Abstract

Sherlock Holmes has long been rumored to be on the autism spectrum. Yet the significance of the great detective's autism "diagnosis" has been largely overlooked. While it would be impossible to diagnose a fictional character with a neurological difference, it says something about the way that the public imagines autism that Holmes is consistently imagined and described as a person on the spectrum. Indeed, Conan Doyle's character popularized the stereotype of the detective with autistic traits, thus perpetuating several common tropes about autism. Emulating Conan Doyle's famous tales, contemporary crime fiction frequently creates detective characters with autistic characteristics. For example, popular television shows such as Criminal Minds present detectives with autistic traits who are clearly constructed to remind audiences of Holmes. While figures such as Spenser Reid (and other crime fighters following in Holmes's shadow) may seem to counteract fears of people with cognitive disabilities as deviant, criminal, or dangerous, they may actually reinforce those stereotypes.


Sherlock Holmes has long been rumored to be on the autism spectrum. From chat on fan sites to direct diagnoses in The New York Times and Psychology Today, he is the literary character most commonly associated with autism in the popular imagination. 1 Yet despite the ongoing scholarly conversation regarding Conan Doyle's work, the significance of the great detective's autism "diagnosis" has been largely overlooked. While it would be impossible to diagnose a fictional character with a neurological difference, it says something about the way that the public imagines autism that Holmes is consistently imagined and described as a person on the spectrum. 2 Indeed, Conan Doyle's famous character popularized the stereotype of the detective with autistic traits, thus perpetuating several common tropes about autism. 3

While the cultural fantasy of the autistic detective may seem to dispel the darker fantasy of those with cognitive disabilities as dangerous criminals and social problems, such detective figures may actually work to reinforce these stereotypes. Furthermore, the presumably redemptive fiction of the autistic hero often proves oddly dehumanizing: even as his incredible feats of deduction are praised as a work of genius, Holmes is objectified by his beloved Watson, who constantly compares the brilliant sleuth to machines and repeatedly describes him as "inhuman." As Watson (representing the neurologically typical reader) struggles to solve the enigma that is Holmes, he establishes a legacy of mystery and mysticism surrounding the autistic detective that carries over into the famous figure's many pop culture analogs. Emulating Conan Doyle's famous tales, contemporary crime fiction frequently creates detective characters with autistic characteristics. For example, popular television shows such as Criminal Minds present detectives with autistic traits who are clearly constructed to remind audiences of Holmes. While figures such as Spenser Reid (and other crime fighters following in Holmes's shadow) may seem to counteract fears of people with cognitive disabilities as deviant, criminal, or dangerous, they may actually reinforce those stereotypes. Dwelling on the mystery and exoticism of alterity, such figurations also cast the character with autism as a puzzle in need of an outside solution.

Diagnosis and Deduction

The claim that Conan Doyle's famous detective has Asperger's Syndrome is ubiquitous enough to appear in a variety of popular venues, and his diagnosis has been pursued by both fans and professionals; unfortunately, most of the discussions of Holmes's autistic traits present negative stereotypes as a part of their analysis, offering an extremely superficial and one-sided view of autism. An article in The New York Times describes Holmes as "mind-blind," "coldblooded," and "rude," using these demeaning descriptors as diagnostic criteria for the popular sleuth. 4 Autistic people generally consider the term "mind-blind" to be derogatory, and the idea that all people with autism are "coldblooded" and "rude" is obviously a damaging stereotype. 5 Another article describes Holmes as a character with Asperger's who can solve crimes because he thinks outside of "normal, balanced cognition." 6 Such readings set neurotypical thinking up as the natural norm and suggest that other ways of thinking must be inherently inferior. An article in Psychology Today explains that Holmes must be autistic because "His obsessive interest in the craft of crime-solving crowded out almost everything else from his life, including the possibility of warm and reciprocal relationships." 7 Clearly, people on the spectrum are incapable of warm and reciprocal relationships (our ability to use sarcasm is also often falsely maligned). In Autism: Explaining the Enigma, Uta Frith presents Holmes as a "creature of cold reason who is incapable of warm-hearted relationships" and explains that he is juxtaposed with Watson, a character who is able to have "warm feelings." 8 Certainly, the suggestion that Holmes (and the autistic population he is imagined to represent) is completely incapable of emotional connections is a disturbing one. In sum, such readings frequently present autism as "abnormal" in relation to an imaginary neurotypical norm and encourage false stereotypes of autistics as emotionless, lacking in empathy, and incapable of love. Perhaps even more problematic is the potential interpretative looping that can result when the psychiatric community itself identifies a literary character as having a specific cognitive disability. Holmes's supposed diagnosis was the subject of a letter to the editor in a recent issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders: Eric Altschuler suggests that studying figures like Holmes might help to determine how prevalent autism was in previous generations. 9 Such arguments demonstrate how a fictional character can be labeled based on stereotypes and then used as an exemplar for actual autistic people. Suddenly, it is not autistic people who are the interpretative template for the literary character—the public perception of the literary character may reshape and inform how autism is defined as a social construct.

However, the ongoing conversation about Holmes and autism rarely addresses the difficulties inherent in "diagnosing" a literary character or the narrow view of people on the spectrum that the resulting analysis often offers. Amateur diagnoses based on popular stereotypes foster a one-dimensional way of thinking about people on the spectrum. In addition, such informal diagnosis may lead people to think that the experience of being autistic can be reduced to a list of criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For those who self-identify as autistic, being on the spectrum is not just a list of traits, but an entire person, an entire life experience. 10 That experience is always much more than (and sometimes simply other than) the diagnostic criteria. The diagnosis of a literary character may be misleading in that even the best-drawn character can never have the full roundness of a real person: one may wonder on what level Holmes's autism is merely Conan Doyle's "narrative prosthesis." 11 Because Holmes is a literary construct, it is also important to note that his autism diagnosis is partially a function of Watson's neurotypical narrative. Almost all of the reader's perceptions of Holmes are filtered through Watson's narrative voice: it might be more accurate not to say that Holmes is autistic but rather that Watson perceives him as autistic. Thus, the adventures of the autistic detective, as narrated by his neurotypical sidekick, are presented with an extra layer of interpretive data—as readers, we perceive both Holmes's autistic traits and Watson's neurotypical reactions to those traits. In fact, Watson's invisible, default position as neurotypical narrator mirrors the assumed norm of the majority perspective in our society at large. The neurotypical narrative perspective Watson offers elides the issue of autism as a subjective social construct: because Watson's voice narrates Holmes's story, the reader is placed in a default neurotypical position and is encouraged to perceive Holmes's actions and words through the interpretative lens of Watson's "normative" social expectations.

The dangers of diagnosing a literary character with an autism spectrum disorder are manifold, and the very question of Holmes's status on the spectrum raises larger questions about the definition of autism itself. The question of who "controls" the autism diagnosis or "defines" what it means to be autistic is already a fraught one within the autism community. 12 One potential answer is that the psychiatric community (via the DSM) defines autism. But a growing body of collective literature written by autistic people, the reported individual experiences of people on the spectrum, and popular culture representations of autism all add different angles to that definition (or, in the case of some narratives written by autistic people, completely rewrite it). 13 Autobiographies written by people on the spectrum present an increasingly common way of "talking back" against the definition of autism presented in the DSM. 14 Of course, one potential definition of autism is that it is not neurotypical—autism is a social construct that exists solely in opposition to what is considered normative and could be described as whatever a particular society perceives as falling outside of that norm. 15 When it comes to "diagnosing" a character like Holmes, social norms and popular stereotypes may play more of a role in constructing and defining autism than the reported life experiences of actual autistic people or the diagnostic criteria given in the DSM. Ultimately, no one representation can ever encapsulate the incredible diversity of the spectrum—and while Holmes is probably an autistic character by most definitions, he is not an autistic person.

In many ways, the popular association of Holmes with the autism spectrum is unsurprising as Conan Doyle's character adheres to a plethora of autism stereotypes: Watson perceives Holmes as having intense interests, struggling in the social sphere, and displaying unusual body language. 16 Certainly, Holmes approaches his work with an intense single-mindedness (both crime solving and his chemical experiments). As Watson explains, "his zeal for certain studies was remarkable, and within eccentric limits his knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations have fairly astounded me" (Study 14). 17 Watson understands Holmes's knowledge to be deep rather than broad—but more importantly, the depth of that knowledge "astounds" him and he finds it "extraordinary." Watson, representing the neurotypical reader, is unable to understand or appreciate Holmes's deep interests and perceives them as mysterious. This lack of understanding contributes to the stereotype of autism as a "puzzling" and mysterious phenomenon. Watson describes Holmes as choosing his work over human companionship: "So engrossed was he with his occupation that he seemed to have forgotten our presence" (Study 32). The emphasis here should be on the word "seemed"—as is so often the case, Watson cannot really tell the reader what Holmes is thinking, again contributing to the stereotype of the autistic mind as mystery. Certainly, Holmes's fields of interest often seem too narrow to interest a wider audience (for example, his monograph on tobacco ash). 18 The unusual depth of Holmes's interests may make them seem eccentric and exotic to some readers.

In addition, the other characters frequently perceive Holmes as socially awkward. However, what the other characters interpret as bluntness or rudeness could also be construed as a misunderstanding caused by fundamentally different ways of thinking. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mrs. Lyons seems quite shocked by the detective's behavior as "Holmes opened his interview with a frankness and directness which considerably amazed her" (Hound 143). 19 Given the context of his interview with Mrs. Lyons (Holmes is trying to apprehend a murderer before he kills again), Holmes's haste and directness is quite appropriate. It is true, however, that Holmes often forgets social niceties, even going so far as to slight royalty in "A Scandal in Bohemia": "He bowed, and, turning away without observing the hand which the king stretched out to him, he set off in my company for his chambers" (Adventures 29). 20 Holmes often oscillates between silence and long monologues, speaking with "the air of a clinical professor expounding to his class" and avoiding small talk (even with Watson and his fiancée): "Miss Morstan and I chatted in an undertone about our present expedition and its possible outcome, but our companion maintained his impenetrable reserve until the end of our journey" (Sign 39, 19.). The "impenetrable" nature of Holmes's silence suggests the common stereotype of those with autism as trapped by an imprisoning interiority, separated from the rest of the world by a chasm of silence. 21 Clearly, the neurotypical characters view Holmes as non-communicative and disengaged.

Furthermore, Holmes frequently engages in self-stimulating (stimming) behaviors and displays atypical body language: through the reactions of the neurotypical characters, the reader is encouraged to interpret these autistic traits as signs of illness and symbols of Holmes's ineffable mystery. Holmes's habit of repetitive pacing is a source of concern for both Watson and the landlady. Mrs. Hudson expresses her worries to Watson,

I am afraid for his health … he's that strange, sir. After you was gone he walked and he walked, up and down, and up and down, until I was weary of the sound of his footstep … I hope he's not going to be ill, sir. I ventured to say something to him about cooling medicine … (Sign 71)

Although Watson knows that Holmes has a habit of pacing when he is thinking, even he worries when the detective continues to pace all night: "I was myself somewhat uneasy when through the long night I still from time to time heard the dull sound of his tread …" (Sign 72). The neurotypical characters perceive Holmes's stimming as "strange" and "ill," and it makes them "uneasy." Mrs. Hudson also indicates that Holmes's stimming makes her "weary": in the formation of negative stereotypes, not only is neurotypical taken as the default normal, but autistic differences that are viewed as annoying are also those most frequently pathologized. In addition to this stimming behavior, Holmes exhibits atypical body language that Watson finds it difficult to interpret: because of his inability to decode his friend's expressions, Watson often imagines Holmes as cold and emotionless. According to Watson, Holmes rarely seems focused on the person he is conversing with and is often looking elsewhere. Indeed, it is remarkable how often Holmes either sits with his back to Watson or converses with clients with his eyes shut. At the beginning of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, when Holmes has been separated from his dearest friend for a very long time, his greeting strikes Watson as cold and aloof: "His manner was not effusive. It seldom was; but he was glad, I think, to see me. With hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye, he waved me to an armchair …" (Adventures 6). As well as Watson knows Holmes, he still cannot truly read him. Because the stories are narrated from Watson's perspective, Holmes's body language is judged against a neurotypical standard. Thus, Holmes's natural body language is interpreted by the other characters as mysterious and unreadable, and his stimming behaviors are presented as a sign of eccentricity and ill health.

Holmes also perfectly fits the stereotype of the autistic savant so pervasive in popular culture, as he has an incredibly detail-oriented mind combined with phenomenal memory skills. As public awareness of autism spectrum disorders increase, stereotypes abound: the media often represents people with autism as computers, machines, or aliens and has spread the erroneous stereotype that all autistic people are savants. 22 Savant figures reassure audiences about the nature of autism, providing what Stuart Murray describes as the "compensation cure" and leading society to imagine that the savant's special skills "act to compensate for the disability with which they are associated." 23 Savants are depicted as "overcoming" autism through mental achievement, and such figures perpetuate a negative stereotype for people on the spectrum. 24 Indeed, the myth of the autistic detective is largely based on the premise that sensory integration dysfunction is a savant skill that makes one unusually observant—and that this heightened awareness and observational ability allows the detective to solve the mystery. The awe and wonder customarily evoked by the autistic savant clearly contribute to Holmes's popularity, as his method of deduction inspires a sense of wonder both in the other characters and in Conan Doyle's readers. 25

Cognitive Difference and Dangerous Stereotypes

In the original Conan Doyle stories (and in many later adaptations and retellings of the Sherlock Holmes myth) the autistic detective is frequently compared to criminals—an association that subtly links cognitive difference with criminality. 26 Although research in multiple fields has repeatedly disproven the myth that connects cognitive disabilities with violent behavior, this stereotype persists. 27 According to Peter Beresford:

A powerful medical psychiatric tradition has for more than a century now shaped attitudes, responses and understandings towards mental health service users. It has framed us as pathological, as defective, as problems, as unpredictable … Psychiatry has helped us become confused about what bad and mad mean. Increasingly when some terrible crime is committed … then we are encouraged to feel the person must be mad to do such a thing … they are included as mentally ill and increasingly shape public and personal understandings of madness and distress and couple it more and more closely with crime, violence and threat. 28

Of course, what is at stake in such figurations of mental disability is a threat to the definition of "normalcy" itself: society neutralizes this threat by attempting to cast criminals as fundamentally Other. 29 As Margaret Price has argued, representations of mental disability as the cause of violence "locate madness within the individual killers, marking the 'crazy,' 'troubled' aspects of their personalities, and hence reify 'our' (the putatively normal readers and creators of such representations) status as normates." 30 In other words, we want to believe that terrible crimes must be committed by someone "unlike us." Unfortunately, cognitive disability is often falsely offered as an explanation for criminal behavior (especially in the media). 31 Although cognitive difference might be "assumed to be the cause" of criminal actions, such representation of disability "operates … as a mechanism through which [criminals] are placed in a space of unrecoverable deviance." 32 Whether in fiction or in life, the idea that mental difference causes violence may actually encourage violence and discrimination against people with mental differences. 33 Clearly, using autistic traits as markers of criminal deviance for fictional characters has serious consequences.

On the surface, it seems that the cultural fantasy of the autistic crime fighter serves to dispel the false stereotype of people with cognitive disabilities as criminals—but in the Sherlock Holmes stories, cognitive difference is equated with deviant criminality, and Conan Doyle depicts Holmes as a hero who triumphs over the hereditary brain difference that links him to the criminal underworld. While Holmes ultimately becomes a symbol of justice and the law, the implied connection between autistic traits and criminal behavior continues to haunt the original Sherlock Holmes stories and later popular culture adaptations of these tales, perpetuating false and damaging stereotypes in surprisingly subtle ways. In fact, Holmes often seems a little too interested in crime—his intense interest in illegal activity and those who engage in it often makes other characters uneasy. In fact, crime is his special interest. The detective brags of his "knowledge of the history of crime"; Watson notes that his "knowledge of sensational literature" is "immense" for "he appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century"; the police describe the consulting detective as "a connoisseur of crime" (Study 20, 16, 118). Indeed, Holmes knows more about organized crime than the very criminals themselves, for he claims that "there is no one who knows the higher criminal world of London so well as I do" (Memoirs 250). The stories are haunted by the idea that Holmes's intense interest in crime might actually make him into a criminal. Watson observes Holmes at work and wonders if his eccentric roommate could prove dangerous: "So swift, silent, and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law, instead of exerting them in its defense" (Sign 43). Watson believes that the very characteristics that make Holmes a successful crime fighter might also make him a successful criminal. In "The Final Problem," Holmes brags to Watson that "In over a thousand cases I am not aware that I have ever used my powers upon the wrong side" (Memoirs 263). Yet the very statement suggests that there is a danger of Holmes using his immense intellect in favor of the criminal element rather than against it. The implication is that Holmes's unusual mind, his cognitive difference, is a sign of criminal deviance.

In a further connection between cognitive difference and illegal activity, the heroic detective seems to be linked to his arch-nemesis by common neurology. Holmes and Moriarty are inextricably connected—specifically through their unusual minds and ways of thinking. The detective and the criminal mastermind admire each other's work as equal "connoisseurs of crime." Holmes uses words such as "genius" and "wonder" to describe Moriarty's work, confessing that "My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill" (Memoirs 251, 253). Moriarty, too, admires the work of Holmes: "It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair" (Memoirs 255.). Specifically, it is the mind that connects detective and criminal, as they admire one another's intellect. Sometimes the two men seem to think not just with equal minds but with one mind. "I know every move of your game" Moriarty warns Holmes (Memoirs 255). When Watson asks, "What will he do?" Holmes responds simply, "What I should do" (Memoirs 260). Although thinking like a criminal is an implied part of the detective's job description, Holmes is a little too good at it. Moriarty is Holmes's equal in many ways: indeed, if Holmes has autism, then so does Moriarty. Holmes suggests that Moriarty's unusual mind is the product of heredity, and the parallels between the two characters suggest an inherited cognitive difference in both detective and criminal. Holmes describes Professor Moriarty as "endowed by Nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty … but the man had hereditary tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers" (Memoirs 252). Moriarty's extraordinary math skills, given to him at birth (by "Nature") are linked to his criminal tendencies, which are also described as hereditary. According to Holmes, Moriarty was born a criminal, doomed by biology, and, apparently, by an extraordinary mind that only makes him all the more dangerous. Of course, Holmes's extraordinary mind also has a hereditary basis—one need look no further than his brother Mycroft to see that being an eccentric genius runs in the family. 34 If Moriarty is destined by heredity to become a criminal, Holmes seems destined by heredity to think like one. In short, Holmes and Moriarty are closely linked by their unusual minds, and both characters display traits associated with the stereotype of the autistic savant. Conan Doyle's depiction of Holmes as being connected to Moriarty through common neurology establishes a false equation between cognitive difference and criminal deviance.

Again and again, the connection between criminal and detective is a link forged by unusual minds: the multiple doppelgangers in The Hound of the Baskervilles all adhere to a variety of autism stereotypes. The novel's plurality of eccentric scientists and doctors, all of them loners, all of them socially awkward, all of them intensely interested in esoteric subjects, reminds readers that Holmes is inextricably joined with the criminals he pursues. Dr. James Mortimer, a scientist with an intense interest in phrenology, talks about nothing but the shape of people's skulls. Holmes immediately observes the characteristics that he and Mortimer share: "You are an enthusiast in your line of thought, I perceive, sir, as I am in mine" (Hound 8). Early in the novel, Mortimer and Holmes compare their "special hobbies." Mortimer explains that he knows everything about different skulls "Because that is my special hobby. The differences are obvious. The supra-orbital crest, the facial angle, the maxillary curve, the—" (Hound 32). Holmes interrupts the long-winded scientist to explain his knowledge of crime: "this is my special hobby, and the differences are equally obvious" (Hound 32). Yet the murderer in The Hound of the Baskervilles also proves to be an eccentric scientist, one with a special interest in entomology. Specifically, Stapleton's intense interest in collecting and cataloguing insects serves as a symbol of his deviant criminal behavior, as though an unusual interest were in itself a sign of criminality. Watson describes the killer: "In that impassive, colourless man, with his straw hat and his butterfly net, I seemed to see something terrible—a creature of infinite patience and craft, with a smiling face and a murderous heart" (Hound 126). Here, Stapleton's "straw hat" and "butterfly net," the symbols of his intense scientific interest, figure into the description of him as a sinister killer. His "impassive" seemingly stoic and aloof exterior is equally implicated as a sign of his criminal tendencies. Watson describes the interior of Stapleton's house: "The room had been fashioned into a small museum, and the walls were lined by a number of glass-topped cases full of that collection of butterflies and moths the formation of which had been the relaxation of this complex and dangerous man" (Hound 153). Like Moriarty, Stapleton is dangerous because "complex" (or perhaps complex because dangerous?). The naturalist's special interest in bugs is presented as disturbing, as his hobby of trapping, killing, and labeling insects under glass is placed parallel to his endeavor to kill the heirs to the Baskerville estate. Throughout the novel, the intensity of his interest in insects is a sign of his criminal mind. The multiple scientist figures of The Hound of the Baskervilles clearly align Holmes with the criminal Stapleton.

It is remarkable how often Holmes is mistaken for a criminal, a rule that applies both to Conan Doyle's stories and to later adaptations of Holmes's character. Always found in possession of information he could not possibly have and often in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is constantly asserting his innocence. As Watson remarks in "The Final Problem," "One would think that we were the criminals" (Memoirs 260). In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes objects, "Don't go arresting me for the murder … I am one of the hounds and not the wolf" (Study 39). Indeed, the doppelgangers in The Hound of the Baskervilles ensure that Holmes is indistinguishable from the villain he pursues—even to Watson. "So you actually thought that I was the criminal?" Holmes asks his friend with surprise (Hound 123). Various modern retellings of the Sherlock Holmes myth return to the idea of an unusual mind as the characteristic that links Holmes with the criminals he pursues. The police of BBC's Sherlock are determined to believe that the eccentric detective (who they refer to as "the freak") is doomed to become a criminal. "One day we'll be standing around a body and it will be Sherlock Holmes that put it there," Sergeant Donovan says as she warns Watson to stay away from Holmes. 35 When Watson responds with surprise, wondering why the detective would commit a murder, she explains that he will no doubt "get bored." 36 Certainly, Holmes frequently behaves destructively out of intellectual boredom (his spells of cognitive ennui result in cocaine abuse and firing bullets randomly at the walls of his apartment). The BBC website describes Sherlock as "Brilliant, aloof and almost entirely lacking in social graces. Sherlock is a unique young man with a mind like a 'racing engine'. Without problems to solve, that mind will tear itself to pieces …" 37 Like the original Conan Doyle stories, the BBC's Sherlock emphasizes the destructive potential of the detective's mind. If pointed in the wrong direction, Holmes's mind has the power to destroy. While stories about Holmes evoke wonder with his savant skills, they also evoke fear at the idea of his unusual mind, as cognitive difference is equated with danger and destruction.

While Conan Doyle's stories suggest a link between autistic behavior and criminal activity, there are other ways in which Watson's attitude toward Holmes perpetuates negative stereotypes about cognitive difference: Watson constantly compares Holmes to machines and imagines him as being incapable of emotion. As Watson complains to his friend, "You really are an automaton—a calculating machine … there is something positively inhuman in you at times" (Sign 15). In "A Scandal in Bohemia," Holmes's relationship with Irene Adler causes Watson to reflect on his friend's apparent inability to love: "It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind" (Adventures 5). Asexuality and objectivity are frequently linked in fictional depictions of autism. 38 This stereotype is especially clear in the detective's relationship with Adler: Watson imagines love (and by extension sex) as being opposed to the objectivity and reason that he sees Holmes as representing. Imagining Holmes as a machine, Watson creates a false binary in which someone who solves problems with reason or strives to think with objectivity must be diametrically opposed to sexual feeling. Although Watson is determined to believe that Holmes is incapable of love and uninterested in sex, Conan Doyle's text hints at other possibilities. Holmes describes Adler as "a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for" (Adventures 7). Indeed, he agrees to be paid for a job with a photograph of Adler in evening dress. Although Watson seems to perceive Holmes as asexual, Conan Doyle leaves the sexual ambiguity that surrounds Holmes open to interpretation. Ultimately, the encounter with Adler is yet another example of Watson shaping the reader's perception of Holmes, as Watson links sex and objectivity, implying that the two cannot possibly coexist. Specifically, Watson suggests that love would pose a problem to Holmes as a crime-solving machine: "Grit in a sensitive instrument, or a crack in one of his own high-power lenses, would not be more disturbing than a strong emotion in a nature such as his" (Adventures 6). The crack in the high-powered lens, like the grit in the sensitive instrument, like love in the heart of the character with autistic traits, is presented as out of place.

Not only does Watson imagine Holmes as a cold, mechanized container for facts, but he also describes him as a constant source of mystery, a puzzle for Watson (and by implication, for the neurotypical reader) to solve. Another common stereotype of people on the spectrum is to represent them as problems, mysteries, or puzzles. 39 The other characters dwell on Holmes's autistic traits as symbols of mystery and exoticism, thus casting the character with autism as a puzzle in need of a neurotypical solution. When he first introduces Holmes and Watson, Watson's friend Stamford goes so far as to describe Holmes as "inexpressible," claiming that many people have tried to unravel his secret—always without success (Study 8). Watson responds with pleasure, "Oh! A mystery is it? … I am much obliged to you for bringing us together" (Study 12). In this case, the detective proves to be the true mystery of the mystery novel. Stamford warns, "You must study him then … you'll find him a knotty problem, though" (Study 12). Holmes will become Watson's object of study, a problem that can hardly be untangled. Watson later explains that he "eagerly hailed the little mystery which hung around my companion, and spent much of my time in endeavoring to unravel it" (Study 14). Overall, Holmes is regarded as a mystery by Conan Doyle's other characters: this construction of Holmes as a human puzzle reflects one of the media's most common tropes in depictions of autistic people.

Holmes's Autistic Legacy

As the single most famous detective in the history of the mystery genre, Conan Doyle's character has influenced a wide variety of detectives—many of them with autistic traits. The figure of the autistic detective has enjoyed a recent comeback in television shows that feature detective heroes with autistic characteristics: Spenser Reid of Criminal Minds, Temperance Brennan of Bones, Charlie Eppes of Numb3rs, Gregory House of House, and Adrian Monk of Monk all have character traits that could be traced back to Holmes's autistic tendencies. 40 While these crime fighters and mystery-solvers may reassure majority audiences that the stereotypical autistic savant works for law and order rather than against it, many of these television shows maintain an ambiguous liminality between criminal and crime solver and develop an aura of mystery around characters with autistic traits. These shows frequently present the autistic detective as an enigmatic and exotic source of alterity, drawing the neurotypical audience in with the wonder of his savant skills and fixating on the dangerous potential of his unusual mind. One example of this common trope is the autistic detective of the aptly named Criminal Minds.

Spencer Reid, of CBS's popular Criminal Minds, is clearly imagined by the show's writers as a latter-day Sherlock Holmes: the show also hints repeatedly that the young detective has autism yet never overtly acknowledges it. Depicted as a socially awkward genius, Reid has multiple PhDs, a photographic memory, and a detail-oriented vision of the world. His savant-level skills amaze the members of the FBI squad with which he works, and he communicates with his team members primarily through monologues. Early on, the show establishes a connection between Reid and autism when a criminal claims that everyone ignores "the autistic leanings of the very insecure Dr. Reid." 41 As the camera pans in on Reid's face, his expression remains perfectly blank: he has nothing to say in response to such a claim. In a later episode, the victim of a crime has Asperger's Syndrome, and Reid rattles out a detailed definition of the disorder for the other members of the team. Alex, the squad's new recruit, asks innocently, "Well, how about you?" 42 He responds with confusion, apparently not understanding: "What's that?" Behind his back, his coworkers smile and nod knowingly at Alex. Later, she apologizes for bringing it up: "By the way, no offense earlier when I suggested you had Asperger's." 43 Clearly oblivious to the implications of their earlier conversation, he responds: "None taken. When did you do that?" 44 "That's what I love about you," she says with a laugh, "You're not sensitive like some people. Think about how much time we would save if everyone got straight to the point." So intent on looking for clues that he speaks with his back turned toward his new colleague, he agrees: "Yeah, cut out all the handshakes and 'how do you dos.'" 45 Yet the repeated hints never yield to any public diagnosis for Reid. While the show capitalizes on the awe and wonder evoked by its savant figure, it avoids confirming that Reid is on the spectrum. Perhaps an admission of diagnosis would damage the popularity of the character or ostracize those audiences that might view the depiction as politically incorrect. But while episodes avoid revealing Reid's diagnosis, screenwriter Sharon Watson has stated in an interview, "I think he has Asperger's." 46 The show also fosters the common stereotype that aligns "genius" with mental disorders. Although a mental disorder runs in Reid's family, it is not autism: his mother has schizophrenia, and numerous episodes show him visiting her at an institution. The association between "genius" and "mental disorder" remains clear, and the connection between Reid and his mother highlights this stereotype for viewers who may not identify his behavior as autistic. 47 In fact, the actor's depiction may conflate the two conditions: Matthew Grey Grubler, who plays Reid, describes the character as "an eccentric genius, with hints of schizophrenia and minor autism, Asperger's Syndrome." 48 In any case, Reid's implicit disclosure (we know he has autism, but we do not know he has autism) contributes to the show's connections with Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes and ultimately, to implied comparisons between Reid and the very criminals he pursues.

Multiple allusions to Conan Doyle's work demonstrate the show's awareness of participating in the autistic detective tradition. Reid has phone conversations with his girlfriend that center on detective fiction, especially The Sign of Four. The detective also conducts a passionate epistolary affair with the young woman under the pseudonym Joseph Bell (one of the proposed real-life models for Sherlock Holmes). When his girlfriend is abducted, the kidnapper refers to herself as Adam Worth (one of the proposed real-life models for Professor Moriarty). However, the kidnapper proves to fall far short in this regard: although she tries to set herself up as a nemesis worthy of Reid, her clues are childishly simple compared to the kinds of clues Reid is used to unraveling. In the final standoff, Reid is able to manipulate this "Moriarty" by hailing her scientific work as genius and by claiming that he understands how she feels: "You have a brain that doesn't play by normal societal rules," he tells the criminal. 49 One can only assume that Reid thinks of this ploy because his own mind doesn't play by normal societal rules. Clearly, the show imagines Reid as its Sherlock Holmes character.

Like the original Holmes stories, the show aligns the autistic detective's amazing mind with the minds of dangerous criminals. If it is the FBI profilers' job to think like criminals, Reid is clearly the best at the job. Out of all the characters on the crime-fighting team, Reid is indispensable, for he is the detective most often to crack the case. Many episodes end with a revelation coming from Reid, as his savant skills allow him to perceive or remember details forgotten by others. The very title of the show, however, points to Reid's liminal status between crime fighter and criminal. In many episodes, the climax shows the FBI team presenting a criminal profile that could be used to describe Reid: the criminal often proves to be intelligent, to be socially isolated, and to have poor social skills. In fact, the other characters are sometimes disturbed by how easily Reid perceives what a criminal might be thinking or planning. In an early episode, Reid expresses sympathy for an intelligent young man about his age, a socially awkward nerd doomed by an uncontrollable desire to stab women. When Derek expresses concern over the young detective's sympathy for a killer, Reid explains, "I know what it's like to be afraid of your own mind." 50 Not only does this description imply that the autistic mind is frightening, but it also clearly links the autistic detective with the criminal—Reid can understand the killer because they both have minds that inspire fear. This suggests that Reid's sympathy for the murderer is not just sympathy: it is a connection between two minds, a shared neurological make-up. Even more overtly than the Sherlock Holmes stories on which it draws for inspiration, Criminal Minds suggests that autistic traits create an unusual link between criminal and crime fighter, forwarding a false stereotype that links cognitive disability with criminal behavior. 51

Clearly, the character of the autistic detective has maintained his popularity, both in the ongoing adaptations of Conan Doyle's work as well as in various mystery-solving characters based on Sherlock Holmes. Simultaneously both endearingly popular and socially awkward, both inside and outside of the law, both crime fighter and potential criminal, Holmes is a multifacted hero with a complex legacy. Although Conan Doyle was writing at a time when autism was not yet a diagnostic label, new manifestations of his stories are meeting an audience with an ever-growing awareness of autism spectrum disorders. While the figure of the autistic detective may seem positive on the surface, a closer look reveals that these heroes often encourage dangerous tropes regarding cognitive difference. Depicted as cold and emotionless machines, imagined as puzzles to solve, these figures perpetuate negative depictions of people with autism. Although the autistic crime fighter may seem to help dispel false perceptions of people on the spectrum as violent, Holmes and other characters like him maintain a lingering liminality between the autistic detective and the villains he pursues, suggesting that there is something inherently criminal about any kind of cognitive difference.

Endnotes

  1. One could make a case for Christopher Boone of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as the literary character most commonly associated with autism for this generation, but for a classic literary character one must look to Sherlock Holmes.
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  2. There is general disagreement among people with autism regarding preferred terminology: some argue that "having autism" implies that autism is a disease or defect. Others claim the term "autistic" as a statement of identity, while some prefer "person with autism." I have used these various terms interchangeably here. For more information regarding the terminology debate see Stuart Murray, Representing Autism: Culture, Narrative, Fascination (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), 23-24. I have also used the terms "Asperger's" and "autism" interchangeably in this essay. Asperger's is a form of autism, and many people with Asperger's self-identify as "autistic." As of 2013, what was once known as "Asperger's" is now included under the term "autism spectrum disorder" in the DSM V.
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  3. See James Berger, "Alterity and Autism: Mark Haddon's Curious Incident in the Neurological Spectrum," in Autism and Representation, ed. Mark Osteen (New York: Routledge, 2008), 271-288. See also Uta Frith, Autism: Explaining the Enigma, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003). Both Frith and Berger note that the detective is "a generic role strongly marked by autistic qualities" (Berger 280). In many important ways, Sherlock Holmes is the starting point in this tradition.
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  4. Lisa Sanders, "Hidden Clues" New York Times, December 4 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/magazine/06diagnosis-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0> (17 March 2013).
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  5. For a discussion of the damaging and discriminatory use of the term "mind-blind" see Melanie Yergeau, "Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind" Disability Studies Quarterly 33.4 (2013) http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3876
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  6. Christopher Badcock, "The Genius of Detective Fiction," Psychology Today, January 21 2010, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-imprinted-brain/201001/the-genius-detective-fiction (17 March 2013).
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  7. Karl Albrecht, "Did Sherlock Holmes have Asperger Syndrome?" Psychology Today, October 13 2011, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brainsnacks /201110/did-sherlock-holmes-have-asperger-syndrome-0 (17 March 2013).
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  8. Frith, 23-24.
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  9. Eric Altschuler, "Asperger's in the Holmes Family" Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 43.9 (2013) 2238-2239.
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  10. Some people with autism reject the medical model of disability and claim the "label" as a part of self-image. See Dinah Murray, Coming out Asperger, (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006).
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  11. David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
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  12. See the various discussions of autistic identity in Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, ed. Julia Bascom (Washington, D.C.: The Autistic Press, 2012).
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  13. See Irene Rose, 2005. "Autistic Autobiography: Introducing the Field." Proceedings of the Autism and Representation: Writing, Cognition, Disability Conference. Available at: http://www.cwru.edu/affil/sce/Representing%20Autism.html. December 12 2013. Julia Miele Rodas summarizes some of the common themes of autistic autobiography: "As this genre grows and offers increasing clarity regarding the diversity of autistic personality and experience, readers can also begin to recognize certain shared themes and ideas within the literature. These frequently include: a feeling of misunderstanding and being misunderstood by others in everyday interactions; a powerful and elaborate sense of connection in some special arena or skill area (e.g., numbers, color, animals, drawing/painting, languages); the experience of being excluded, especially in childhood when rigid social structures prevail; and a sense of peace and satisfaction that comes with order and ordering, both in material and in logical terms." See Julia Miele Rodas, "'On the Spectrum': Rereading Contact and Affect in Jane Eyre" Nineteenth Century Gender Studies. 4.2 (2008).
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  14. For example, see Temple Grandin, Emergence: Labeled Autistic (Novato, CA: Arena Press, 1986); Donna Williams, Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic (New York: Avon, 1992); Dawn Prince-Hughes, Songs of the Gorilla Nation (New York: Harmony Books, 2004); Liane Holliday Willey Pretending to be Normal (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999); John Elder Robison, Look Me in the Eye (New York: Crown Publishers, 2007).
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  15. I'm inspired here by PhebeAnn Marjory Wolframe's thinking. See "The Madwoman in the Academy, or, Revealing the Invisible Straightjacket: Theorizing and Teaching Saneism and Sane Privilege" Disability Studies Quarterly 33.1 (2013) http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3425 Ultimately, autism is a fluid signifier that works through multiple meanings in our culture (Murray 9). All of the possible sources of definition for the condition are subjective. On the subjective and objectifying nature of medical discourse, see Sharon L. Snyder and David T. Mitchell, Cultural Locations of Disability, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 21.
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  16. For a practical explanation of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria see Tony Atwood, The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2007). Albrecht also notes Holmes's intense interests and poor people skills. As Sanders describes Holmes's autistic traits, "He appears oblivious to the rhythms and courtesies of normal social intercourse - he doesn't converse so much as lecture. His interests and knowledge are deep but narrow. He is strangely 'coldblooded,' and perhaps as a consequence, he is also alone in the world. He has no friends other than the extremely tolerant Watson; a brother, even stranger and more isolated than he, is his only family."
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  17. All quotations from A Study in Scarlet are taken from Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and will be noted parenthetically in the text with the abbreviation "Study."
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  18. "I have been guilty of several monographs. They are all upon technical subjects. Here, for example, is one 'Upon the distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos'. In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash" (Sign 6). All quotations from The Sign of the Four are taken from Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and will be noted parenthetically in the text with the abbreviation "Sign." Both Frith and Sanders note that this unusual research topic is a potential sign that Holmes has autism.
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  19. All quotations from The Hound of the Baskervilles are taken from Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and will be noted parenthetically in the text with the abbreviation "Hound."
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  20. All quotations taken from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are taken from Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) and will be noted parenthetically in the text with the abbreviation "Adventures."
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  21. Zoe Gross, "Metaphor Stole My Autism: The Social Construction of Autism as Separable from Personhood, and its Effect on Policy, Funding, and Perception," in Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking, ed. Julia Bascom (Washington, D.C.: The Autistic Press, 2012), 179.
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  22. See Murray, 97.
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  23. Ibid., 209, 66.
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  24. See Mark Osteen, Autism and Representation (New York: Routledge, 2008), 8-9. Suggesting that people with disabilities are only "worthy" if they overcome or overcompensate for characteristics that may form an integral part of personal identity, the savant figure functions as part of narratives of "recovery" or "overcoming" (Osteen 8-9). Because the majority of people with autism do not have savant skills, such figures also create unrealistic expectations for people on the spectrum (Osteen 8-9).
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  25. See Murray on the "wonder and awe" evoked by savant figures (99).
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  26. The detective as the doppelganger for the criminal is a common motif in crime fiction. See Lee Horsley, "From Sherlock Holmes to the Present," in A Companion to Crime Fiction, ed. Charles J. Rzepka (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 28-42 and Christiana Gregoriou, "The Poetics of Deviance and the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" in The Millennial Detective: Essays on Trends in Crime Fiction, Film and Television, 1990-2010, ed. Malcah Effron (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011), 97-111. As Horsley points out, "Detective fiction is haunted by all it purports to contain. There are, for example, ambiguities present in the doubling of the detective and the murderer" (29). Gregoriou notes that "the literary figure of the detective continues to be a marginal figure who frequently bears a closer likeness to the criminal he pursues than to the police officers with whom he supposedly collaborates . . . detectives are often as socially estranged as criminals are" (99).
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  27. For a further discussion of this myth see Margaret Price, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011), Kindle e-book, chapter 4.
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  28. Beresford qtd. in Price, chap. 4, Loc 3001.
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  29. Price, chap. 4, Loc 3017.
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  30. Price, chap. 4, Loc 2992.
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  31. Ruth Allen and Raymond G. Nairn "Media Depictions of Mental Illness: An Analysis of the Use of Dangerousness" Austrialian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 31 (1997): 375-81. See Price's discussion as well (chap. 4, Loc 3009).
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  32. Price, chap. 4, Loc 3009.
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  33. As Margaret Price has argued, "prevailing myths about mental disability and violence shore up an ongoing structural violence in American society" (chap. 4, Loc 2964).
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  34. Altschuler, 2238-2239.
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  35. "A Study in Pink," Sherlock, perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, BBC, 25 July 2010.
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  36. "A Study in Pink," Sherlock, perf. Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, BBC, 25 July 2010.
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  37. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b018ttws/characters/sherlock-holmes
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  38. See Rodas's discussion of this stereotype.
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  39. The media frequently represents autism spectrum disorders as enigmatic—this trope is so popular that a puzzle piece is a common autism awareness symbol. See Stuart Murray, "Autism and the Contemporary Sentimental: Fiction and the Narrative Fascination of the Present." Literature and Medicine 25.1 (2006). As Murray points out, the danger of imagining autism as an exotic mystery lies in depictions of those on the spectrum as symbols "of difference and otherness" representing "the alien within the human, the mystical within the rational, the ultimate enigma" (24-25). Unfortunately, this can lead to people on the spectrum being treated as "more a puzzle than a person." (Osteen, 36).
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  40. Sanders also cites some of these characters as imitating Holmes's autistic tendencies: "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." See also Ana E. La Paz, "Making the Transition: The Modern Adaptation and Recreation of the Scientist Detective Hero" in Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations, ed. Lynnette Porter, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012), 81-92 and J. Madison Davis, "Mr. Monk & the Pleasing Paradigm," World Literature Today 83.3 (2009): 11-13. La Paz notes that Temperance Brennan of Bones resembles Holmes in her reliance on logic over emotion: "Other detective series usually have at least one character who is highly intelligent and less emotional than the others" (85-86). Davis points out that "Monk was deliberately conceived as a mirror of Holmes" (11).
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  41. "Broken Mirror," Criminal Minds, perf. Matthew Gray Gubler, Mandy Patinkin, CBS, October 19 2005.
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  42. "Through the Looking Glass" Criminal Minds, perf. Matthew Gray Gubler, Jeanne Tripplehorn, CBS, October 16 2012.
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  43. Ibid.
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  44. Ibid.
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  45. Ibid.
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  46. Sharon Lee Watson and Harry Bing, "Full Transcript—Live Chat with Writer, Sharon Lee Watson and Line Producer, Harry Bring." CM_Set Report: Behind the Scenes of Criminal Minds. October 18, 2012. http://cmsetreport.tumblr.com/post/34127594413/full-transcript-live-chat-with-writer-sharon-lee Dec 12 2013.
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  47. There is no link between autism and schizophrenia: the two conditions do not frequently appear in the same families.
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  48. Rachel Thomas, "An Interview with Matthew Gray Gubler" About.com: TV Dramas http://tvdramas.about.com/od/criminalminds/a/matgraygubint.htm Dec 16 2013.
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  49. "Zugzwang" Criminal Minds, perf. Matthew Gray Gubler, CBS, January 15 2013.
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  50. "Sex, Birth, Death" Criminal Minds, perf. Matthew Gray Gubler, CBS, November 29 2006.
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  51. More could be said about the show's alignment of cognitive difference with criminality—the show presents multiple serial killers with schizophrenia, one episode depicts a killer as having obsessive compulsive disorder, and another episode features a murderer with post-traumatic stress disorder. An analysis of all of these episodes is simply outside of the scope of this essay.
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