To the average person who has never met an autistic individual in their lives, there are two prevailing stereotypes about autism. The first is that of an unhinged, howling animal, stimming, headbanging, unable to communicate with others or even to take care of themselves. This vision of autism is one frequently pushed by curists and eugenicist (referring to ideologies which seek to eliminate “unfavorable” traits via genetics or population control) groups such as Autism Speaks, and is obviously nefarious and false in all but the most extreme circumstances (and even then, the stereotype is a gross demonization).
However, the second stereotype is far more prevalent in media, and, therefore, in the subconscious of the uninitiated: the insufferable genius, the talented asshole, the savant extraordinaire who is either uninterested in ever having a relationship, romantic or otherwise, or simply incapable of forming it. The social aspects of autism are a curse, chains meant to restrain what otherwise would be unquestionably an intellectual ubermensch (superior version of a human). This second autistic is not even an earnest attempt at realistic or sympathetic portrayal of autistic individuals (some who may fit that stereotype) but, rather, the remodeling of the old romantic ideal of the educated noble or the superfluous man a la Eugene Oneguin (main character in a play of the same name that inspired the concept of the “superfluous man”, a talented character who doesn’t fit social norms often born into privilege), whose social mishaps are a part and parcel of their expanded genius and deeper understanding of the world around them. But this stereotype, too, is harmful for a different reason: it both romanticizes autism and excuses genuinely anti-social behavior borne of profound privilege. The latter reason would be the subject of another essay, but the first is worth exploring. Inspiration porn (media that fetishizes disability for the benefit of an abled audience who is inspired by their triumph specifically because of the characters’ disability) is something that has plagued the disabled community at large, but romanticization and fetishization is a different beast entirely to tackle, and, in some ways, it is more nefarious. Rather than simply presenting the disability as a roadblock for an otherwise exceptional person to overcome in their hero’s journey, the disability is seen as a talent, something to be desired. On some level, we all wish to be Sherlock Holmes or Rick Sanchez. But rather than wishing to be them, we should be condemning them.
But it has never been explicitly stated that Sherlock Holmes is autistic, one might point out. His creators have even outright stated that Sherlock isn’t autistic. In fact, he himself identifies himself in the BBC series as “a high functioning sociopath.” Putting aside the patent and unusually out of character inaccuracy of Sherlock’s self diagnosis (which could itself be the subject of an essay), even if this were the case, this does not preclude him from having the observable symptoms of autism. He is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch as someone who very well could have what was once known as Asperger’s Syndrome whether or not the creators intended this (as is likely by having so many uniquely identifiable symptoms of autism, although the topic of “unwitting coding” by creators is also worth exploring). Identified by Doctor Hans Asperger in 1944 at a specialized school in Vienna and, according to some theorists, possessed by the doctor himself, the hallmarks of Asperger’s Syndrome (which is majorly over-represented in media portrayals of autism, especially those that romanticize autism) are avoidance of eye contact, formalistic speech, rigid thinking, highly focused interests coupled with a general disinterest for anything that doesn’t directly relate to them, inability or difficulty reading social cues, and a higher than average IQ. Hans Asperger famously referred to such children as “little professors.”
Even a cursory glance at Cumberbatch’s performance as Sherlock Holmes would be an exercise in Asperger’s bingo, and every part of what would, in real life, be looked at as a disability is celebrated. Sherlock is callously uncaring or unaware of social norms (best exemplified by his insensitive deduction of Molly’s feelings for him after tearing apart her appearance in a Christmas episode and his insistence on keeping frozen heads in the fridge shared with Watson), and we enjoy watching him being rude to people we think deserve it, such as Donovan. Never mind the fact that most autistic individuals have no idea that what they are saying or doing is rude and, when we learn of this fact, we are often mortified. Never mind the unbearable anxiety that so many of us experience walking on eggshells. Sherlock is an ubermensch, a super-man. Sherlock doesn’t care. Allistic (non-autistic) audiences enjoy and celebrate what even we admit is a handicap because, deep down, they too want to tell the simpletons in their lives that they “lower the collective IQ of the entire room when [they] open [their] mouths” (an ableist sentiment few autistic individuals would ever echo).
Sherlock also has very limited interests and little knowledge of things outside those interests. Rather than being a confusing and frustrating experience for him, as it is for many autistics, it is the source of his power; without his crippling overspecialization, he wouldn’t be the greatest detective in the world after all. We envy his expertise and knowledge, as well as his dedication. Never mind the fact that Sherlock’s ability to be single minded in his pursuit of his career and interests is only something that he benefits from due to his privileged status (indeed, were Sherlock poor or not white, he may never have been a detective or had the opportunities to use his talents in London, and he would only have the adverse aspects of Asperger’s to deal with day to day). One envies Sherlock’s drive and focus. In fact, were he not to have those traits, how could he solve crimes and keep England safe from Professor Moriarty?
Sherlock has formalistic speech patterns; rather than a source of alienation from his peers, it is instead a source of power; it serves to say “Sherlock is smarter than you and he knows it and wants you to know it.” It is the cornerstone of his ethos. And, of course, Sherlock has an undeniably superior IQ that few autistic individuals, even few individuals with “Asperger’s Syndrome” possess. He is truly a savant extraordinaire, a trait so few autistic individuals, regardless of any other positive traits, such as deep caring and altruism, possess. But those other traits are irrelevant and, indeed, if he had them, we wouldn’t care to watch him. No, Sherlock is a genius first and a “good guy” second, and it is his genius and its usefulness to society that matters, not the content of his character. I’m certain that the ableist implications of this are lost on nobody.
Consider, then, the similarities of his character to that of the two most famous “aspies”, Rick and Morty’s Rick Sanchez and The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper. Only Rick has been canonically confirmed, but, as with Sherlock, one can reasonably assume Sheldon is an “aspie” too due to Jim Parsons’ autistic-coded performance. Once again, both are highly intelligent, but, also, white, male, and shameless misogynists for whom the autism seems to be at worst a minor inconvenience and, in the case of Sheldon Cooper, his means to power. This is a rather convenient way to ignore the fact that Sheldon’s privilege as a petit-bourgeois (upper-middle class) intellectual is enviable even by other white males in the United States and is likely the source of his success. Once again, their autism is, at best, a minor annoyance, and the primary feature is not their inabilty to relate to allistic individuals or their shunning by society, but, rather, their overwhelming conventional intelligence, which is realistically more the result of their socioeconomic status and the lack of educational barriers afforded due to their whiteness than it is of their condition (while Rick’s last name is Sanchez, he is at the very least white passing and doesn’t seem to suffer from any sort of racial discrimination). If anything, their “autism” is a good thing: because they do not concern themselves with social rituals and the feelings of others, they can focus on their relentless pursuit of science and have the lack of moral scruples needed to operate as they do. However, this opens up a new, unfortunate implication: that people with autism are inherently immoral and anti-social, and, therefore, are potentially a menace to society. One is lucky that Sherlock and Rick and Sheldon are “good guys” and, as one officer points out to Watson, “What happens when he gets bored of solving crimes and starts committing them?”
It is in that final phrase that we arrive at the crucial evil of this particular portrayal: it is that the positive aspects being glorified actually have little, if anything, to do with autism, but that the negative aspects are unmistakably autistic. The depiction of autism as the genius asshole is more nefarious than the animal autistic specifically because it is, also, a negative and savage portrayal, disguised as glorification. What is being celebrated in these men (and note that every single one of these characters is a man; where is the insufferable genius among women in media?) is not their autism at all, for better or for worse, but the traits of the old Romantic portrayal of nobility. Their privilege gives them time to be studious and cultured, fussy and exact, and shields them from the negative consequences of their patently anti-social behavior.
Consider, also, the overwhelming whiteness and masculinity of this archetype: were a black or Middle Eastern man to start blithely insulting people around them and ignoring instructions given by authorities deemed irrelevant, they would be considered hostile and a threat. Were a woman to behave in a similar way, they would be considered “bitchy” or they may be ignored and not have their “genius” recognized in the first place. Rather than examining these issues, we celebrate them. We applaud Eugene Onegin as a Romantic Russian hero, complex and sexy in his troubled, manipulative ways borne of boredom, when, in reality, most would simply view someone like Onegin as a rather awful person. So too is the case with the three examples. They exemplify this Romantic ideal, Sherlock more so than the others, with his flowing coat, dark looks, and neat but expensive taste in clothing coupled with his elitist behavior. Many celebrate their condescending, distinctly man-splainey attitude towards life and, in the case of many allistic fans of Sherlock and Rick Sanchez, try to emulate it.
Putting aside the immediate issues with the appropriation of autistic behavior and mannerisms by those that aren’t autistic in order to excuse their own poor behavior or justify their chauvinism, imagine, then, that this is the general public’s experience with “Aspies,” what would one logically conclude? That those with “Asperger’s” are either geniuses or assholes, and if they are not geniuses, then they are dangerous assholes. One would conclude that they are to be watched, perhaps even eradicated, before they take a page from Elliot Rodger’s (the only autistic school shooter and intellectual Godfather of the incel movement) book. How long, they wonder, before autistics decide that the supposedly intellectually inferior allistics aren’t worth having around anymore? Even a seemingly positive portrayal of autism becomes one of autism as a threat. Any sympathy that could perhaps be afforded to them for their social mishaps is vanished behind the laugh track and the shock humor of their lack of consideration for society, something which does not exist in real life.
Not all autistic individuals are male, white, privileged, and as chauvinistic yet brilliant as these three men. But, with these three men, among others, representing what large swaths of the populace think about when they think about autism, specifically what is problematically called “high functioning autism,” this is irrelevant. No other portrayal could have been reached under the current entertainment status quo: save for Dan Harmon, Rick Sanchez’ writer, not a single one of the creators of these shows or any show depicting autistic individuals is themselves autistic or has taken the time to research autistics and portray them realistically and empathetically, and it shows. With no truly accurate or positive examples of explicit autism in media and with unrealistic expectations of privilege being thrust upon them, all autistics who do not conform, who aren’t irascible geniuses, can do is sit and count before someone makes the inevitable comparison, or says those dreaded words “You’re not that autistic” or “But you’re nothing like that!” And, when, inevitably, our protests fall on deaf ears, we brace ourselves for the suspicion, for the feelings of betrayal and, eventually, fear. We must brace ourselves to be approached with fear, to be #walkedup to in case we are not “one of the good guys.”
But this cannot stand. In the name of the autistic community everywhere, autistic writers, directors, producers, and media makers as a whole, must unite to condemn and boycott and sabotage in any way possible this veiled anti-autistic, pro-bourgeois propaganda, to unite with a common goal of creating the new representation of autism, something not animalistic nor romanticized, something human.
For that is all that we are, and all that we seek to be seen as.
No autistic characters without autistic writers! Full representation in media now!