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BBC’s Sherlock, Asperger’s Syndrome, and Sociopathy

Posted on Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Christine Hughes

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.

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  1. My thankyous! Even doctors think we are sociopaths! My many thousands of thankyous!

  2. Regarding the last sentence: I do believe that the writers know the difference. I’ve seen it mentioned in one memorable fanfiction that Sherlock prefers the label “sociopath” over “autistic” because, disappointing though it may be, society pities autistics and fears sociopaths. A man like Sherlock would take fear over pity any day, and personally, I do agree that fear by far is better than pity, even if he only likes to be feared by those he doesn’t know all that well (e.g. not John, Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade or Molly).

  3. An Aspie myself, I never took personal umbrage to Sherlock’s “sociopath” line–in fact, it soon became my status quote on Facebook. However, I appreciate the clarification; you have articulated here a great many things I wish people knew about our lot–which usually only happens in the writings of Temple Grandin. So you’re in good company.
    I delight in Sherlock; I see him as one of a growing collection of positive depictions of Asperger’s on television. Mr. Holmes, Sheldon Cooper, Temperance Brenneman on “Bones”, Spencer Reid on “Criminal Minds”, Abed Nadir on “Community”–all positive, and three of them have the preface “Dr.” before their names. For a stereotype, I find myself quite content with it.

  4. Amy’s point above is interesting. My teenage son will act out in school when anxious, rather than use any of his pre-arranged calming tactics, because he would much rather be seen as “defiant” than “different”. But his behavior is not truly pre-planned. It seems to me that Sherlock, as written and portrayed, displays a very high ability to predict others’ motives and actions – and even manipulate them – when he’s on a case. He never seems to commit the kind of social mistakes with his “prey” that he does with his personal circle. With the latter, carelessness might often be a better description than deficit.

  5. I’m a 65-year-old Aspie. For many years, I feared that I was sociopathic. It was only fairly recently that I learned that my symptoms, behaviors, etc. indicated something perhaps more benign, Asperger Syndrome. Like many, now that I have a name, something to grasp onto, I can understand myself better and deal better with life. In short, it was a relief.

  6. A year ago on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin the child psycholigists came out of the woodworks and retrospectively diagnosed Darwin with Asperger Syndrome.

    I suspect with the 100th aniversary of Alan Turing’s birth it won’t take long before the likes of Michael Fitzgerald will claim they have retrospectivley diagnosed Turing with Asperger Syndrome.

    Michael Fitzgerald has created a cottage industry reotrospectivley diagnosing dead historical figures who can’t speak for themselves with Asperger Syndrome.

    There is a good reason why the DSM5 working group working group on autism is going to remove Asperger Syndrome as a valid autism spectrum disorder.

    As Allen Frances the editor of DSM-IV (1994) has correctly stated, the field trials for DSM-IV (1994) failed to predict the false epidemics of autism, attentional disorders and bi-polar disorders.

    Child Psychologists often cannot distinguish a developmental handicap from normal human trait variations.

    It is understandable why parents of accurately diagnosed children find comfort in this rampant pathologizing of normal human trait variations as seen in admirable historical figures. It should be pointed out that Fitzgerald has also retrospectivly diagnosed such malevant creatures who have darkened the planet as Adolph Hitler and Jeffry Dahmer and virtually every serial killer with Asperger Syndrome.

    In one of the largest studies (5,877) of its kind 26% of females and 19% of males self described themselves as being very shy in childhood. Where is the prevelance rates for Asperger Syndrome heading if it is retained as a vald autism spectrum disorder. 19% to 26% certainly seemsd to be a reasonable estimate.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15967173

  7. Great article! Small correction: you mention that Sherlock seems indifferent when “Mrs. Hudson is shot.” In fact, she has NOT been shot; he has set up a phony situation to trick John into rushing off to help her. That way, John will be out of danger when Sherlock confronts Moriarty on the rooftop of St. Bart’s.

  8. Though I am a young follower of Sherlock, I would still like to discuss this in depth. After reading this, I still class Holmes as a Sociopath. Not because I follow society in the portrayal of those with Autism or Asperger’s, but because I truly think that is what he is classed as still.

    With the point made using the quote: “We can’t giggle, it’s a crime scene,” I find myself deterred from this possibly being an indication of his autism. Why? Because in this scene, it is John Watson who laughs – not Sherlock. A faint smile suffices with him, but he doesn’t go over the top in his amusement as does his companion. I’ll go as far to say that just before this moment quoted, Sherlock asks if John is okay – indicating that he may know, or have some indication, as to how he is feeling.

    ||Spoilers for the Reichenbach ahead||

    With the last points made about the Reichenbach Fall, too, I find myself questioning as to whether they do indicate autism over a sociopathic trait. To me, the Reichenbach is a riddle in itself, and honestly, I can’t tell if what the characters feel or how they express themselves is correctly them. To me, in this last episode, I find myself even more drawn to the fact of him being a sociopath, because of his actions on St Barts. You’re right in saying that sociopaths wouldn’t sacrifice themselves for others – but was he really doing that? After all, it turned out he faked his death, so what else must he have feigned in order to achieve his false death? Surely he must have illustrated compassion somewhere to fool people? To wrap it up in truth – to play Moriarty at his own game? To fool Watson into thinking he is really dead?
    Honestly, the Reichenbach is one, massive lie. From the first minute, even. It’s impossible to tell how the characters actually react to situations from this episode, especially Holmes.

    Regarding the last line of this, too, I must say that the writers of the BBCs ‘Sherlock’ know their Sherlock Holmes inside out and back-to-front. Though it may seem that he is more autistic than sociopathic in the last episode, it is probably just the plot-line that exposes this. I do think this is a bold statement to make, though I’m not one to properly say it’s untrue as I’m not the writer and I lack considerable knowledge of Sherlock Holmes still. (though I am a fan of the series, movies and original stories, I just haven’t gotten through them all yet!)

    I must say, however, that I found this interesting to read. Though I have done nothing but contradict your theories, I still appreciate your take on this, and I hope the favour will be returned to me, too. Even if my opinions on this seem strong, I mean absolutely no offence to anyone in what I say – it is just my opinion on the matter, and considering also that I lack a lot of knowledge over the two conditions, I’m not in a spot to say anything else but my own thoughts.

  9. True,aspergers syndrome is a very huge topic to discuss.even my aunt son is suffering from aspergers syndrome. Its true that Asperger’s syndrome person exaggerates and misinterprets autistic people’s unusual responses to others emotions.

  10. i think what really proves that sherlock does in fact care a LOT about others is that one scene in a scandel in belgravia where the agent threatens to shot dr watson if sherlock doesn’t open the safe for them. holmes is clearly beyond distraught at that thought and it’s the one time he breaks his cool demeanor. if he was a sociopath he wouldn’t have cared

  11. ” A sociopath would never, ever make the choice that Sherlock does in this scene.”

    but couldn’t narcissism drive someone into doing something heroic?

  12. AT first glance I would have said Sherlock had cognative empathy but lacked emotional empathy, because he’s often able to deduct why someone did something or how they felt. But thats just it…it’s not “understanding how they feel because you might feel likewise,” which is typical empathy, but “deducting” to understand how they feel based on what he’s learned. In other words, if he lacked empathy, but not compassion, that could drive a lot of his deduction skills, because if you don’t feel things the same way others do you would want to learn to read them and practice how to respond.

    I’m amazed at how well they’ve done these characters. Wonder if Sherlock’s character in the original is this well thought out. Will have to read one.

  13. He seems more along the lines of schizoid to me. The lines between schizoid and Aspergers is quite blurry–many of the psychological community question if there really is a line.

  14. I’m blown away by this series.
    My question is this ‘ is Watson a sociopath?’ (after his stint in the army?)

  15. Thanks for the insight! Very interesting, as I was trying to figure out the difference between a sociopath, psychopath and autism.

  16. I think Sherlock’s referral to himself as a sociopath is an example of a mistaken self-diagnosis. Many Aspies who don’t know they’re Aspies mistakenly diagnose themselves with other things.

  17. It is possible to have both aspergers and be a sociopath. I am one. In fact, I am also highly narcissistic. The triple condition balances itself out quite well. I am mostly oblivious to others’ feelings but when I am aware, I have a strong desire to exploit but my narcissism is reputation-defending (interesting enough, even to my own self) so it serves as a guard against extreme situations.

  18. Thanks very much for this article!

    I totally agree. Very well done!
    I’m a bit bothered by this phrase, that Sherlock alleged to be a sociopath, as he isn’t sociopathic at all!
    It makes a serious disorder, presentable, or even sympathic, likable.

    You’d never hear statements like:
    “Don’t make people into heroes John. Heroes don’t exist and if they did I wouldn’t be one of them.”
    or
    “I’ll just be myself”
    from a sociopathic person.

    Thanks again! :)

  19. Thank you. I am just watching Season 1 on Netflix, and my first reaction was “high-functioning sociopath, no; high-functioning autistic, probably.” Even if the portrayal is not completely accurate, I think the series will help “neurotypical” people become more familiar with and more comfortable with autistic/aspie behaviors.

  20. Yes sufferers of autism are often highly gifted, geniuses in certain areas.

    Sociopaths are not, though they like to think they are.

  21. This is the most thoughtful and insightful article I’ve read on this topic in the last few days of looking. From what I know, I think it’s clear that the Sherlock character isn’t sociopathic. He cares about John, Mary, Mrs Hudson, and increasingly, Molly. He even gently promises to see his parents later when he pushes them out the door in Series 3, Episode 1. If anyone is sociopathic, I think it’s Mycroft.

    Sherlock is trying to improve his demeanor towards people. In the recent wedding episode, John reminds him at one point, where Sherlock is disregarding people around him, “We talked about that.” And he checks himself. During the best-man speech, he heaps John with as much praise as he has probably ever done before. He rises to the occasion. The man is very smart in the field of criminology and he knows it. That’s a statement of fact, not a narcissistic trait. He doesn’t abide fools, but then few people do. And like Gregory House before him, to function at his peak efficiency, he needs other people near him to bounce ideas off and to fill in the gaps he has in dealing with the world. As I understand it, sociopaths are very impetuous. But Holmes plans. He writes research papers on arcane subjects in the anticipation of one day using the knowledge in an investigation. He’s in it for the long haul. sociopaths are not above mistreating others sexually without qualm and using sex as a manipulation tool. In contrast, Holmes is acutely uncomfortable whenever the topic comes up.

    I think that the “high-functioning sociopath” rejoinder is a way of piquing nosy, uncomprehending people. He sees their bet and raises the stakes, making them as ill at ease as he is for that moment. This is the one time when he has the upper, more dark hand in social interactions.

  22. I think that was Sherlock’s attempt at a joke(saying that he was a sociopath), at least when he said it, he was smiling, as if being sarcastic or something. Not that his tone of voice gave that away, but the way he smiled and the look in his eyes told you he was playing with you.

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