Within fiction, the portrayal of autistic characters most often adheres to that of the ‘autistic genius’. While it is a fraught activity to pathologise and diagnose fictional characters, there's value in comparing these famous representations of neurodivergence in fiction by doing just that.
The first instalment in Ishan Morris-Gray's Column, 'Reflections on the “Autistic Genius”'
Within fiction, the portrayal of autistic characters most often adheres to that of the ‘autistic genius’. An early example is the great detective Sherlock Holmes, who in recent years has been speculated by audiences as placing on the spectrum. A contemporary example is The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper; likewise, never officially labelled as autistic, but clearly exhibiting many of the most obvious and well-known traits. On face value, this “savant” model of autism would seem to be a positive one, showing that autistic people can succeed in life just like neurotypical people (i.e., those without autism or other developmental disorders like ADHD). However, what this model ignores are the many people on the spectrum who have comorbid learning difficulties or require assistance with day-to-day tasks. It also ignores the difficulties faced by even the most self-sufficient of those diagnosed, as well as suggesting that genius is an excuse for poor behaviour by emphasising the oft-inadvertent social faux pas of the characters, either as a joke (as in The Big Bang Theory) or as a means of critique (as in certain Sherlock Holmes adaptations). While it is a fraught activity to pathologize and diagnose fictional characters, there's value in comparing these famous representations of neurodivergence in fiction by doing just that.
Sherlock Holmes, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s modern-day adaptation, has many of the traits associated with autism. In his first on-screen scene, he comments on the fact that Molly, the registrar, has changed her lipstick. One trait of autism is attention to details—often small ones, that others miss. Sherlock’s particular attention to detail is arguably portrayed as more than just a requirement of his occupation. Autistic people often have obsessive interests, things that they focus on and love beyond all else. It is often soothing for them to partake in activities related to these interests. At least as portrayed in Sherlock, the titular character’s special interest appears to be detective work and deduction. He takes undue pleasure in outsmarting the criminals (and the police), and solving the puzzles put to him. He is an addict, as well. In the original stories, he was addicted to morphine and cocaine, while in the BBC show, this has been updated so that he is addicted to nicotine, frequently wearing patches on his arms. He says it helps him concentrate. This is significant as not only is addiction disproportionately represented in the autistic community, but autistic people also often exhibit comorbid ADHD, or executive functioning issues. Many take stimulants to help them focus, whether this is caffeine, sugar or, indeed, nicotine. There are many other traits, but I will highlight only one more, as it is perhaps the most important: Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is frequently rude—I would argue inadvertently—and seems to lack the ability to empathise, which are qualities often perceived as traits of autism. Although, in diagnostic scenarios, the root of such qualities is more nuanced than a simple inability to feel what others feel, instead manifesting as an increased sensitivity overloading one’s emotional receptors.
These famously autistic traits are admittedly not present in the characterisation of Holmes, in the source material, or in more traditional adaptations, such as those starring “the quintessential Sherlock Holmes”, Jeremy Brett, produced by Granada in the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the episode “The Devil’s Foot” of the Granada series, Holmes solves a double murder when convalescing in a seaside town and recovering from his addictions. Each murder has been committed by a different person, though both are identical in almost every other respect. The second murderer is revealed to have been motivated by love; the first murderer (and second victim) had killed the love of this man’s life. Holmes lets this murderer go free, rather than turning him into the police, as he feels that although he has never known love for himself, he might have acted comparably in similar circumstances. It is hard, somehow, to imagine Cumberbatch’s Sherlock ever doing such a thing (though he did let Irene Adler go free; the circumstances and reasoning were very different). Likewise, in the story “A Case of Identity'' from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes solves a case wherein a man was embezzling money from his stepdaughter by impersonating a suitor called Hosmer Angel. When Holmes reveals the crime, he remarks, “it was as cruel, and selfish, and heartless a trick… as ever came before me… there never was a man who deserved punishment [any] more”—before threatening the criminal with a whip. Such behaviour shows far more emotional insight and compassion than the character is usually given credit for. Many on the spectrum have a strong sense of justice and righteousness, and so perhaps it is the old Holmes more than the new who is strongly in accord with meaningful presentations of autism.
It is true that Cumberbatch portrays some of this same emotional insight. In the pilot episode, “A Study in Pink”, many of his deductions rely on this. Face to face with the murderer, he deduces that the man’s wife has left him, since she has been torn from a family photo on the dashboard of his taxi—“If she’d died, she’d still be there.” This understanding of human behaviour is sensitive. It’s worth mentioning that such things can be learned, and it is common for those on the spectrum to teach themselves social and emotional awareness, such as those displayed here. But the framing is a bit off, and the same can be said of how Sheldon Cooper is framed in The Big Bang Theory. In both shows, copious heavy-handed references are made to highlight the characters’ differences from others—specifically their callousness, selfishness, and arrogance. Detective Sally Donovan calls Sherlock a “psychopath”, and it’s even more disheartening to hear Sherlock correct her with the phrase “high-functioning sociopath”—whatever that means! The nickname for Sherlock among the police appears to be “Freak”. He is constantly antagonising them and critiquing their intelligence, but no-one tries to help him understand the consequences of those actions either. They simply belittle him, while simultaneously enabling his bad behaviour when it helps them solve crimes.
Sheldon Cooper is treated similarly by the writers of The Big Bang Theory, though less so by his friends. The writers make fun of them all constantly. A nerdy reference, whether to science or pop-culture, is invariably met with laughter from the studio audience, although such a reference is never funny in and of itself. Nerdiness in general, along with Sheldon’s “autistic quirks'' are treated as the butt of the joke. In season 5, episode 18, “The Werewolf Transformation”, Sheldon arrives at his hairdressing appointment to find his regular barber Mr D’Onofrio is unwell. He refuses to get his haircut by anyone else, indicating his discomfort when faced with change, and instead of expressing concern about D’Onofrio, he is focused only on the inconvenience to himself. The issue with The Big Bang Theory is that the writers treat Sheldon and his behaviour, as well as that of his friends, with complete contempt, without any understanding or empathy for the real difficulties faced by those on the spectrum—the guilt and shame that comes from difficulty in understanding social cues; the way that the world is sometimes too much with all its sounds, smells, sights and textures; our dislike of change and desire for a rigid routine. Instead, what we get in The Big Bang Theory is a tic-laden performance from Jim Parsons and absolute disdain for Sheldon’s personality from the writers. They appear insistent that Sheldon can and should change but won’t because his autism makes him view himself as superior and justified. This is, of course, an inaccurate representation of why autistic people behave differently to neurotypical people.
There are two problems with the autistic genius. First and foremost, it is an extremely narrow idea of what autism is, means, and looks like. Not everyone with autism has a high IQ, and those that do often have other struggles that prevent them from getting where they want to be in life, or at least slow them down. Secondly, it purports that if one is a “great” person (intelligent, powerful, etc.), then one need not bother also being a “good” person (moral, compassionate, etc). This is the lie of these fictions, and it teaches audiences to think that those with autism are all intelligent, and therefore, their maladroitness when it comes to social decorum is intentional rudeness. Autism presents in many different ways, however, and often—not always—if an autistic person is rude, inconsiderate or seems to be self-absorbed, they are doing so without malice. They may simply see the world differently than the average person, so it makes sense to them to act this way until shown otherwise. A writer with a real understanding of autism would be respectful in how they represented it. It’s a shame that so few have deigned to gain that understanding.