A Study in Hope: Sherlock, Parents, & Gifted/2E Kids

BBC Sherlock, Parents, and Gifted Kids from Red White and Grew The cast of Sherlock (image source: BBC)

Related: What About Watson?

Through my work with families of gifted kids–including my current book research, I’ve noticed two trends of late involving BBC shows that air on PBS here in the states:

  1. The gifted kids are hung up on Doctor Who, most likely because the title character has a joie de vivre and curiosity that seems familiar to them.
  2. Their parents are swoony for Sherlock.

And when I say “swoony,” I’m not talking about people generating and salivating over fan fiction or Tumblr graphics and gifs featuring the stars of the show. (Not that there’s anything wrong with some of that. I’ve got stuff pinned on Pinterest, see?)

For this post, I’m talking about smart, witty, articulate moms and dads who are drawn to Sherlock for reasons, I believe, are unrelated to glamour and the charisma of the actors.

It’s about hope.

The parents whom I know and work alongside with on gifted advocacy spend a lot of time reflecting on how their bright kids are perceived by the world. For the gifted kids who are high achievers and take education in stride, parenting is relatively smooth sailing.

It’s not this group from which I hear the most Sherlock talk. It’s the next group.

For kids who are highly gifted and/or twice exceptional (“2E”), however, it’s a bit different parenting journey. Captivated by their personal “mind palaces” and perseverating over details, many of these kids miss social cues–with at times painful results. More than that they may decide to opt out of social conventions around what one “should” do in conversations.

Sound . . . familiar?

Sherlock and his mind palace

That Sherlock is smart isn’t new, of course. The fictional character has always been depicted as smart, an autodidact even.

What makes the current BBC version of him refreshingly relevant is that it’s a modern character–an Aspie, (Season 2, Episode 2) and thus likely 2E–someone who brings his social shortcomings and sharp observations into an age of cell phones, computers, and text messages.

In short, it’s our world and one closer to what our kids will experience as adults than original, Victorian Sherlock.

And, look, he has friends!

My own friend Sarah wrote a post awhile back about how she wants her gifted kid to find his own Watson. (I hadn’t watched the series yet when this came out, but she and I both agree that Sherlock offers parents of gifted kids hope.) Sarah wrote:

Son #1 needs a Watson.

Right now, we are his Watson, guiding him, correcting him, helping him learn the right words to say in social situations. We’re the ones reminding him what the social conventions are. We act as his gatekeepers, balancing social time and downtime, limiting time with personalities that he still finds difficult, and so on. It can be exhausting, but he is our amazing son, and we are happy to be his Watson.

But, we are well aware that he will not always be with us and that he needs to learn to function in this crazy, colorful, chaotic world of ours. We worry what he will be like when he’s off at college or out in the workforce or, heck, by himself in the grocery store. Some people find mathematics challenging or writing or laundry or whatever. He finds group social interactions challenging.

So, we hope that he finds his Watson. [ Read more]

It would be interesting to know if the writers have experience with giftedness. Judging by the quality and inventiveness of the writing, I’m guessing “yes.” I wonder too about the actor who plays this Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch. Other than he’s talented enough to make a career in theatre and film, there’s not much information about his intelligence. I did some sleuthing around though, and found some provocative and noteworthy clues.

Admittedly, it’s rude to speculate openly on a person’s intellectual wiring. Sort of like speculating on their sexual orientation, relationship status, or measurements. It’s deeply personal. However–and at the risk of being rude (forgive me, Mr. Cumberbatch), I cannot help but see this passage about the actor as suggesting Dabrowski’s overexcitabilities (yes, it’s from the Daily Mail, *cringe*, but stay with me a second):

“Young Benedict’s behaviour caused anxiety from the start. He was ungovernable, noisy, inexhaustible and constantly on the brink of raging boredom — still rampaging like a toddler when he was eight years old. He says now he was ‘a hyperactive nightmare’ and ‘a tearaway’. He revelled in ‘inappropriate behaviour’. For a dare, he once dropped his trousers and flashed outside a church.”  [ Read more ]

I’ve shared that passage with a couple of friends and we had a good chuckle. We all know kids like that. Some of us are raising them right now. A few of us are homeschooling them. Other friends are teaching them in public or private schools.

But that kind of kid?

Yeah, we know him, maybe a little too well some days.

This brings up all kinds of questions: Is the current actor who plays the famous resident of 221B Baker Street uniquely able to capture the complicated wiring, movements of an intense, gifted/2e adult who is passionate about his work?  Is there something about pairing this particular actor with this particular role that makes the show all the more engaging–magnetic even–for many parents of gifted/2e kids? Is a big part of the reason why the BBC Sherlock is such a hit with gifted parents due to the fact that it presents a happy ending as a plausible reality—that eventually these quirky kids will grow up, make friends, get a job, and hurry us out the door to see Les Miserables, like Sherlock did with his parents (Season 3, Episode 1)?

The fact that the two actors who played Sherlock’s parents in the show were in fact Cumberbatch’s real-life parents is just too delish. It’s practically catnip.

Even better than speculation? Cumberbatch reports his own mother, British actress Wanda Ventham, sees Sherlock in him.

Ta-da! The classic smoking gun.

(Also, more catnip.)

From the Radio Times:

“She sees a lot of me in Sherlock,” Cumberbatch said, “which both makes her laugh and is slightly embarrassing. I suppose it’s my rushing around, my impatience.”….

“Of course I was naughty! Every kid is naughty. I got into all sorts of trouble as a kid by pushing boundaries. Not illegal trouble, but mucking about. No more than anyone else, though. I wasn’t a bully, nor was I desperate for attention.

“I had a problem focusing. I probably had Attention Deficit Disorder*, or something on the border of it. I was always performing, doing silly voices. The teachers realised I could go one of two ways: be creative or destructive. I was made a prefect and it calmed me down. I realised I was being respected and I needed to return that respect.

“I had to spend double the amount of time learning French vocabulary.** I struggle to learn by rote. I’ve had meltdowns on set [due to forgetting his lines]. Which is embarrassing and shameful.” [ Read more ]

Which brings us to a revelation that I had last week while puzzling through all of this. I know a number of moms who in light of all of this, and if they met Cumberbatch at a party, would be far more interested in getting his mother’s phone number than his own.


Because much like fans who waited to find out how Sherlock survived that jump at the end of the second season, we all want to know how she did it.

* * *

Explore More:

• Another post on Sherlock, with a different reading of the depiction of his giftedness/twice exceptionality, can be found here. (I left a note about how the character’s arrogance is at least in part a function of privilege and status.)

• Mind palaces are a real thing.

Wondering about Watson?

• Given the traffic that this post is generating (um, wow) it seems like a good time to mention that I wrote a book that was published by GHF Press in 2013. Helps pay the bills and all that, you know. (A second book comes out in 2015, as alluded to in the first paragraph of this post. That’s right. It’ll be here quicker than Sherlock Season 4.)



* Giftedness is often misdiagnosed as ADD or ADHD. For what it’s worth, this book (in my Amazon store) is helpful.

** For those unfamiliar with giftedness, asynchronous development is commonplace–which runs counter to the cultural misperception that “giftedness” is solely about academic prowess. It’s not unusual, therefore, to have a gifted/2e child who struggles in subject areas or with pedagogy methods.


  1. I love that someone smart and blunt and honest can also be seen as likeable. I might relate to that. And my hope is that audiences will see that these odd people are human… And loveable.

  2. Sherlock describes himself over and over as a high-functioning sociopath. I would never describe my gifted child that way! And I am not sure if he has any friends besides Watson. Women find him attractive because… Cumberbatch. But he has no warm feelings for anyone besides Watson, and that came rather slowly. I don’t find him to be a message of hope in the social sense. In the sense that he is doing what he loves and what he does best, in relative psychological comfort– that is what I find inspirational about Sherlock.

    • I wrote a response but the Internet ate it. Sigh. To sum up: Attractiveness is subjective (Cumberbatch certainly has presence, for sure), but women and men have been “fangirling” over Sherlock since the original stories. (I fell for the character hard in the original stories when I read them as a young teenager. Cumberbatch was probably in elementary school then, so that was not about him. 😉 ) I still think the modernity of this Sherlock is a big part of the appeal for the demographic in question. It suggests a certain amount of, um, normality rather than Victorian eccentricity which we tie to the old stories, making them seem less relevant.

      Yes, “sociopath” is in the script, but if you look at the definition and the character development over three seasons, it all falls flat. As for friends, he’s got Mrs. Hudson, Molly, and a network of people kept the fact that he was alive quiet, etc. Mary let him plan her wedding. Lestrade stood by him from the beginning despite enormous pressure to exclude him professionally. He’s got friends.

      Also, I think it’s important to note that parents of gifted/2e kids are on continuum of long-term desires for their kids. What one person might not see as “hopeful” is different than what another may see. The parent of a gifted kid *may* find Sherlock comes up short. The parent of a 2E kid *may* see Sherlock as a positive model.Again, it’s all subjective. But it’s a theme that keeps surfacing and resurfacing. Something is going on, and I tried to give voice to it. It won’t “read” as hopeful for all, but maybe it will for some.

      I totally agree with your last comment about the inspiration to be had in watching him living a life rooted in “flow,” the psychological term used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (I almost wrote about that in relation to the whole mind palace/hyperfocus thing because flow is the positive framing of that intellectual intensity.)

      Phew. I think I got it all. Thanks for your comments and sorry for this dashed off response, Tom. [Am making dinner and have come back to make edits to, to clarify.]

  3. I’ve only seen the first season, but it is nice to see Sherlock portrayed as an Aspie. My son is a 2E child with Aspergers, AD/HD, Dysgraphia, Developmental Coordination Disorder, and Childhood of Apraxia of Speech. It is nice to see characters that show the struggles that kids like my son go through. Sheldon from Big Bang Theory is another and the other characters to a lesser instinct.

    • Yes, I agree, Roberta. It is so great to see that, and I was delighted to see them actually use that word in relation to him in the Hounds script.

      My new goal in life is to hear one of the characters use the word “perseverate.” I’m not on the spectrum, but I do that (this whole post was the result of my perseveration) and had no word for it until recently. (Paging Mark Gatiss…)

      Thanks, Roberta, for sharing your perspective.

  4. Don’t forget about Doc Martin, another Aspie character heading up a BBC TV series. The show’s heart, humor, and grace while being true to a profoundly graceless but utterly loveable character keeps us in stitches season after season.

  5. We are in the process of sorting out where our 6 year old is on both spectrums. Thank you for helping articulate one of the reasons that I enjoy Sherlock on so many levels. I also recently watched Season 18 of the Amazing Race, which features two best friends. One of them has autism. His best friend is so amazing supportive and loving it had me in tears. It definitely provided a spark of hope that our child can have lovely and meaningful relationships in the future.

    • You’re most welcome. Thank you for sharing your story, and best of luck with getting the kind of information you want/need to guide your child.

  6. Loved this! Much of it is really spot on. My husband and I joke (often followed by a nervous chuckle) about how there are two characters that our kid might resemble one day: Sherlock & Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. Speaking from a mom’s perspective, I too would love to speak to Sherlock’s mom and wish I could introduce my 6-year old son to him (both the man and the show which might have to wait a few more years…). 🙂

    • Isn’t it nice to have a touchstone (even a fictional one) to remind one’s self that most parenting things have a way of working out just fine–splendid even, albeit a little different than what one might have anticipated before one had kids? Thank you for your comment.

  7. I love this. As a gifted adult, I am “swoony” over Sherlock for sure. My husband and I both!
    I hadn’t considered that part of my swoon has to do with my son who is def. 2E. While he isn’t autistic (though he did come home from school in 4th grade and self-diagnose himself as Autistic, haha), he has ADHD and some of Sherlock’s mind-palace and high functioning socio-path tendencies. I have always hoped for a “watson” in his life, for a friend who can kindly and tirelessly (with humor) help my son see the world through a difference lens, to see the people. Great post! Loved this!

    • Oh, AJ. I could right a separate post on gifted adults (including polymaths, autodidacts, and multipotiantes (sp!)) and their reactions to this show. There’s some overlap, sure, in that demo with parents like yourself. But the show just has an aura about it–a mystique–unlike any television show I’ve seen.

      Also, the traffic on this post has been robust, suggesting that you and I are not alone in our fascination with it. YAY! Thank you kindly for your response. I appreciate it.

  8. The Sherlock/Watson relationship in this series is what draws me in–more so than it’s American counterpart. The wedding episode was just incredible, and I think your take on why parents love the show is insightful.

    • I haven’t seen “Elementary” yet, but I’ve heard decent things about it. Yes, the wedding episode was pretty good, wasn’t it? Thanks for the kind note.

  9. I had just finished watching the Wedding episode of Sherlock on demand and went to check my inbox and saw this post- nearly fell out of my chair. As I had still been in tears from how relevant this episode was to me and my family and was trying to discern why it so moved me deeply. Spoiler- Sherlock leaving at the end alone- tore me up. On a postive note, the episode engaged Sherlock on so many levels we had not seen before. My son is diagnosed GTLD, very high verbal creativity and expression- also ADHD, NLD – my other son- – is younger also GTLD but without ADHD, lots of friends through sports and other activities and does not have level of the older one’s processing issues. “Being on the spectrum” has been tested for and ruled out for both of them but we can relate to it. Lay people ask occaisionally if my older son is “on the spectrum”. I was in tears about the Wedding episode because I often get glimpses how my younger son is often the Watson to his older brother Sherlock. (He is not a Mycroft in anyway) Funny too- the older one has Cumberbatch’s Sherlock hair and the younger has blondish Watson hair. One of the amazing things about this show and also the American Elementary show is that each Sherlock character really struggles with trying to understand how their brilliance and and almost always being right is to be balanced with some sense of empathy and patience and compassion. Gifted kids and adults sometimes are so focused on their ability, it is hard to slow down and see the world as the rest of us do. I have to screen the shows first for sexual content – but when ok it is so great for my boys to see the Sherlocks owning and sorting this out in themselves with the help of their Watson’s and others. Matt Smith and David Tennants Dr Who’s have also had a huge impact on my older son and me! We love to watch them together- and that series main character gets his know how and insigth from being time traveling time lord alien but also has to slow down to understand his human companions. Love your blog- thanks
    Mary in Maryland

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful, heartfelt, insightful comment, Mary.

      By NLD I’m guessing you mean “nonverbal learning disorder”? I see a lot of overlap/similarities with that and sensory processing disorder (SPD), which seems to overlap with and/or mimic aspects of ASD. The more I read, the more people I meet, the more I’m blown away by the complexity and diversity of human wiring. It’s fascinating. And isn’t it nice that our kids will grow up in a world where characters like Sherlock, Watson (he’s got his own set of gifts, namely emotional intelligence), the Doctor, and Sheldon are commonplace and not mocked but enjoyed, celebrated even?

      • Agree!! I am so glad you brought up the emotional intelligence factor and Watson- so key!! Love your new post. Really uncomforatable throwing all these acronyms and labels around- each child is unique no matter and shouldn’t be limited by diagnosis- thanks for celebrating that! Mary
        (but yes I was talking about Non verbal Learning disorder and I do understand the overlaps) Looking into your books!

        • YES! The ABCs of all of this are tricky. On the one hand they do obscure uniqueness. On the other, they make for a convenient code that allows us to protect the kids about which we talk, yk?

          I know so many kids and parents of kids through my work with Gifted Homeschoolers Forum and other efforts. And the world is most surely a little brighter with their differences in it.

    • Thank you, Sheila, and all the other people who have written. Some of the responses here and elsewhere have moved me to tears, too. We all need a little reassurance, in the midst of the fray, that while the outcome may be different than “ideal” or “normal” (whatever THAT is), it’s going to be okay in its own way.

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