This article was based upon trustworthy scientific resources. It is about a fictional character and its aim was to evoke interesting thoughts. If you would like to get medical information on Asperger's disease or Autism, please visit medical websites. On these special websites you can get online advice and infos on consulting hours as well. Thank you!
Sherlock Holmes did not have Asperger’s syndrome and he was not antisocial
Author: Revati and SherlockExtra - Translator: Revati
The questions are often raised in connection with Sherlock Holmes: whether he had Asperger’s syndrome or not and was he antisocial or not. It is difficult to answer for many reasons. First, Holmes was not a real person, he is the creation of Arthur Conan Doyle. Second, doctors do not know enough about Asperger’s syndrome and this neurodivergence has many different symptoms. Although we mention it together with being antisocial (and some adaptations even suggest psychopathy), we have to distinguish the two. (Our aim is to unravel misbeliefs about the behaviour of Holmes.)
We have to note that solely doctors are able to make diagnoses, after thorough and professional examination. Our writing is by no means a diagnosis, we just wanted to provoke some interesting thoughts. Asperger's is very complex and diverse, and the listed symptoms are usual ones, they aren't typical to each and every people having this neurodivergence.
Those who see Sherlock as an emotionless machine (Recommended misbeliefs: The sleuth was an emotionless machine), often say that he is a nervous and antisocial person. It is true that in the stories of Doyle there are events which make him lose his patience, but we have to bear in mind that the adventures of the canon incorporate some decades, so these tense scenes scatter to a long period of time. We all have bad days. Holmes is a detective who sees a lot of death and violence, his profession is dangerous, so it is quite understandable that he is upset sometimes. Some adaptations portray him as a nervous man or as someone who is prone to depression, while in the canon Watson speaks about him as a merry flatmate. He is sad or lethargic only when he has no new case to give work to his brain. That is why those adaptations are more relevant in which he is a genius who lives for his profession – those starring Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone or Vasily Livanov are good examples. Otherwise, Sherlock says about himself in The Final Problem: „I think that you know me well enough, Watson, to understand that I am by no means a nervous man.” (As it turns out in the adventure he is more tense as ever, because he is threatened by his arch enemy, the Napoleon of crime, Professor Moriarty and his confederates – so his state of mind is rational.)
Many people think Holmes is antisocial, but they very likely did not read the original stories, or, what is worse, did not understand them. In our article about misbeliefs we deal with the fact that Sherlock has emotions, he has empathy and he can easily identify himself with others. He finds out their motivations and can predict their behaviour. The detective can be sincerely interested in the lives of people and he knows their habits very well - thanks to these he can make fantastic deductions, just like in The Blue Carbuncle, where he gains numerous information on the owner of an ordinary hat by thoroughly examining it. He can forgive those who commit minor crimes and he is always rightful. He is able to care for the feelings and the future of others. When he has to punish a perpetrator, he is always aware of the measure of punishment. This shows that he does not feel undue anger and he does not take delight in punishing others. He is just the charitable guard of law and justice.
Doyle’s detective can repent his mistakes and learn from them. People having Asperger's are not capable of that.
An antisocial person willfully violates social norms, while those who have Asperger’s syndrome not always understand the behaviour of others and they cannot show proper reactions. Sherlock Holmes is pretty good at understanding the motivation of others, the rules of society and laws. He is a law-abiding man, who violates the rules only if it is necessary to save lives. But unfortunately laws are made by people – and people can err, so laws may be wrong or inhumane sometimes, they do not take notice of important circumstances, or they are simply out of date. Holmes knows that, and says: "Once or twice in my career I feel that I have done more real harm by my discovery of the criminal than ever he had done by his crime. I have learned caution now, and I had rather play tricks with the law of England than with my own conscience." (The Abbey Grange) When the law is incomplete or inhumane, Holmes helps with being humane. He supplements the law and does not tread down others.
Doyle’s hero thinks of his work as something that benefits the whole society – it is not typical to antisocial people. Holmes is able to think globally, and he is ready to die for the good cause. Just remember what he answered to Moriarty: „If I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interest of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.” (The Final Problem)
No doubt that Sherlock is a lonely man. But he has dr. Watson, his only friend, and in The Gloria Scott he talks about his friendship with Victor Trevor. In Lion’s Mane he lives in Sussex and mentions a scientist called Harold Stackhurst:”He and I were always friendly from the day I came to the coast, and he was the one man who was on such terms with me that we could drop in on each other in the evenings without an invitation.” In a manner Mycroft Holmes can be regarded as the friend of Sherlock too, because they mutually could call on each other. At Baker Street and in Sussex Holmes had a landlady, and he worked together with the Baker Street Irregulars. He could make friends, or, as he put it in Lion’s Mane, „I, my old housekeeper and my bees have the estate all to ourselves.” Some people having Asperger’s syndrome find it difficult to form new relationships. But Holmes lives in several different places during the three years after Reichenbach, or he can infiltrate incognito into a gang (His Last Bow – as Altamont). These prove that adaptation is no problem for him. He understands the roles of others, and he himself is able to play a new role perfectly when it is needed for a successful investigation. In His Last Bow he becomes a professional spy. But his work is very dangerous.
Those who have Asperger's syndrome may bad at adaptation, because they cannot see the point of relationships and they stick to their own rules and rituals. For some of them the daily routine and the well-known environment are the most important, because these give them the feeling of security. They may find it hard to look into the eyes of others, they avoid it. Holmes keeps eye contact easily with everybody, let them be his clients or his enemies. - The canon of Conan Doyle says several times that he listens to his clients with eyes closed, but this helps him to concentrate. Sometimes people with Asperger's stare at others to observe all small details – so not all of them avoid eye contact at all. Keeping his eyes closed helps Holmes to concentrate, this way he does not occupy his mind with seeing and he can focus on the problem better, and in addition he thinks faster. Sherlock is an expert of translating body language – this also shows that he's not antisocial. His way he does not ocuppy his mind with seeing and he can focus on the problem better, and in addition he thinks faster. Sherlock is an expert of translating body language - this also shows that he is not antisocial.
Scene from the movie White frog (it's about a boy who has Asperger's syndrome) & from Sherlock (BBC series)
Another point is that Holmes learns lots of negative things about human nature. There is always the possibility of giveaway, so it is the reason why he does not absolutely trust people and he thoroughly considers whom he lets closer to himself.
It is easy to exploit some people who have with Asperger’s, because they cannot gauge the motivations of others. Holmes knew many tricks, he contemplated on the deeds and reasons of others, so during his career he rarely became the victim of scams – thanks to his rational thinking. Antisocial people think irrationally.
Disorder in movements may also be a symptom in Asperger’s. Sherlock’s physical condition is excellent and he has no problems with balancing. He is an expert of baritsu, box and fencing.
Some people argue that Holmes had Asperger’s syndrome because people with that neurodivergence have high intelligence quotient, they are good at observing things and are sensitive to light, sounds and smells. But we must not forget that most people who have Asperger's have an average level of intelligence. Sometimes they find it hard to do tasks in which they have to use abstract thinking or combine different knowledge. Their apperception and understanding is concrete. Sherlock Holmes is the first detective to think of investigation as a special kind of science and he combines different branches of sciences to solve his cases. Some who have are unable to combine things and their knowledge is not encyclopedic. Holmes is the first forensic investigator, with a wide spectrum of knowledge (for example law, psychology, ballistics, the examination of the crime scene, the questioning of witnesses, keeping an index of crimes, knowing the streets of London, deduction). It is because of his profession that his senses are more developed than the average. His work is dangerous, so his brain learned to pay attention to sudden noises, movements, extraordinary smells and unusual events. It is necessary for self-defence. Exactly the same way works the brain of the S.A.S. (a special force of the British Army) soldiers. Sherlock’s amazing abilities show that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had an exact knowledge of people having dangerous jobs. (The writer learned from surgeons at the university, he worked on a whaling ship and even saw service, so he really had serious experiences about people who have dangerous profession.)
It's important to note that Sherlock Holmes consistently develops his abilities. Just think about the fact that he counts the stairs in his home (in A Scandal in Bohemia). Someone could say that this is not so important, but in fact this little habit is very useful for the detective. A brain that counts regularly has better mathematical abilities and inures itself to numbers. This brain gets used to count the stairs, what can be vital later – for example, when someone has to flee from a house. In case of a fire one can assess better which let-out is shorter. Or if someone would be made temporarily blind or he/she should find his/her way out in the dark, he/she would know how many time would it take to get out. We know from Doyle's stories that Holmes is a connoisseur of the different tobacco ashes and perfumes. He needs these information in his work. As he trained his nose to identify many scents, and because he experiments a lot, he learnt many smells and his smelling became more and more sensitive. It is useful to him to be familiar with the smell of dangerous poisons (for example, cyanide smells like bitter almond). Perfume masters (they are called 'le nez' in French, which means 'the nose'), who create new scents, also constantly develop their smelling abilities. They don't have magical features, they trained themselves. Perhaps Holmes developed his hearing as well – maybe with orientation practices in the dark – to be able to hear the slightest noises. He consciously learns beneficial features. For hime life is a school that lasts for a lifetime, where one has to study all the time. On the other hand he has no idea of the fact that the Earth evolves around the Sun, but as he states, he doesn't need this information in his profession, and he neglects unnecessary data. He selects information and choses the important ones. So he makes decisions all the time and he has to do this right. Sherlock is the master of rational decisions.
For some the fact that Sherlock is not a verbose person is another argument for Asperger’s. Holmes often races against time to prevent a murder or another crime, so time is very valuable for him, the lives of others may depend on it – he has to manage it effectively. He learned to negotiate fast. He only asks and tells what is really important to know. When he sees that someone lies to him, he tells it immediately to avoid waste of time. The other person has no other option than telling the truth. This shows that he knows people very well, he stands up for the truth, he can defend himself and he easily manipulates others. We already mentioned that he listens to his clients with eyes closed. It is important. He is excellent in observing small details, he finds out many things from the client’s clothes, hands and behaviour. He is usually right, so he does not even need to ask certain questions and he saves time. That is why he does not speak a lot, and he learned not to talk to much about himself in front of others. But he willingly, though not always explains his thoughts to his friend Watson. The canon shows that they talk about many different things – classical music, golf clubs, literature, etc. There are no signs of Holmes having problems with communication. When he wants new information, he is even ready to improvise (like in The Blue Carbuncle). In case of misunderstanding he tries to make it clear immediately. It is a basic rule of communication to make things clear as soon as possible – Sherlock knows it and observes this rule.
People having Asperger's may translate words verbatim, and they cannot understand jokes and second meanings, similes and metaphors. It is not a characteristic of Sherlock Holmes. He says about Irene Adler: „(…) she was a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for.” You can hear it in the Granada series as follows:
Sherlock Holmes: She is a lovely woman, Watson, with a face that a man might die for.
Dr. John Watson: "A face a man might die for?" Unusual language for you, Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes: A metaphor, Watson, nothing else.
Conan Doyle modelled the master sleuth after people he knew and respected. Dr. Joseph Bell, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the other scientists had no problems with adaptation. (You can read more about them here: Dr. Joseph Bell , Harry Potter and Sherlock Holmes)
Maybe we succeded in collecting sufficient information, but the site is under constant construction. There are many misbeliefs around Sherlock Holmes and he has lots of amazing characteristics we have to show. Many of his abilities can be learned, and we would like to deal with these in the future.
Note: This writing is by no means suitable to make diagnoses. If you have any questions regarding illnesses, please consult a specialist.
Nowadays autism and Asperger’s syndrome seem to be trendy illnesses. It looks like it is easier to state that someone has a certain kind of mental illness, and solving the problem this way, instead of searching for the real causes of bad/strange behaviour. Autism and Asperger’s syndrome are existing illnesses, but they affect much less people than the internet and other media sources suggest. And unfortunately there are always people who think they are clever and educated enough to make a diagnose via the internet. Even Bill Gates had been „accused” with Asperger’s syndrome – but he is just a clever and wise man.
THE MERCK MANUAL, one of the most widely used sources of medical information in the world (book)
HáziPatika.com - hungarian medical portal
Webbeteg.hu - hungarian medical portal
Wikipedia - Asperger syndrome / Antisocial personality disorder
aspergerplusz.wordpress.com - hungarian asperger patient blog
wellingtongoose tumblr - Sherlock does not have Asperger’s or Autism, Thanks - From 4 Psychiatrists
+ Conan Doyles Complette Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes movies
Recommended article: Maria Konnikova (psychologist and writer)
Stop Calling Sherlock a Sociopath! Thanks, a Psychologist.
Sherlock does not have Asperger’s or Autism, Thanks - From 4 Psychiatrists
The most common misconceptions about the great detective:
Keywords: Sherlock Holmes, Asperger's syndrome, BBC Sherlock, Aspergians,
high functioning sociopath, antisocial, Aspie, Benedict Cumberbatch, Aspergian,
Maria Konnikova, psychologist, sociopath, psychopath, diagnoses, misbeliefs,
aspergers, psychopathy, social norms, knowledge, high intelligence quotient,
Asperger disorder (AD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), concentrate, mind
If you want to get more acquainted with the personality of Sherlock Holmes
and with the misbeliefs surrounding him, please read these articles:
I believe in Sherlock Holmes
Common misbeliefs about Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Dr. Joseph Bell the real Sherlock Holmes
Maria Konnikova: How to think like Sherlock Holmes?