As awareness of autism spectrum disorders, such as Asperger’s syndrome, in adults increases, characters with autistic traits are becoming increasingly common in television and other media. Temperance Brennan of Bones and Sheldon of Big Bang Theory exemplify this phenomenon, as does Sherlock from the BBC show of the same name.
However, in part because widespread awareness of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) in adults is a very recent phenomenon, current media portrayals of adults with autistic traits often incorporate popular misconceptions about ASDs. One of those misconceptions, epitomized by the character of Sherlock, is confusion between ASDs and sociopathy. Sherlock describes himself as “a high-functioning sociopath” in the first episode of the BBC show, yet is clearly not sociopathic and behaves in ways that are far more reminiscent of Asperger’s syndrome than of sociopathy.
Many people confuse autism and sociopathy because they know people with both conditions have trouble interacting and empathizing with others, and because they see the terms “antisocial” and “lacking empathy” applied to both groups. However, the social problems of autistic people and those of sociopaths are not just different but almost opposite. As when Sally Donovan claims that Sherlock “gets off on” crimes and is “a psychopath”, people may see a person’s autistic behavior and mistake that person for a sociopath, falsely believing that someone who may be extremely moral and principled is actually dangerous and lacking a sound conscience.
While many laypeople use the term “antisocial” to apply to people who are introverted and uncomfortable interacting with large numbers of people, mental health professionals use it very differently. When a psychologist or psychiatrist diagnoses someone with antisocial personality disorder, they mean that the person exhibits “a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others” (DSM-IV), which typically involves criminal acts, chronic lying, physically assaulting others, disregard for others’ safety and needs, and lack of remorse for one’s actions. Sadly, laypeople may read professional descriptions of antisocial personality disorder and conclude that the people they think of as “antisocial”—who may be autistic or just ordinary introverts—are capable of the terrible deeds associated with antisocial personality disorder.
Descriptions of both autistic and sociopathic people as “lacking empathy” also contribute to popular confusion between autism and sociopathy. Most discussion about empathy among laypeople, and some even among mental health professionals, fails to distinguish between emotional empathy and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy, which is what most people mean by “empathy”, involves an emotional, sympathetic response to another’s feelings in which one feels some of the emotion the other person feels. While Sherlock rarely shows strong outward emotion, his appalled reaction to Mycroft’s contemptuous “Oh, shut up, Mrs. Hudson” demonstrates that he can respond in an emotionally empathic way when someone he cares for is treated badly. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand what others are thinking—to “read” from their words and behavior what they really mean as opposed to what they explicitly say, and to truly understand how they think and feel about a situation.
Autism spectrum disorders involve impaired cognitive empathy and, in most cases, average to heightened emotional empathy. People with ASDs often do not show the appropriate emotions in response to another person’s feelings, as when Watson has to remind Sherlock “We can’t giggle, it’s a crime scene,” but that is typically because they do not intuitively understand what the other person feels and/or why the other person feels that way, and because their ways of showing emotion may vary from the norm.
Others, however, usually do not realize why autistic people do not display the usual signs of an emotionally empathic response. They may not realize that the autistic person is far more deeply affected by the situation than he or she appears to be, or would be deeply affected if he or she understood the other person’s experience. In contrast, sociopathy involves impaired emotional empathy and, typically, average to heightened cognitive empathy. As a result, sociopaths understand what others are thinking, can readily manipulate them, and are often superficially charming, whereas the reverse is usually true of people on the autism spectrum.
Sherlock’s behavior is far more typical of autism spectrum disorders than of sociopathy or psychopathy, yet he and many others seem to mistake him for sociopathic, and some of his actions are more typical of the popular conception of Asperger’s than of most actual people with ASDs. Sherlock is socially awkward, unaware of and seemingly unconcerned with how his words affect people emotionally, and has no use for social convention, as when he calls John Watson “an idiot” in the first episode and does not expect John to get angry. Far from being superficially charming and able to intuitively manipulate others, Sherlock is often oblivious to how other people respond to him, as when he tells John “I don’t have friends,” and is surprised when John is upset. These traits are typical of people on the autism spectrum, and less common among sociopaths. While Watson mentions the possibility of Sherlock having Asperger’s briefly in one episode, it is not referenced elsewhere in the series.
However, many people around Sherlock are unsure what to make of his behavior. They brand him as sociopathic, psychopathic, or just machine-like, because he does not react normally to other people’s feelings. In line with the popular conception of Asperger’s syndrome, which exaggerates and misinterprets autistic people’s unusual responses to others’ emotions, Sherlock often appears robot-like and unaffected when other people are very emotional, and unknowingly says and does things that make him appear uncaring. Instead of comforting others who are in distress, he analyzes their situations intellectually and tries to solve their problems. While many people with Asperger’s syndrome do not appear robotic, they may try to solve the parts of another person’s problem that they intellectually understand without ever fully understanding the person’s emotions or need for comfort.
The clearest evidence that Sherlock is more autistic than sociopathic comes at the end of Season 2. (Warning: specific spoilers ahead.) While he does not provide comfort to Mrs. Hudson or Watson when Mrs. Hudson is shot, Sherlock demonstrates his care for her by trying to learn more from Moriarty about the danger she is in. Furthermore, when forced to choose between his friends being shot and his appearing to die in disgrace, he chooses the latter. Sherlock is clearly distraught at the idea of his friends dying, unlike a sociopath. A sociopath would never, ever make the choice that Sherlock does in this scene. Sociopaths value their own reputation and social power over human life, whereas Sherlock surrenders his good name to save his friends.
The confusion between autism and sociopathy lets people like Sherlock be maligned as lacking conscience and compassion, even when they actually have a keen sense of morality. Sherlock and other people with autistic traits do not always demonstrate empathy in the ways that society expects, yet they may still care deeply for others. People with ASDs, not sociopaths, stay “on the side of the angels” and sacrifice their reputations for their friends. While many people cannot distinguish between autism and sociopathy, people creating autistic or sociopathic television characters should understand the difference.