Dear Benedict Cumberbatch,
You don’t know me, and I don’t know you, but I feel like I need to say something in the wake of your devastating comments about autistic people. If you were a friend, I’d sit you down with a cup of coffee and explain to you bit by bit why the words you said about people like me cut so deep.
But I don’t know you, so this is the medium I must use. I am a 33 year old queer autistic person who has two children who are also autistic. I’ve been a fan of your acting since I watched my first episode of Sherlock three years ago, and my admiration of your work has grown from there. As a person who has admired Alan Turing and has read several biographies about him, I was very excited as a person who identified with two different parts of his identity – as a gay person, and as an autistic person (the latter which has been debated, but is almost 100% agreed upon by scholars as well as people who knew him).
I know that you’ve fielded quite a lot of questions regarding the characters you play, which is a natural part of discussing upcoming films, TV series, etc. I’ve seen that many reporters and interviewers have touched upon the question of whether you play your characters (some of whom are not just characters, but who are people who actually lived) as autistic. It’s a difficult question, I’m sure, especially as your interaction with autistic people (to the public’s knowledge) is limited to just a few interactions in your research for Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.
I wish you would have said “I don’t know.” I wish you would have embraced your ignorance of this topic, instead of discussing how “lazy” it is to interpret Alan Turing as autistic, despite there being loads of evidence that he was.
I personally was drawn to your interpretation of Sherlock in part because of Sherlock’s physicality, as well as his (sometimes present) social ignorance, and just the many ways that Sherlock reminds me of, well, me. Not to mention that the word “Asperger’s” was uttered on screen in regards to him, whether you think that is canonical or not. I’ve written extensively on my feelings regarding Sherlock being autistic, which for me extends beyond your version of Sherlock Holmes, but also includes most other adaptations as well as the original stories.
I also saw a similar physicality at a much more basic level reflected in your interpretation of the Creature in Frankenstein. I later learned of the ways in which you obtained that knowledge, which sickened me tremendously.
So to hear you deny the fact that many of your characters can absolutely be interpreted as autistic, to hear you call your fans “lazy”, many of whom are actually autistic ourselves, is hurtful. But perhaps you just don’t know that nearly 2% of the population is autistic, and therefore you probably encounter more autistic people than you realize. Many of us have been subjected to abusive therapy called Applied Behavior Analysis in an attempt to make us appear as though we were not autistic. Its origins lie in Dr. Ivar Lovaas, who also worked with the “feminine boys project” to attempt to eradicate homosexuality in young boys.
It’s hurtful to be called lazy or wrong. But it’s devastating to hear the way you talked about a 17 year old who you assumed had the “mental age” of a one and a half year old infant, all because he didn’t fit into your ideal of what a 17 year old disabled teenager should be. And it’s horrible to read that you think that all autistic people do is struggle all the time – that your idea of autism is so skewed that all you can see is suffering and struggle and not the achievements and pure joy that is being autistic.
Over the past few days, I’ve read that it’s been confirmed that you’ll be playing Dr. Strange, who is canonically a disabled person. Now, I’ve seen you in Hawking and I think you did a fantastic job there. I’ve seen your (probably unintentional) portrayals of several autistic or at least non-neurotypical characters. I don’t doubt that you absolutely can do a great job.
But the way you talk about us is telling. I spent almost a year hyped up about going to see The Imitation Game, only to be completely devastated three weeks before the premiere. I have only a passing desire to see it now, even though I’d been looking forward to it for quite some time. I had a similar experience two years ago when I read your comments regarding Frankenstein. It’s a good thing that Sherlock has such a long hiatus between series. It allowed me some time to process my emotions about the things you’d said about people like me. I can tell you I was far less excited about Sherlock series 3 than I was about Sherlock series 2.
You spoke recently about The Imitation Game, and you said that it “celebrates outsiders; it celebrates anybody who’s ever felt different and ostracized and ever suffered prejudice”. I felt so very happy when I read those words, thinking, “this is someone who understands the person who he’s playing”. It was just a day or two later that my hopes were dashed as you denied Turing’s neurodivergence, and I wondered if perhaps I was the wrong sort of “different” for you – is it okay if I’m queer, but I’m the wrong sort of different if I’m autistic? Is there something shameful about being autistic, because your manner of speaking about us seems to indicate that is so.
So please, open your eyes and start paying attention to what autistic and otherwise disabled people are saying about our own experiences. Don’t listen to Autism Speaks, no matter what your Star Trek co-stars may say. Educate yourself, and show that you actually do care about what autistic people have to say.
In the meantime, I’ll continue writing as much autistic Sherlock and autistic Martin Crieff fanfiction as possible in an attempt to soothe myself from the massive disappointment I feel because of your comments.
Have some links.
Frankenstein stuff, two years later. (found on page 3 of the article)