“What it must be like in your funny little brains, it must be so boring!”
– A Study in Pink
Seeing as I am a twenty-two year old nerd, steampunk admirer, and Anglophile who is also a fan of the works of Neil Gaiman, Doctor Who, Victoriana, and other British exports, it was only a matter of time before I fell in love with Sherlock, the BBC miniseries which exports Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories to the modern era with present-day forensics, computer technology, and gadgetry to assist the brilliant detective. I’ve practically got a sign taped to my glasses that reads “Target Demographic” for this kind of thing.
But there’s a deeper reasoning to my love of this show. I’ve had a long relationship with Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, starting in grade 5 when I first read A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of Baskervilles. I could sense that Mr. Holmes was the ancestor of previous mystery-minded protagonist whose stories I had gobbled up, like Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet the Spy, Nancy Drew, and Cam Jansen all pledged allegiance in some form of another to Sherlock, they could not exist without him.
He was also a role model I desperately needed, someone who was also an outsider that didn’t play by the rules and saw things a little differently, and got frustrated when people couldn’t see the answers right before their very eyes. He was in essence, literary nourishment for a young aspie’s soul. This connection has not gone unnoticed even by neurotypicals. Cracked.com has Sherlock as being an undiagnosed aspie on one of their many list articles, Data, a long-standing favourite with many autistics who watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, emulated the great detective during Holodeck play, and the biggest role model of Christopher, the autistic protagonist in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was Sherlock Holmes, whose stories Christopher cited when he needed a basis to compare his own life situations with.
It’s not entirely unfounded. The original stories describe Holmes as being the victim of an addiction to several stimulants, which is a common autistic woe shared by yours truly, he had a cat-like attendance to his personal hygiene while his living spaces were in shambles, and had an incredible laser-like focus that’s all too familiar to me when reading a book on Japanese poetry.
So, how does this work out in the modern adaptation? Do we see Sherlock getting closely scrutinized in a London hospital by Simon Baron-Cohen after his abilities become widely known? Is he shown locked in a battle of brains with Daniel Tammet during a chess tournament?
As cool as that would be (the chess match I mean) the answer is no. Holmes is self-aware that he is not neurotypical, but has thus far in three episodes not mentioned anything related to autism. He has however, described himself as a “high functioning sociopath”, which is not entirely inaccurate, but doesn’t invalidate the possibility of autism being in the mix as well, since the two are neither identical nor mutually exclusive. There’s only been three episodes produced thus far though (more are on the way) and there has been some dedication to fleshing out Holmes’ mental state.
He’s stayed true to his character: Sherlock is fastidious, self-absorbed, persnickety, has a great deal of disregard for convention, and uninterested in anything that doesn’t fall within his range of interests, including, it would seem, personal relationships, unless they have potential for a direct benefit to him. He possesses not only an impressive eye for detail, but incredible tactile, visual, auditory, and olfactory sensitivity, which go along well for solving mysteries big and small.
These traits are shown to be a source of chagrin of the other characters, but I find it charming, especially with the skill of (presumably allistic based on his other roles) Benedict Cumberbatch. But in spite of being a bit on the jarring and arrogant side, Sherlock is also displayed as being somewhat vulnerable in some cases; his brother Mycroft asking Watson to watch for his well-being, his difficulty with certain aspects of independent living, and repeated allusions to Sherlock needing some type of special analysis or treatment are present in the modern version.
It’s rather surprising that, of all people, Sherlock himself doesn’t think to consider the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome/autism, considering his astute self-awareness and his displaying knowledge of some psychiatric diagnostics, but there’s time to flesh it out and maybe even have the “A” word uttered. I would be very surprised if it was though; among writers, it seems to be very popular to have a character be nearly impossibly the textbook definition of autistic without ever mentioning autism in-universe. Perhaps this is due to not wanting to unnecessarily label the character or work within that diagnostic criteria, or wanting to not offend anyone, but the absence of a word doesn’t change the fact that this Sherlock is autism’s quintessence.
He is also a well-fleshed out character, funny, engaging, and a refreshing new way of looking at my favourite detective. I do not mind terribly of the writers continue to dodge labelling Sherlock as autistic. I know better, and so does anyone who’s ever spent more than 10 minutes in the presence of an aspie. In the meantime, the show is very entertaining, and even if the hero remains autistic in everything but name, I can still imagine him bringing a bit of hope and a glimmer of recognition into the hearts of lonely young autistics looking for someone who is like them.