Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sherlock Holmes and Aspergers
Ah, there's a face we haven't seen on this blog for a while. As promised in my previous post, I'm segueing into a discussion of Sherlock and Aspergers, a connection that's been made several times to the BBC series.

First off, you might be wondering what Aspergers Syndrome is. The blogger Cool Blue Reason has a good explanation of it in relation to the autism spectrum (and it isn't overly complicated like the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual; the tool of diagnosis for psychologists) definition would be). (Also, there's a really interesting post on Aspergers in women, which is way better than any psych text I've come across, so give that a read if you're interested.) I have a personal connection to Asperger's, as I'd stated in the previous post, as a couple of my friends are Aspergians. Thus, when I heard theories about Sherlock being Aspergian, my ears pricked up.

As entertaining as the quote, "I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath; do your research" might be, and as much as I enjoy quoting it, I also know there's no such thing as a high-functioning sociopath. Sociopathology is... complicated. Really complicated. There aren't levels of "higher functioning" like we use to talk about autism, mainly because sociopathology is far different than autism (autism is hereditary and genetic, while sociopathology is related to the personality and more vague in its cause). The number one thing about sociopaths/psychopaths (the words are essentially interchangeable; some people try to distinguish a difference but in my experiences with psychology, psychologists more or less uses them to express the same concept. Sociopath is used more widely today, though antisocial personality disorder is the technical term - and yes, this gets really confusing as being "antisocial" has gotten confabulated with social anxiety/ avoidant personality disorder) is that they generally do not know they are psychopaths, do not attach to such labels, and would not be proud and assert that identity. According to Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, (not sure if this is the best text on sociopathology, but it was an easy, interesting read and it's what I've got) sociopaths "are infamous for their refusal to acknowledge responsibility for the decisions they make, or for the outcomes of their decisions. In fact, a refusal to see the results of one's bad behavior as having anything to do with oneself - 'consistent irresponsibility' in the language of the American Psychiatric Association - is a cornerstone of the antisocial personality diagnosis" (Stout 49-50).

This is the number one reason that Sherlock is not a sociopath. Sherlock does accept responsibility
for what he does. He knows what he is doing and, while he may not always understand the effect his actions or his words have on people, when he does recognize the effect, he admits he is wrong. A sociopath would never do this. Let me use an example from the show - the Christmas scene in "A Scandal in Belgravia."As terrible as Sherlock may be to Molly in this scene, he sincerely doesn't understand how Molly is interpreting his deduction of her dress and gift - mainly because it never occurs to him that Molly did all of this for him. When he realizes this, Sherlock is genuinely sorry. A sociopath would not be genuine and would somehow manipulate the situation to his advantage. Sherlock doesn't do this; he accepts that he's wrong and apologizes to  Molly.
This is far more in line with Aspergers than with sociopathology. Sherlock clearly has a very strong idea of what right and wrong is - even though it may not always completely ascribe with everyone else's. I'm blanking where this line is coming from (the BBC show, the Robert Downey Jr. films, the actual books - it's one of these) where Sherlock says something about caring deeply about upholding the law. Sherlock is very devoted to his work and cares deeply about what he is doing - not for his own gain, but because it interests him and for seemingly ethical reasons (Donovan might say he "gets off on it" but he seems to be doing it for an appreciation beyond personal benefit). He has a moral code and he can empathize with others, even if he doesn't always understand people's feelings. I feel the need to point this out as people often draw comparisons between sociopaths and Aspergians, though from my knowledge and experience they are far different. One is open and honest, the other is impossible to know when they are being truthful and may seem that they are always performing and manipulating. If Sherlock is an Aspergian, then you could very well argue that Loki from Thor may be a sociopath (though a very, very dark, twisted, and tormented one). I have friends who are Aspergians and I trust them deeply - they are loyal and blunt and I appreciate that when people may be reluctant to tell me the truth on a certain matter. I also believe I have known a sociopath (according to Martha Stout, 1 out of 25 people are sociopathic; apparently they're more common than you'd think (Stout 9)) and this individual was very charming but also impossible to trust, saying things behind your back, telling one person one thing and another person something entirely different. It honestly surprises me that there has been such confusion between Aspergers and sociopathology because my experiences with the two have been so different. I obviously can't prove that the individual I knew was actually a sociopath, but the behavior and interaction with people was far different than that of my Aspergian friends. 

I could go on and point out how Sherlock Holmes is written and performed in such a way that he appears as an Aspergian, but thanks to loyal reader Rachel, I know of some really fantastic essays by the previously mentioned Cool Blue Reason which you can find linked here. They are brilliant essays with way more knowledge than I have and really great scene analysis from the show. One final thing I'd like to discuss a bit though is something Cool Blue Reason points out, which is the way Sherlock's Aspergers is dealt with on the show. John does mention it at one point (in "The Hound of Baskervilles") but I don't even remember this exchange (I've only seen this episode once - I know; I'm sorry) but not in a very positive or accepting way. As much as I love Sherlock being represented as Aspergian, I'd love it far, far more if he was presented as openly Aspergian and as a way of better explaining his behavior, rather than pathologizing it. As we head into series/season 3, I'm hoping for maybe some of this happening, but we'll see. Some fans are really against people labeling characters this way and I can sort of understand that. But this behavior goes back to the Conan Doyle stories and, honestly, they have expressed this idea in the show. Why not go one step further, make it canon, and present a likeable, recognizable figure that can better represent Aspergians in a creative, complex, and engaging way? Why not take a further step towards accepting that not everyone is allistic and thinking that everyone is can be deeply damaging?
On a final note, I also came across this Psychology Today article, where they discuss Sherlock Holmes from the novels and stories as having Aspergers and how Conan Doyle managed to do this (but wait! writers can study people just like psychologists? Amazing! (Sorry, I found this a bit insulting to my status as a writer)). It's was a bit "no duh!" to me as a fan, but it's still an interesting read and nice to know that the psychology community is thinking about such things.

Also, it seems like this twice a week posting is working really well. As I've unofficially been doing it, I'm officially stating that posts will fall on Wednesdays and Saturdays every week (though considering many of you read this from other parts of the world, it might very well be the next day for you before it gets posted. Yay wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff). And as a preview, Saturday's post will be on writing and my personal experiences with it (be prepared for random literature and psychology references, as well as a hefty dose of self-promotion because... well, you'll see :D).
(Since this is all on Sherlock, I thought I'd change things up and end this with an otter for once :D)

Citations from:
The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. Broadway Books, 2005.


  1. Saw this on tumblr this morning and thought you might find it an interesting read - relates to this post :)

    1. Ah, this article is fantastic; thanks for posting it! I certainly wish I'd had it on my hands when I was writing this blog as it's a really interesting parallel and complicates some of the things I was saying. I like the root of the arguments made by the psychiatrist team and they make some really good points that I feel like I overlooked in my post. However, there's two main things I wish they'd accounted for - one, that the fan base does seem well-informed about Aspergers (not the entire fandom, obviously, but quite a large part of it), and two, that there's a difference between how the show represents Aspergers and how fanfic and so on does. I know psychiatrists obviously don't have time to read a bunch of fanfics (alas :P) but I'd love to hear what they'd have to say about what the fandom has done with the show in attempt to represent Aspergers more appropriately and positively. I could also go on a huge tangent about how effective and reliable psychology is at diagnosis, but I'm going to bottle that argument, as well as the issues between psychologist vs. psychiatrists, because that's a whole other can of worms.

      Thanks again for this and, you wonderful lovely people, please read that article if you're interested in this!