Thursday, July 21, 2011

It's Elementary: Spotting Characters with Asperger's Syndrome in Popular Culture

I just started reading The Last Sherlock Holmes Story by Michael Dibdin, a pastiche of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous works, and a short phrase near the beginning caught my interest - Watson refers to Holmes’s cold-hearted rationale. This made me think of the character Temperance Brennan on the TV show Bones, who could sometimes be described in the same way. From there my brain immediately jumped to, does Sherlock Holmes have Asperger’s syndrome?

Some other things about Holmes’s behavior suddenly clicked and I could not stop thinking of Holmes as having Asperger’s. I googled “Sherlock Holmes + Asperger’s” and came up with more than half a million results, so I’m guessing I’m not the only one who’s had this theory! One person even came to this conclusion from the recent Sherlock Holmes movie, although I have to admit it didn’t occur to me when viewing the movie (even after a second viewing, which was necessary after an unfortunate technical error meant the movie theater I saw it in the first time was unable to play the last 10-15 minutes of the movie).

One of these Google results linked to an article from The New York Times, in which it is tossed around that Sherlock Holmes might be bipolar (while I can see where this theory comes from, I find this diagnosis less likely) or have Asperger’s syndrome. An interesting point to me was the final sentence of the article: “…clearly Holmes’s peculiarities have a persistent appeal. Just look at Temperance Brennan of “Bones,” Adrian Monk of “Monk,” and, of course, Gregory House of “House,” who exhibit at least a few Asperger-like symptoms and owe much to Sherlock Holmes.”

As I mentioned above, Brennan from Bones came to mind immediately in comparison with Sherlock Holmes. And while Monk’s creators had Sherlock Holmes’s methods of observation in mind for their beloved character, I think Adrian’s battles with OCD and a myriad of phobias are enough and he doesn’t need another diagnosis. (I’ve never thought of him as having Asperger’s anyway and still don’t think of it now even with prompting.) I never watched House so I don’t know about its eponymous character’s display or lack of Asperger-like symptoms.

The article, however, missed two other characters in pop culture today who clearly display Asperger-like tendencies even if they are not explicitly labeled as having Asperger’s – Sheldon from Big Bang Theory (again, I haven’t viewed this show myself but I’ve heard this explanation of Sheldon enough to feel comfortable repeating it) and Dr. Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds, who is one of my favorite TV characters on the air today. Reid, who arguably can read a lot more body language, nuance, etc. than he should be able to if he actually had Asperger’s, has a way of adding charming humor to an otherwise dark show. (Don’t get me wrong, I like Criminal Minds, but it can be incredibly intense at times and needs a ray of sunshine, no matter how weak). Just take some of Reid’s contributions to conversations otherwise all about crime:

Reid: How about pharmaceuticals? No one gets therapy these days without a healthy dose of medication.

Garcia: What are you implying Reid?

Reid: That everyone is medicated.

Garcia: Did you just make a joke?

Reid: No, I mean, statistics, they show that…

Garcia: Reid, next time, just say yes.

Reid: Statistically, 94% of all serial arsonists are male, 75% are white and few, if any, are ever caught.
Prentiss: Few? You don’t have a percentage?
Reid: 16%. Those 16% set 30 plus fires before they’re ever apprehended. I’m trying to be more conversational.
Prentiss: Oh. It’s not working.

Hotchner: Well, define love.

Reid: Chemically, it involves surging brain elements called monoamines, dopamines, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Love chemicals controlled by phenethylamine, also found in-

Prentiss: Chocolate. I love chocolate.

Reid [excited]: Peas, too! It’s also found in peas!

In line with The New York Times writer’s assertion about the “persistent appeal” of the “peculiarities” of Asperger-like symptoms, I had been interested to see when had a “favorite smarty-pants” contest late last year, in the top three were Brennan from Bones and Reid from Criminal Minds. Sheldon from Big Bang Theory and House from House were also on the list. Though Abby Sciuto from NCIS ultimately won, the contest certainly said something about the ability of Asperger’s characters to hold the interest of audiences. So much for their lack of social skills!

TV also introduced an acknowledged Asperger’s character with young Max Braverman in last year’s new show Parenthood. The show has been hailed as an honest look at a family’s struggles of dealing with an Asperger’s diagnosis. Try as I might, this show held no interest for me (for a variety of reasons, not particularly the presence or absence of a storyline involving Asperger’s), although I do think that assessment rings true from the few episodes I watched early on in the first season.

And the big screen also had an acknowledged Asperger’s character with the 2009 film Adam. While I had some problems with this movie, Hugh Dancy’s portrayal of a character with Asperger’s was not one of them, and the film gave audiences a fair amount of factual information about Asperger’s syndrome without being overly didactic. Of course, it seems like the kind of movie that would appeal to people who already had some knowledge on the topic, so that’s a bit of a drawback.

It’s late and I’m not sure that my rambling makes sense to anyone besides me, so I think it’s time for me to sign off on this post.


  1. "Though Abby Sciuto from NCIS ultimately won"

    And she's not free of the "Aspie-or-not-aspie?" speculation either...

  2. Oh really? I haven't heard that before. Pray, do tell more...