relationships caused by this. On the other hand, Holmes in the books has the air of someone diagnosed long ago who has developed coping strategies (not all of them healthy but that’s a different article!) Holmes, based on his manner of explaining himself to Watson, comes across as an older person on the spectrum, perhaps someone diagnosed later in life, who has taken steps to understand his own needs and explain them to others. In this sense (if none other) the literary Holmes is notably more progressive in its depiction of autism than later adaptations.