So this originally started off as me wanting to talk about BBC Sherlock and autism, which, of course, is a subject that has really been bludgeoned to death by now, but I wanted to offer my own input on as an autistic person, now that I’ve watched and rewatched and read analyses on the subject. Also, I’ve read a few things in the fandom and I’ve listened to some of the opinions of “celebrities” in the fandom (such as The Baker Street Babes). In addition, I’ve had my own personal encounters with the fandom when I attempted to write a one-shot describing Sherlock as autistic and John as a terrible allistic ally, which came under some harsh criticism for a number of different reasons.
And I think I will write about all of those. I will. Because they are pretty important things to discuss and I do have opinions. So this will likely be a series of posts, and the first one has to do not with Sherlock, but with its lead actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. Unfortunately, many of you may not like me much after posting this. Many of you may like him even less. I go by the philosophy of “it’s okay to be a fan of problematic things”, and that includes not just shows/movies/music, etc., but also the actors that play in them. I love BBC Sherlock. It came into my life during a rough time, and it was something that literally became an obsession for a good while.
So without further ado. About a month ago, I came upon this little gem. It’s an interview with Graham Norton, and Benedict talks about upcoming projects. The date on this is February 12, 2011, so it is over a year old now. I had never seen/heard it, so I didn’t know what to expect when I listened. Most of it is acceptable – he talks about how he prepares for roles and different characters he’s played. But when I got to the transcribed part below, I literally wanted to throw up. Because an actor that I admired and respected used a number of autism tropes in discussing his preparation to play the Creature in Frankenstein. Again, you can watch this video here, but the part I’m going to talk about is transcribed below. It begins at around 8:52 on the video and ends right around the 10:15 mark.
BC: (talking about the Creature’s origin) It’s basically being a man child, it’s being a man infant. And then, psychologically, Danny and Nick Dear, who’s adapted the Mary Shelley novel, into a brilliant 2 ½ hour play version of it, he, they both have autistic sons. So we went to two extraordinary schools and met some high spectrum autistic kids. And it was very, very humbling and amazing and very upsetting, but very, very extraordinary as well, and inspiring. And especially the people looking after them, and these amazing life forces, but just formed with…*sigh* um, socially just things that are outside of everyday. You know, there are certain barriers that aren’t there because of the arrested development that… there was a 17 year old that had the mental age of, I think, an 18 month old. I mean, it was…
BC: It’s…it’s…it’s really really extraordinary and very upsetting. And uh, it was important for them to realize that the Creature in their story was not their… the monster of old… the monster of the gothic horror stories. He’s very much an innocent. He’s very much someone who is carried through life, as someone who is so different, not only because of his appearance, but because of these behaviorial tics, which are very autistic, um, both in his understanding of the world, psychologically and emotionally, but also physically as well, how that manifests later in his body. And so that was the major part of the preparation.
Let me point out a few key phrases here.
1. “High spectrum autistic kids”. First, can I say the one thing I absolutely DO appreciate is the fact that he used “autistic” vs. using person-first language? That gets a small thumbs up in my book. However, using functioning language to describe autistic kids (especially based on things he says next) is especially icky, because it values people who appear less autistic over those who appear more autistic.
2. “arrested development”/description of a 17 year old who has the “mental age” of an 18 month old. I do not know many autistics who see themselves as having their development stopped, which is what this first phrase is implying. I did not stop developing mentally at some arbitrary age in childhood. As far as the second part, I really want to know where the person who told them that came up with that data, because I’m willing to bet that it’s a person who was either so vastly misunderstood because of a communication barrier or they had something else (like intellectual disabilities) going on as well. Autism doesn’t equal lower mental age.
3. “very upsetting” — Why? Why was it upsetting, Benedict? Was it because these kids, who, let’s be frank, are in an institution, unless I’m mistaken (and UK followers, feel free to tell me about the “autism schools” that exist where you live, because I wasn’t able to find anything that either supported or disproved my theory that these are insitutions), and they behave outside the “norm”? Is that pity I hear? It certainly sounds like it. Our lives are not a tragedy.
4. “very extraordinary as well, and inspiring” — We also aren’t meant to be an inspiration. Be inspired by something we do just on the face of it, without it being tied to “oh, they can do this in spite of their autism”? Sure, I’m okay with that. But being inspiring isn’t our job as disabled people, as autistic people.
5. “And especially the people looking after them” — This again tends to play into the idea that caretakers of autistic people are “brave” and they put up with a whole lot that teachers/parents/caretakers who take care of “normal” kids don’t. No. You don’t get praise for doing your job. You’re not brave for putting up with kids who fall outside of the “norm”. In addition to being an autistic person, I am the parent of two autistic children, aged 5 and 6, and I do not believe I deserve any awards for doing what I should be doing anyhow.
6. “He’s very much an innocent” — this plays into the autistic angel stereotype, where autistic people aren’t really people but are children, regardless of their age. We’re innocent, and angelic, and perfect. Until we have a meltdown. Until we express anger at being treated as less than human. Then that stereotype disappears.
I think.. I have a problem with the way he approaches this, not because I think it’s terrible that he believes the Creature is like an autistic person, but he gave into the stereotypes that exist, and though I suppose it’s good that he stayed away from the often sad, horrible existence tropes that exist because of organizations like Autism Speaks, this interview freaking broke my heart and made me feel sick. Because I wanted Benedict to be a good ally. I heard back when series 1 had finished filming that he intentionally played Sherlock as autistic. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, and I was a bit crushed by this interview.
Does this mean I will never watch him again? No. I would like to truly educate him on these matters. I would like for him to recognize that he has some false beliefs about autism, as most celebrities do, to be honest (yes, even the ones with kids on the spectrum). I would love for him to change those perceptions. I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that I’d demand an apology (though that would be nice).
I will likely still watch Sherlock. I’ll still watch Third Star and cry. I’ll still see him in a number of other projects. But I won’t forget this interview.
I can’t get past the fact that he literally - to play the role of A MONSTER - went to watch autistic children.
I kind of want to puke.