My read on "Sherlock"

One of my readers, to whom I am going to start referring as "my anonymous source in the autistic community" any day now, has thoughtfully pointed me at a series of essays which attempt to explain the internal experience of autism via Sherlock and his exceedingly Sherlock-y behavior on-screen.

I was going to sit down and read it the other night, but then I thought: That's cheating. Either the author will make a compelling argument and I'll end up agreeing, or the author will say something so bizarre that I won't be able to finish the damn thing without developing a headache. In order to do a proper compare-and-contrast, I ought to go write down what I think already, before I fill my head with something else.

Personally, my read is that Sherlock would not get a formal ASD diagnosis. I do a lot of social psychology of the gifted and talented, and the standards I'm used to using are basically "would this be disabling enough to require special schooling", and, assuming that Sherlock as a kid was basically Sherlock now only shorter, no, it wouldn't be. He'd almost certainly get an Individualized Education Plan on account of academic giftedness and having enough IQ for two or three normal people, and this alone would probably take care of most issues he may have had with crowds -- he'd have had very few peers, if any, and a lot of his materials would be given one-on-one or handed to him in a quiet corner of the room where he could work undisturbed. He might have had behavioral problems, but so do a lot of people who don't "fit in" well, and that's not enough to get you yanked from the mainstream in most cases.

Autism and other developmental disorders, however, are on a spectrum. You can be a little autistic or a lot autistic, on a lot of different scales, and presentation varies widely. Although I think he's probably on the allistic side of things, Sherlock is not really what you'd call neurotypical, and he does share some quirks with the aspie crowd. One of the things I've seen brought up before is executive dysfunction, which is not unique to autism spectrum disorders -- it underlies several different kinds of not-neurotypical, including ADHD. There's a lot of complicated neuroscience that goes into it, but the gist of it is that executive dysfunction is when you know you have a lot of stuff to do, but you can't get it done because every time you try to get your thoughts in order, someone runs an eggbeater through the front of your brain and all your planning and orderliness goes to shit. Everyone gets it from time to time -- it's most often associated with being in a state of stressful overload -- and it's one of those things that's only a diagnosis when it gets to be so chronic or disruptive that it's wrecking your life. Myself, I have bouts of it when I'm severely depressed; I end up lying on the sofa watching six hours of something I don't even care about on TV even though I'm completely exhausted, because I literally can't get it together long enough to get off the couch and go to bed.

It's extremely frustrating, but willing it to not be that way is about the worst thing you can do, and applying willpower is what Sherlock does to just about everything. It would not surprise me a bit if a lot of the intentional dickishness was half a power play and half an attempt to cover for the unintentional dickishness that he doesn't know how to avoid. I get the feeling Sherlock's been told that he's "broken" a lot, and at some point just decided to take the path of least resistance; rather than keep trying unsuccessfully to "fix" himself, he just decided to be as "broken" as he could manage until everyone threw up their hands in despair and stopped nagging him to change. I suspect that he wants to be more autistic-y (and more schizoid, and more sociopathic) than he actually is, so that people will either cope with him or GTFO and leave him be.

One thing I do not see -- and which I think Sherlock is trying, mostly successfully, to pretend to have -- are social problems based in an inability to read non-verbal cues. This is a very distinctive feature of autism spectrum disorders which is well-known to the public, and which would make him seem deeper into the spectrum overall than he is if he could fake it. It works on most people, but he does drop it, intentionally and unintentionally, from time to time. He knows perfectly well when the room suddenly hates him; otherwise he wouldn't know to turn around and ask, "Not good?" He is an excellent actor, can convincingly fake affect -- including tears on cue -- and in this limited form of improv, can adapt very quickly in order to get what he wants. He picks up when John might be flirting (a false positive error, but a tellingly normal one), he picks up on why John is very angry at him in "The Great Game" (anyone looking at him would know the "angry" part, but Sherlock also addresses the unspoken "because I'm disappointed in you" part), and he does exceedingly well as a human polygraph-cum-mind reader with the cabbie at the end of "A Study In Pink".

The limiting factor actually seems to be that he doesn't necessarily know what all the cues mean, or if he does, he doesn't know what to do about them. He seems to have some difficulty slipping into normal peoples' heads when he is not specifically thinking about doing so. It's odd and might be an autistic behavior, but it might equally well be a behavior born of having little to no social contact with people he ever bothered to think about. After years and years of sincerely not enjoying spending time with other humans, Sherlock came up with the not-unreasonable hypothesis that he hated people and didn't care. He's revising it now, and it provides his character arc. Sherlock works with deductions and patterns, and having avoided relationships for most of his life, he lacks a lot of the information he needs to make informed guesses about strangers.

On the other hand, he's quite good at making informed guesses about people he knows. I don't think he really realizes it, but Sherlock is excellent at reading John. He seems to have some kind of an internal disconnect between knowing things like that John's limp is psychosomatic and that it will go away when they start running, and understanding that that is the same thing as knowing how to handle people. He acts on the things he notices a lot, even if he doesn't realize it. One of the most poignant moments in series one is when he ducks back in to ask John to come down to Lestrade's crime scene with him. Any genius kid who grew up as misunderstood and friendless as they were smart understands immediately how very, very much Sherlock had riding on that, emotionally. The cases he takes aren't just one of the important things in his life, or even the most important thing in his life; they're the only important thing in his life. He's attempting to make friends the only way he knows how: by sharing something valuable. It's a very large gamble, especially for someone who routinely gets rejection from almost everyone else he interacts with, and I doubt Sherlock ever would have done it if he hadn't observed something about John that made him think it might be welcome. "I think better when I have company," kind of obviously translates to, "I want you to come with me because I want you to come with me," even if you don't know very much about Sherlock yet.

John for his part helps by being very easy to read. His reactions go a long way towards helping Sherlock with something he's always had issues with, which is distinguishing between people who are angry at him because he's done something genuinely upsetting, and people who are angry with him because they're trying to follow a standard social script and Sherlock keeps obstinately refusing to say his lines right. John ignores most of the things Sherlock does that are weird but reasonably harmless, and when he tells Sherlock off for something genuinely upsetting, he does it in great detail. Sherlock has a very difficult time figuring out how he looks to other people, aside from 'unbelievably intelligent and also very irritating'. John is probably a better mirror than anyone else he's ever known.

John is also probably the only person who has ever offered to meet Sherlock halfway on this -- just assumed he would be, actually, as if it were the normal thing to do. Mycroft can follow the deductions but not the emotional connections, and Lestrade doesn't speak Sherlock very well but if Sherlock mimes enough he'll get the important stuff, but John genuinely wants to know what's going on in his head. He listens to Sherlock's explanations like the process itself is meaningful -- which, to Sherlock, it is. When other people ask for explanations, they get a lot of very rapid backtalk interspersed with facts; when John asks for one, he gets an actual conversation. (It's a Sherlock-centric conversation, to be sure, but John is allowed to talk without penalty, which most people are not.) By the time you get to "Hounds of Baskerville" in series two, it's become pretty obvious that Sherlock is terrified of losing John because John is the only person who can translate for him, in either direction.

As far as the fandom goes, I can certainly see why the autistic community has many members who identify strongly with Sherlock. Whether or not he's got a formal diagnosis on the spectrum, he does have a lot of similar issues interfacing with less-unusual people, which he's beginning to handle as best he can using a tactic that a lot of autistic people use, which is to hit it with his brain over and over until something gives. (A perfectly valid tactic, incidentally -- the bigger problem is finding the information you need to make that work. I dunno if you've noticed, but normal people are bloody goddamn terrible at explaining the way they think.) There's also an element of wishfulness, I suspect; I quite understand the feeling of being utterly alone because you think weird, and wanting to find someone who, even if he doesn't always understand, is at least not going to condemn you strictly for not being normal.

I don't think either interpretation is "right" or "wrong". The beauty of picking apart fictional characters is that you have access to the same amount of information on them that everyone else does, and since they don't really exist, they can't argue with you over what they "really" think.


  1. I like that. That is the best me-reference I have seen in a while, and I was "that weird one that keep making us fund things" from a minister of education in an unmentioned European country the other week. :D (I work as a science communicator. It's me they send in to explain thorium reactors to politicians with degrees in economics. It is a great gig, I tell'ya!)

    So, I'm catching up on my reading here. I've got sure money riding on it being interesting. :)

  2. You are wrong when you say "He'd almost certainly get an Individualized Education Plan on account of academic giftedness". I was gifted, I got the reverse.

    The kids in the gifted programs, the ones that teachers gave special attention to, where the nice ones, the ones teachers enjoyed teaching. As an "aspie", I got ignored, pushed down into "normal" programs, where I failed to cope. I'd pass tests at 100%, but fail to do homework or interact in class, so my grades would very according to how much emphasis teachers placed on test scores, and how much they placed on other things. When you instantly know every an are way ahead of the rest of the class, being forced to slow down to their pace is really painful. Since you aren't doing what the teachers tell you, you aren't by definition "academically" gifted, because you are just learning, not doing academics.

    Luckily, my 9th grade math teacher nearly flunked me, putting me in a "remedial" math program in the 10th grade. The remedial program is where they slow students progress at whatever pace they could maintain, whether it's half a textbook a year or even a quarter. I did three years in one, catching up with my other smart friends, the "nice" gifted students, who were on the calculus track.

    My SATs were in the 99.9% percentile. I got nearly a year of college credit from the advanced placement exams. It's obvious I was gifted, just not pleasantly "academically" gifted -- I was simply just good at learning.

    So as such a student who was oppressed by the system rather than encouraged as you claim, you can go fuck yourself.

    1. If you read the rest of this turkey you'll find out that I was booted into an IEP myself pretty much from day one. What I describe is *exactly* what they did to me -- segregated me from the rest of the class because they had no idea what else to do. I am not autistic, so far as I know, but for other environmental reasons had similar social issues, and also behaved as you described, i.e., hated homework, never did it, didn't interact with my peers, and was brutally ground down by the sheer boredom of having to go at everyone else's pace.

      I don't know why you're so angry at a random internet blogger, but there's no need for invective just because you and I had slightly different shitty experiences in school.


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