Autism mentioned in Sherlock Holmes
Published in psycho.philica.com
In one of the less known stories “The Greek Interpreter”, I believe that autism is briefly mentioned.
I quote a paragraph from “The Greek Interpreter”:
[Sherlock Holmes dialogue] “Very likely not. There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town. No member is permitted to take the least notice of any other one. Save in the Stranger’s Room, no talking is, under any circumstances, allowed, and three offences, if brought to the notice of the committee, render the talker liable to expulsion. My brother was one of the founders, and I have myself found it a very soothing atmosphere.”
I am not sure if this is fact or fiction, since it comes from a storybook, but I believe that the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have adapted it from a true story. The above description sounds, in my opinion, rather like autism in mild to moderate forms.
Perhaps this is one “evidence” to prove that autism in the recent past, was not seen as autism, and people with mild autism could still function normally, albeit with some differences from normal people.
I also read a novel by Isaac Asimov, “Caves of Steel”, which also includes autistic traits in some of its characters, but since Isaac Asimov is known for pure imaginary science-fiction, I would not consider that as solid evidence.
I believe that this is quite significant information because Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was living from (1859-1930), while Dr Hans Asperger only Asperger published the first definition of Asperger’s Syndrome in 1944.
Professor Uta Frith has made an observation that states that Sherlock Holmes himself had autistic traits. But my observation is more about the specific characters in the Greek Interpreter having autistic traits.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is also known for using real events as inspiration of his stories. Examples include using his surgeon friend as a model for Holmes, and using a newspaper report in his inspiration for the Speckled Band.
Information about this Observation
Peer-review ratings as of 09:04:19 on 26th Sep 2017 (from 4 reviews, where a score of 100 is average):
Originality = 151.26, importance = 78.74, overall quality = 76.18
Published on Monday 16th October, 2006 at 11:50:35.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.
The full citation for this Observation is:|
Doglas, Y. (2006). Autism mentioned in Sherlock Holmes. PHILICA.COM Observation number 27.
Peer review added 16th October, 2006 at 12:16:13
This is an intriguing observation. As a fan of the Holmes stories myself I am familiar with Doyle’s basing characters and situations on real life inspirations, and so would not be entirely surprised to hear that the Diogenes club was rooted in something real — or perhaps just something he wished was real during a low period.
It would be interesting to set this description of the Diogenes club against a more general study of attitudes to personality in Victorian Britain, and how such attitudes have changed over the years. A hundred years ago, qualities such as taciturnity were perhaps not thought so unusual as they are today — indeed such personality traits were sometimes praised, being seen as a sign of serious-mindedness: there was not the expectation that everybody would have a sense of humour, as there is in modern England. On the one hand, this might make the Diogenes club not as unusual as it strikes the modern reader, if the mores of the time are taken into account; but on the other hand, different societal attitudes to sociability might indeed, as the author implies, have masked the identification of pathological levels of antisociality.
If this latter interpretation is correct, the implication is that changing attitudes to the desirability of certain personality characteristics may not only alter what is seen as acceptable over time, but also what is seen as pathological. That this happens is almost certain, and readers may be familiar with the psychiatric view of homosexuality over the past few decades, as a case in point. It is interesting to speculate on whether any qualities seen as normal today may one day be seen as problematic.
Peer review added 16th October, 2006 at 23:10:31
This is a view I’ve not considered. The observation may better be placed elsewhere in philica, perhaps with a literary view. I am a great fan of Holmes myself. If this view of the characters and assessment of the traits and characteristics of players is to be considered as valid then surely we can go MUCH further. The stories are riddled with interesting characters with a raft of fascinating traits. Evidence of all manner of paranoia, disorders, evidence of aspects of components of attribution theory etc. Not least Holmes’ peculiar relationship with Watson, and his spectre Moriarty. The oft overlooked character of Mycroft (suggested here as showing autistic traits) might also be described as a father figure of some kind. The speculation is endless. Consider Freud, probably a more influential contemporary of note. I am certain many observations have been made in this area elsewhere. That is not to say an autism component is not of interest, particularly in the historical context of Conan Doyle’s work.
Peer review added 28th November, 2006 at 17:46:29
Diagnosing historical personages after the fact is always tricky and fictional characters even more so. However, notwithstanding this caveat:
We need to be careful here to distinguish between Autism per se and Asperger’s syndrome. Also between any old members of the Diogenes club and Mycroft Holmes in particular. Autism (even amongst high-functioning individuals) is usually associated with some degree of mental retardation and language impairment. This may well be true for some members of the Diogenes, but not for Mycroft (whose younger brother, Sherlock, considered him to be his superior in observation and deduction). Asperger’s sydrome on the other hand does not have these negative assocations and hence sounds more plausible in Mycroft’s case but I still have a few doubts- later in the same story Mycroft’s deductions regarding the marital status of a stranger glimpsed across the street are difficult to reconcile with the idea that he suffered a deficit in mentalizing.
Of course, it is also true that symptoms of autism and Asperger’s syndrome cary across a continuum of severity so that it is possible to have autistic-like qualities without meeting the clinical definition for the pathology (see Uta Frith’s comments). It is likely that Dr Conan Doyle (either in his clinical practice or in everyday life) had encountered individuals who would score highly on the autistic spectra (most of us know a few such people) and this may have informed his writing. Or, a third alternative, is that Doyle was simply writing about people (the members of the Diogenes) he viewed as mysogynistic in tendency with no regard to the source of this misogyny (whether it came from a defect of social cognition or no).