We are the four psychiatrists who contributed to the original article called: “Sherlock does not have Autism – Thanks from 4 psychiatrists”. We are overwhelmed by the responses we have received.
We all feel that some of the message we have been trying to put across has been lost in translation, so this is both a reiteration of our message and a response to the online community. We hope that this will answer at least some of your questions, and give you a better idea of why we helped write the article in the first place.
1. Why Sherlock is Not a Good Representation of Autism
This article was written to explain why Sherlock is not a good representation for autism in the media and why perpetuating the idea that Sherlock is a representation of autism is both misleading and harmful.
Sherlock displays some traits which on the surface can be construed as appropriate for someone at one extreme of the autistic spectrum. However he also demonstrates may other traits that can be construed as fitting in with a multitude of other conditions including: schizoid personality disorder, social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia etc.
In fact if Sherlock was a patient, autism would not be the most appropriate diagnosis – schizoid personality disorder would be more fitting to the behaviour he displays.
More importantly Sherlock displays a whole host of uniquely memorable behaviours that are not autistic or even psychiatric in origin. These behaviours are a result of Sherlock being Sherlock.
Currently there is a huge void of knowledge about autism in the public consciousness. For the vast majority of people watching the show, Sherlock will be first and only personification of autism. The general public do not have enough information to judge whether he is an accurate representation of autism.
Human beings are wonderful at assimilating new information and the problem arises when people accept that Sherlock is autistic but they do not know which behaviours are appropriately representative of autism and which behaviours are not. Human brains are also hard wired to generalise, we have evolved to spot patterns/templates in tiny data sets and apply them to much larger data sets. This was crucial in our survival as a species, but it is also the biological root of stereotype and prejudice.
When Sherlock is used as an example of autism, the general public see the whole package as autism and not just his specific autistic traits. If the public knew as much about autism as they do about the harms of smoking we would not have to write this.
Because so many people have such limited exposure to autism, when Sherlock is described as being “autistic”, he becomes an example of autism in the mind of the public. From this example, the public create/revive a stereotype through which people can then understand and relate to people with autism. By viewing other people through the prism of a stereotype, prejudice is created, because people cease to be individuals; they become blocks to be measured against a Sherlock shaped template.
If Sherlock is not autistic, why do autistic people identify with him so strongly?
It isn’t just autistic people who identify with Sherlock or find comfort in relating to him. We have many patients with a wide range of psychiatric conditions, from schizoid personality disorder to schizophrenia, who see themselves in Sherlock. We are very glad that Sherlock exists because many of our patients never get to relate to TV characters.
The hallmark of a good character is that we can all identify with him. We can all find parts of Sherlock that we can relate to and find comfort in.
The reason Sherlock has been widely regarded as being autistic instead of, say, schizoid is because the vast majority of people haven’t even heard of schizoid personality disorder, let alone be able to identify symptoms of the disorder in a fiction character. However people have heard of autism even if they do not know much about how the condition represents.
Sherlock actually feeds in neatly into the current media trend of portraying autism as a condition of “anti-social, child-like geniuses”. The precedent has already been set by programs like The Big Bang Theory, there is already a predisposition for certain parts of the public to see this kind of behaviour automatically jump to the conclusion that it has to be autism.
This doesn’t mean that the conclusion is right or helpful.
Why can you not see the Sherlock being autistic can only be a positive thing for the autistic community? Saying that Sherlock is autistic cannot be harmful.
The problem is labelling Sherlock as autistic is harmful. It is actively harming people we see every day because it feeds into a cycle of ignorance, stereotyping and prejudice.
The reason why the general public form stereotypes is because they have such a small data set to work with, the public’s knowledge about autism is limited in scope, so that people cannot help but apply any patterns seen in Sherlock to the bigger picture even if the patterns don’t fit.
We have seen a great deal of damage to our patients on a personal level due to the stereotype that has been created out of Sherlock. For more information on the effect that prejudice from Sherlock has had on the lives of our patients and their families please read this post.
Whilst other TV programs and films have contributed to the misinformation regarding autism, they have nowhere near as a big an impact in the UK as Sherlock.
We are happy that autism is at least being mentioned in the media and being discussed online due to Sherlock but misleading and misinforming the general public about autism is not a price that should be paid for this.
We understand that all of this may sound very negative but we do have solutions to the problem.
2. We are not Trying to Take Sherlock Away From People, We want Better Representation of Autism in the Media
We have been accused of hating autistic people, of wanting to stop autistic people from appearing on TV. This is the exact opposite of what we want. We understand how important it is to have characters on TV that you can personally relate to. There may be many medical dramas but hardly any that psychiatrists can relate to. When you cannot see someone in the media representing you, it makes you feel isolated, lonely and rejected. When you see someone you can relate to it brings a great sense of warmth, comfort and connection.
However do we have to settle for a narrow, misleading and distort representation of autism? The writers have not researched autism but even if they had: no single character can convey the complexities of autism.
The problem we have is that there are too few good representations of autism in the media. Currently the media vogue is to represent one extreme of the spectrum, which is the “anti-social, child-like genius”. We feel that the entire spectrum deserves good representation in the media, not just one specific part of the high functioning end.
By saying that Sherlock is autistic, it contributes a great deal to perpetuating the public’s misconception that autism is a condition populated with anti-social, child like geniuses.
This is a stereotype that we are actively trying to fight. We want people to see autism in a positive light but not because they have been misled into believing that all autistic people are quirky geniuses. We want the public to see and understand the entire autistic spectrum, so that they can value each person as an individual and not judge them by how they measure up to a stereotype.
We are campaigning for more and better researched autistic characters that people with autism can relate to. We are also trying to rectify the void of knowledge about autism (and many, many psychiatric conditions) due to the perpetual lack of investment in public education on this topic. The government spends millions every year teaching the public about physical health conditions and yet next to nothing is spent on developmental/psychiatric conditions. Unfortunately, funding in this economic climate is hard to come by, which is why we have reached out through the internet to try to talk to people.
People with autism like Sherlock, he is awesome. Why can we not be happy with what we have?
We love Sherlock too, in fact he has given many of our non-autistic patients a wonderful TV character to relate to as well as our autistic patients.
However he wasn’t built for the role of presenting autism to the public and fighting prejudice against autism. The writers didn’t research autism before they sat down to write Sherlock. They produced an amazing TV character, they did not produce a good example of autism for the general public.
You can argue that no TV character is built for public education – but we would like to know why not? Can the media not cope with both entertainment and information at the same time? Why wouldn’t characters that are well researched, accurate representations of autism be even more enriching, relatable and positive for the autistic community?
By saying that Sherlock is not a good representation of autism – we are not rejecting Sherlock or autism. We are saying that the media can do better, and we as the viewers deserve better.
3. Why We feel It is Important to Tell People This (and It’s not because we like ruining lives)
We cannot stress how influential Sherlock has been on the British people and the international community.
What people write on the internet about Sherlock has a great deal of influence on the general public’s beliefs. Autism (or Asperger’s Syndrome) is very heavily hinted at in the show and it does not take much for people to google Sherlock and autism.
The problem is that the general public are not well informed enough to judge whether what they read about Sherlock and autism is accurate. Most of it will be entirely new information to them. The posts we have seen on the internet have always been very clear and definite in their convictionthat Sherlock has autism.
We have spent our working lives researching, diagnosing and managing autism but even we cannot say that Sherlock even has a condition, let alone that he definitely has autism. In our professional opinions we would never diagnose him with autism, though this doesn’t mean he doesn’t display some autistic traits. Everyone displays some autistic traits to an extent – autistic traits are merely an extension of what we consider to be normal behaviour.
However by “labelling” Sherlock as definitely autistic – we are indirectly misleading people into forming a very distorted idea of what autism is.
It is not fair to criticise the people who write about Sherlock having autism, shouldn’t the public do more research?
In an ideal world, yes. However the problem is we are all human and we all have limited time. We cannot blame people for finding out information they believe is useful and accurate and stopping there. Many posts on the internet from lay people are easy to read, whereas professional texts on autism are not. People always subconsciously like to read what fits in with their own preconceptions, and once they have done that they do not feel the need to look further. The media has already preconditioned people to see anti-social geniuses as autistic so it is not surprising that with only the most circumstantial evidence people can be persuaded into believing the Sherlock represents autism. Fully researching autism takes time and energy that a lot of people simply do not have to spare
To put the onus of action and responsibility on the people, who through no fault of their own (apart from existing and exercising their right to browse the internet) have come to believe misleading information is unfair.
To ask people who are doing the writing to be more considerate of what they write and to think about the consequences of their actions is fair. We must all accept the consequences of our actions; it is part of living in a civilized society.
If I find comfort in seeing Sherlock is autistic, why should I stop doing it just because of other people?
We all relate to fiction characters and find comfort in that connection. It is a deeply personal thing and that connection is something that no one has the right to deprive anyone of.
However, we hope that everyone who reads this understands that no one lives in isolation, particularly in our modern world. What we post/write online in the public domain for all to read has far reaching effects on our wider society. We firmly believe that everyone has the right to free speech but with rights come responsibilities.
Information the public is not just the preserve or duty of medical professionals/the government. We all have very important roles to play and a responsibility to decrease prejudice and harmonize society.
In the end, a well informed public benefits everyone, especially people with autism. A well informed public is less likely to be prejudiced against autistic people; they are more likely to see people with autism as individuals rather than through the prism of stereotypes. In fact, a well educated public is more likely to treat all non-neurotypical people with understanding and respect. Is that not what we want from our society?
We cannot force anyone to take on these responsibilities, and frankly we don’t want to. The point of our article is to inform people of the negative impact of labelling Sherlock as definitely autistic in the hope that you will consider what you post in the future with a view to helping the public in their understanding of autism. For example: instead of simply presenting one side of the evidence, why not also state which of Sherlock's behaviours have nothing to do with autism? At least then when people read the post, they can separate what could be autism from what is just Sherlock.
4. Why we Need Your Help
We depend on the media and the internet to reach the general public. Think about it, how many people do you know that read the British Journal of Psychiatry on a regular basis? Even well filmed documentaries usually have a lower viewer rating than entertainment shows. Therefore we do very much rely on the media to show the public the complex range of psychiatric conditions that exist and give voices and faces to the millions of people who live with these conditions.
We, as the professionals, need to work hard on educating the public but we are few and you are many. We depend on you to instigate change – change in the way the media represents autism, change in the way that the general public view autism and change in the way people relate to others who are different.
We hope that you will join us in spreading the word.
PS: We are happy to receive any questions about autism and/or Sherlock through the blog wellingtongoose.tumblr.com or wellingtongoose.livejournal.com. We do not promise that we will answer all of the questions, but we will try.We know that the Sherlock fan community is more than capable of holding a mature and rational discussion so please refrain from sending hate mail, it both degrades the sender and the debate.