Was Sherlock Holmes Autistic?

by A. Michael Maher
Presented to The Six Napoleons
June 23, 1994

Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin and Sherlock Holmes -- an unlikely mixture. Oliver Sacks is the neurologist with a national, no, international reputation. Sacks is an intense, scholarly, medical man who specializes in the mysterious workings of the mind. You may remember his book Awakenings, which was made into a popular movie. Temple Grandin, holder of a Ph.D. in animal sciences, entrepreneur, university professor, author and inventor is one of the most remarkable of that class of individuals who "suffer" from autism. And finally, to complete this unlikely trio, we have Sherlock Holmes, truly brilliant, the greatest detective of all time, a pathfinder and certainly different from his fellow man.

Sacks recently published an article about Temple Grandin and autistic people in New Yorker magazine (December 27, 1993). He mentioned that, although autism has clearly been a condition that has always existed, it was only identified in 1940. Autism was defined in terms of the characteristic displayed by autistic children. When we think of these attributes, we most often picture a non-verbal, self destructive child sitting silently in isolation, head ceaselessly banging against a wall. Less envisioned by the layman, but also characteristic, is a mental aloneness, a certain lack of emotion, an ability to visualize to an extraordinary degree and the appearance of strange, narrow preoccupations -- highly focused, intense fascinations and fixations.

Notice, when autism is spoken of, we automatically think of children, often dysfunctional children. But where do autistics go when they grow towards adulthood. Do they disappear? Perhaps evaporate! No one seems to be aware of functioning adult autistics. Since the mental range of autistics ranges from retarded to exceptional, and further that the condition is congenital and with one until death, it is clear that many of these autistic adults have learned to adapt, to function in the normal world. Focus on this truism was recently brought about by the autobiography Emergence: Labeled Autistic by Temple Grandin.

Sacks writes of Temple's description of her childhood and how far she was removed from normal. He describes her world as one of sensations heightened, sometimes, to an excruciating degree. In her book she speaks of her ears, at the age of two or three, as helpless microphones, receiving everything, irrespective of relevance, at full, overwhelming volume ... she showed an intense interest in odors and a remarkable sense of smell ... she soon developed an immense power of concentration, a selectivity of attention so intense that it could create a world of its own. She wrote, "People around me were transparent ... Even a sudden loud noise would not startle me from my world." Of course, Sherlock Holmes' ability to concentrate is well known and was described by Watson as extraordinary (The Sign of Four), complete (The Valley of Fear), composed (The Adventure of the Lion's Mane), greatest (A Case of Identity) and several times as intense (The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire, The Reigate Squires, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and The Adventure of Black Peter).

Uta Frith, an investigator of autism, writes of "Sherlock Holmes with his oddness, his peculiar fixations -- his little monograph on the ashes of 140 different varieties of pipe, cigar and cigarette tobacco (The Boscombe Valley Mystery, The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet). ... his clear powers of observation and deduction, unclouded by the emotions of everyday people, and the extreme unconventionality that often allows him to solve a case that police, with their more conventional minds, are unable to solve." Of course, The Cardboard Box outlines another odd Sherlockian study, that of human ears. Holmes' obsession with the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus is mentioned in The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. And I'm sure that you can think of many more examples of rather odd Sherlockian fixations on obscure subjects. [Additional monographs include those on Manuscript Dating (The Hound of the Baskervilles), on 160 Different Ciphers (The Adventure of the Dancing Men), on Seventy Five Perfumes (The Hound of the Baskervilles) and Tracing of Footsteps (The Sign of Four) -- Future monographs contemplated by Holmes include Typewriters and their Relationship to Crime (A Case of Identity), on Dogs Use in Detective Work (The Adventure of the Creeping Man), and on Malingering (The Adventure of the Dying Detective)].

Temple Grandin, according to Sacks, constantly runs 'simulations' as she calls them, in her head. Temple, in her business, works to improve and make more humane, packing house procedures. She visualizes the animal entering the chute, and can envision the animal from all angles, from above, from the sides, she can even become the animal and feel what it is like to enter the chute.

Can anyone doubt that during the preliminaries to The Cardboard Box Sherlock became Dr. Watson, actually entering his mind and discerning his every thought? All autistics, according to Temple, are intensely visual thinkers. They are non-emotional, that is, if they see a beautiful mountain scene they recognize it as beautiful, but the emotional "lift" is missing. Ever get a chill or strong patriotic feeling as The Star Spangled Banner is played? Yes? You're not autistic. If Sherlock were autistic, the mystery of his non-involvement in sexual activities is explained. An autistic person can appreciate, admire and respect someone -- but true love is out of the question. A so called lonely bachelor's life becomes not only easy, but preferred.

Holmes loves music and lays the violin to help concentrate. The canon mentions his violin in no less than thirteen of Watson's accounts. The violin is certainly the autistic's instrument -- look at the bow, back and forth, back and forth. Even with a Stradivarius at his disposal, Sherlock was not a great or even memorable musician. He would have been mechanically flawless with perfect pitch, but with little or no "touch." Perhaps the combination of perfect pitch and drive for rhyme and repetition explain the typical autistic's fascination with music. It is said that the great ground breaking Hungarian composer, Bartok, was autistic. Creativity, the ability to proceed with ordinary events in a truly innovative manner is the autistic's long suit.

Every true Sherlockian is a bit troubled and more than a little disturbed by the master's well noted cocaine use [The Five Orange Pips, The Man with the Twisted Lip, The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter, A Scandal in Bohemia, The Sign of Four and The Yellow Face]. Relax! Autism can and must be treated with drugs. These standard drugs were not available in the Victorian 1890s, but cocaine and opium were. Temple Grandin outlines, in her autobiography, how easy it would have been for her to have become "hooked" on downers. And only the intervention of her prescribed medication (50 mg Tofranil daily) may have saved her from a turn to illicit drugs. Curiously, Temple points out that her mental abilities were more acute before she began her medication regime. She describes her medication as "...adjusting the idle screw on a car's carburetor. Before taking the drug, the engine was racing all the time. Now the engine runs at normal speed." Is there any doubt that Sherlock used drugs to rest his ever racing mind? And remember, with the Victorian age's lack of today's regulated prescription drugs, cocaine and opium were legal, used in many patent medicines, and even prescribed by the medical profession of the day.

Let us examine Sherlock's early life. According to Baring-Gould's account of Sherlock's childhood, Sherlock's parents removed him from his home and neighbors when he was about one year old and the family lived in Pau, France until he was five. Was this early escape to France necessary because Sherlock was nearly dysfunctional and the family was too ashamed to permit their friends and neighbors to learn of their secret? Then, after a brief stay of two years back in England, the family returned to the continent to tour Europe. The start of this extended four year trip coincided with the time Sherlock would have entered into formal schooling. As the family flitted from city to city, conventional schooling would have been out of the question and a tutor would have been employed. Did the family sense that Sherlock was not ready for school and were they putting off the day when this painful fact would have to be faced?

Baring-Gould holds that when Sherlock finally did enter a formal school, he did not distinguish himself, and in fact, did not fit in and was removed from school to be again tutored on an individual basis. S. C. Roberts, who authored The Personality of Sherlock Holmes, agrees that young Holmes "... being temperamentally unfitted for the normal activities of public school life ..." was tutored at home. Bernard Davis in, Was Holmes a Londoner?, points out that Holmes' boxing and fencing vocations are consistent with private tutoring rather than the team sports normally associated with English public schools. An additional indication of his possible autism. And then there is college. Still referring to Baring-Gould, Sherlock went to college, probably Oxford, for two years, not making friends, except for Victor Trevor (The Gloria Scott), and staying close within himself. A degree took three years under normal circumstances in the 1870s. Sherlock quit Oxford, and entered a University (The Musgrave Ritual), probably Cambridge, for three years. He was a loner, always in the chemistry laboratory, regarded as highly intelligent by his fellow students. In Sherlock's own words (The Gloria Scott) he tells Watson, "I was never a very sociable fellow ... always rather fond of moping in my rooms and working out my own little methods of thought, so that I never mixed with men of my year." And he took a total of five years to finish a three year degree. In fact, there is disagreement over whether he received a degree at all. This apparent failure in school was not because he was incapable, but because he was different, significantly different. Certainly this chain of events is consistent with autism.

Sacks describes his initial visit with Temple Grandin. "She sat down with little ceremony, no preliminaries, no social niceties, no small talk ... She spoke well and clearly, but with a certain unstoppable impetus and fixity. A sentence, a paragraph, once started, had to be completed, nothing was left implicit, hanging in the air." Grandin is quoted as saying "My work is my life. There is not much else." Does all this remind you of anyone? Of course, none other than the Master.

As autism varies in the depth of its effect on a person, and as its incidence rate may well be hereditary, we should expect Mycroft, Sherlock's brother, to share a number of the master's autistic-like characteristics. We should not be surprised when Holmes says of his elder brother, "Mycroft has his rails and he runs on them. His Pall Mall lodgings, the Diogenes Club, Whitehall -- that is his cycle." (The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans). And, of course, Mycroft is a bachelor.

Autistics are notoriously humorless. Sherlockians have written regarding Sherlock's humor, or lack thereof. After a scholar called Holmes humorless, one Sherlockian counted over one hundred times in which the canon records a chuckle or laugh by the master. But examine a sample of what caused the Sherlockian chuckle. Typically, Sherlock was laughing at Lestrade's ineptness or Watson's lack of understanding. We have Watson's personal opinion of the Sherlockian humor expressed in The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone. Watson reports "...Holmes seldom laughs ... but he got as near it as his old friend Watson could remember." Try to think of a single witty saying by Sherlock Holmes or a play on words. Even without looking you feel uncomfortable with Sherlock as a standup comedian, don't you.

Holmes could feel for his fellow human, but in a logical non-emotional way. He sets free the criminal who seems justified and who, in Sherlock's opinion, has acted in a logical manner. And apparently feels no guilt. Sherlock often is judge, jury and executioner. Again, Temple sees that world and finds it lacking, in her estimation. She has singlehandedly changed the treatment of animals prior to slaughter. Holmes undoubtedly changed the face of detective work for all time. Curiously, he was not able to influence an inflexible legal system, so he refashioned the rules in his own private way. This inability to conform to what may be considered non-logical rules is still another characteristic of the autistic personality.

Now, let us have a little quiz. The following was said of or by whom, Temple Grandin or Sherlock Holmes?:

1. "This quality of memory seemed prodigious ... in its detail."
(Sacks, The New Yorker, Dec. 27, 1993; Jan. 3, 1994)

2. "He/She has absolute pitch ... a precise and tenacious musical memory."
(Sacks, The New Yorker, Dec. 27, 1993; Jan. 3, 1994)

3. "the visual parts of his/her brain and those concerned with processing a great mass of data simultaneously are highly developed."
(Sacks, The New Yorker, Dec. 27, 1993; Jan. 3, 1994)

4. "I am the only one in the world" (in my professional area).
(The Sign of Four; Emergence: Labeled Autism)

5. "(My profession) "... is, or ought to be, an exact science, and should be treated in the same cold unemotional manner."
(The Sign of Four)

6. "... his/her face had regained that ... composure which made so many regard him/her as a machine rather than a man/woman."
(The Crooked Man)

7. "... he/she had built up a vast library of experiences over the years."
(Sacks, The New Yorker, Dec. 27, 1993; Jan. 3, 1994)

Perhaps I can ask you, members of the Six Napoleons, to answer for yourselves the question as to Sherlock's possible autistic core. Tell me, if you had to name the most "Sherlock like" member of the original Star Trek cast and then you named the most "Sherlock like" Star Trek, The Next Generation cast member -- who would you think of? How may of you immediately thought of Spock and Data. Certainly you are not surprised to learn that surveys of autistic people show they overwhelmingly identify with Spock and Data -- and yes, most "high level" autistics are Trekkies.

The focus of this paper is not to "prove" that Sherlock Holmes was autistic, but to hold out the strong possibility. Sherlock certainly operated on a different and higher plane than his contemporaries, his powers of concentration were immense, his detachment legendary, his facility to visualize astounding. The fact that these adjectives are a perfect fit for Temple Grandin does not prove Sherlock's autism. However, less powerful observations are made to "prove" less likely features of the master's life.

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