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Famous Autistics throughout History

“Autism is an epidemic. Just look at the chart! Autism rates have spiked.” Have you heard this before? It’s a common conspiracy theory that damages the Autistic community, the scientific establishment, and many more. The truth is that Autism is newly documented. It’s only very recently that we have understood it and we still struggle to find and diagnose Autistic people. Before, many Autistic people were diagnosed as mentally r*tarded or anti-social. But, if we look throughout history, we can find some of the greatest and most accomplished minds shared Autistic traits and if they were to be alive today likely would have been diagnosed as on the spectrum. So let’s reflect on their experiences and what we can learn from them today.

Think Autistics can’t be intelligent? We call people who we consider geniuses “Einsteins”. That’s right, one of the smartest people throughout history was likely Autistic. Simon Baron-Cohen (and cousin of Borat), a world-renowned Autism expert at the University of Cambridge, said about Einstein, “Einstein was slow to learn the language, he repeated sentences until he was seven. He had difficulties with social interactions. Although he loved his children, he could not stand for them to touch him. He displayed fixations on one topic to the exclusion of everything else.” This mirrors a lot of my experience. Like Einstein, I was a later talker and have had difficulty with social interactions. I have sensory issues being touched and I also can be fixated on a topic like books or history. 

Then we can look at one of the most talented musicians in human history: Mozart. He is known for having an eccentric personality; for a while, many just thought he was odd. But, his experiences also line up shockingly well with Autistic people. According to William and Mary, Mozart was a stimmer. Specifically, his action lines up with the common Autistic stims of echolalia (stimming through the use of words or speech), sharp physical bursts of activity, and hand motions. This active stimming likely helped Mozart keep his creativity up and attention. He also could have extreme “tunnel vision”. Similar to many Autistic people, he did not put any energy into activities that didn’t interest him. But when it came to fields of particular interest, for example, his composing, he was very invested. His focus was so extreme, to the point that it led to a sort of tunnel vision in which he could write an overture in hours or spend days working on a composition. I think of this as when I may get suddenly invested in a specific realm of history, maps, politics, or literature. I remember a few months ago when I was enamored with Jewish history (I still am) and spent an entire afternoon watching lecture after lecture. 

Another historical figure who was likely Autistic is Barbara McClintock. She shares many of the traits described before. Similar to Mozart she had intense tunnel vision and was dedicated to her groundbreaking genetic research. In her later years, she would reflect on her childhood upbringing and her “capacity to be alone”. She was introverted and was even hesitant to accept to Nobel Prize. Couldn’t this just indicate introvertedness? Perhaps, but accounts of her life align closely with many modern-day Autistic females who are often incorrectly assumed to be shy and introverted. Her willing social isolation, difficulty socializing, and tunnel vision indicate Autism.

For all of these people, we cannot fully know if they were Autistic as they never went through a diagnosis process. Whether you disagree with these posthumous analyses or not, these historic figures undeniably share neurodivergent traits that modern-day Autistics also have. We can learn from their stories to help support modern-day Autistics thrive. What if avoiding touching was not viewed as an odd thing but as just a personal decision, a sensory need? Not touching isn’t an odd sensory need – many people have had this difficulty including, Albert Einstein! Or what about learning a new way to work with Autistic tunnel vision? We should embrace the great benefits it has brought but also work with the Autistic people to make sure that this does not take a great toll on them. Taking breaks or even having check-in conversations could be crucial. And I go back to this Nobel Prize anecdote. Barbara McClintock is the only female recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. Think about that! She is an accomplished woman. And she was going to turn it down because she was nervous about socializing at the subsequent parties or galas. What can we do to alleviate these common Autistic fears and trepidations? Think about that, and so much more. Many more accomplished and talented Autistic people will exist in the future. They could win a Nobel prize, be a famous musician, or do something more low-key yet critical like a content creator or a parent. What can we do to make sure everyone, including  Autistic people, can achieve their dreams? Let’s learn from the past to build a better future.

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Brilliant, insightful and informative!!! Thanks for your wonderful article!!

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