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We Shouldn't View Sherlock as an Autistic Savant

07/01/2014 11:25 GMT | Updated 08/03/2014 10:59 GMT

Attempting to diagnose a fictional character with a developmental disorder is tricky, if not impossible, without direct authorial intent. But this hasn't stopped legions of dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans from debating whether or not the great detective would be diagnosed with a high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) by modern standards.

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If Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes to display personality traits observed in people that we would today recognise as autistic, he never let on. Whilst he often cited Dr. Joseph Bell as the inspiration for Holmes, this may refer only to Bell's famed powers of observation and doesn't necessarily mean that Holmes' temperament was modelled after him as well. The fictional consulting detective can never be conclusively diagnosed but an increasing number of people seem to take it as read that he's autistic, even those who should know better.

Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat - writers of the BBC series 'Sherlock', a modern retelling of the Holmes stories - have turned this debate into a running joke. Holmes (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) dismisses the idea by referring to himself, albeit sarcastically, as a high-functioning sociopath instead. Later, a conversation between Watson (Martin Freeman) and DI Lestrade (Rupert Graves) casually refers to Sherlock as having Asperger's syndrome. When asked directly, Moffat responded that Holmes "is content playing along with people saying that he does, because that's easier".

Indeed, it's not just the characters in the show that Sherlock has convinced of his autism. Last month, the Telegraph reported the National Autistic Society saying that Holmes shows signs of being autistic, citing examples from both the BBC series and the similar CBS series 'Elementary'. Whatever the case may be, there is a general perception - spurred on by modern adaptations, fan debates and charities - that Holmes is one of the most prominent autistic characters on television today.

But if Sherlock is autistic (as is generally believed) then it's an over-simplified, romanticised, distinctly pop-culture version of ASD. Cumberbatch portrays Holmes as a hyper-intelligent superhero - swishing about in a long coat and scarf, possessing a flawless memory and brilliant deductive reasoning skills, lack of social graces effortlessly disguised behind piercing quick-wit and aloof indifference. It's an attitude that, autistic or not, a lot of people will admire and aspire to, mistakenly linking it to Sherlock's perceived autism.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, most fictional characters that become role models are in some way idealised versions of humanity. Plus, having an (at least notionally) autistic main character in a show as popular as 'Sherlock' helps to normalise a condition frequently overlooked on television, raising awareness and encouraging donations to support charities like the National Autistic Society.

But given how poorly autism is understood by the public, it's risky to hold Sherlock up as representative of how people with ASD behave. If people are lead to regard Holmes as the autistic archetype, then it minimises the full range of behaviours 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. While Moffat and Gatiss have wisely avoided explicitly labelling Holmes as autistic, this fallacy is proliferated elsewhere by encouraging the association of Sherlock with the condition.

This erroneous understanding of the way that autistic people behave, making Sherlock's abilities and attitude desirable, risks turning a very serious condition into something vogue. Even before Sherlock returned to our screens in his modern setting, there was a harmful trend of self-diagnosis in autism where people would claim to be on the high-functioning end of the spectrum despite not having received, or even sought, a clinical diagnosis. While there may be some cases where this is a legitimate false-negative, the vast majority are not autistic but their misunderstanding of what ASD is - prompted by a lack of accurate, unambiguous representation on television - has led them to believe, and sometimes openly claim, that they are undiagnosed.

Strongly associating Sherlock Holmes with autism, against the writer's intention, may adversely influence the public understanding of autism spectrum disorders. It encourages misconceptions about the condition, seeming to validate those who mistakenly believe they have it and diluting the claim of those who genuinely do. As Sherlock himself said, "Don't make people into heroes. Heroes don't exist, and if they did, I wouldn't be one of them."