Is autism a condition that only developed recently through some change in our environment? Or is it a condition that has been around for a long time, but scientists only began studying, defining, and diagnosing it relatively recently? Many psychologists and historians believe it’s the latter - and that there are several historical figures who might have been autistic.
In fact, close studies of the writings and behavior of several historical figures - like Albert Einstein and Thomas Jefferson - reveal that they may have had an autism spectrum disorder. Because autism is a spectrum and our understanding of it is still evolving, it's nearly impossible to pin down which type a historical figure may have had. Asperger syndrome (AS, or Asperger's) and high-functioning autism (HSA, or autism without intellectual disability) are two mild forms that share many of the same symptoms, so much so that some psychologists believe they are actually the same disorder.
The three main symptoms of Asperger syndrome are obsessive interests, struggles with social relationships, and problems communicating. Other signs of Asperger's include adherence to a rigid worldview and routine, difficulty understanding social niceties, heightened senses or sensory disorders, extreme emotional outbursts, and a tendency to retreat into one's own world. People with HFA also experience many of these same difficulties. So wherever these historical figures fall on the spectrum, they all have some autistic qualities.
Now that we know some common symptoms, let's take a look at some historical figures who may have had autism.
Author and journalist Norm Ledgin wrote an entire book called Diagnosing Jefferson, in which he argues that the third president of the United States undoubtedly had Asperger syndrome.
Jefferson was shy, struggled to relate to others, was uncomfortable with public speaking and was sensitive to loud noises. Ledgin cites Jefferson's meticulous record of his financial transactions as evidence that Jefferson had autism - especially since he died in debt. Another habit that points to autism, according to Ledgin, is the fact that Jefferson spent over 50 years remodeling his home.
However, autistic author Jonathan Mitchell disagrees with Ledgin's analysis. He thinks Jefferson's antisocial behavior is a symptom of grief, not autism. Jefferson suffered loss after loss throughout his life; his father died when he was only 14 and many of his children died before reaching adulthood.
Mitchell thinks the debts and the continuous remodeling have simple explanations as well. Jefferson inherited much of his debt from his father-in-law, and he had to continually remodel his home to accommodate his growing family.
Autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen believes Einstein showed symptoms of Asperger syndrome. As a child, he had no friends and, until he was seven years old, he compulsively repeated sentences.
Einstein's lectures were also incredibly confusing and he had trouble communicating his thoughts clearly. The inability to communicate his thoughts, Baron-Cohen argues, could be indicative of Asperger's.
However, University of California psychiatrist Glenn Elliott disagrees. He thinks Einstein could have been isolated simply because he was so intelligent and had no patience for those who couldn't keep up with his thinking. Elliott also points out that Einstein had a good sense of humor, which is extremely rare in people with Asperger's.
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Michael Fitzgerald, author of Autism and Creativity: Is There a Link between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability? and a professor of child and adolescent psychology at Trinity College in Dublin, believes Lewis Carroll may have had autism. He always had trouble making friends and was painfully shy. As an adult, he felt more comfortable around children than around other adults.
Carroll seemed to struggle to understand proper manners and social conventions. For example, he would hardly ever accept an invitation to dinner, but he would later drop in unannounced at an inconvenient time. He never understood why this was unacceptable. According to those he knew him, Carroll saw the world in very rigid terms, and never understood why he couldn't convince others that he was right. Carroll's tendency to get lost in his own world - often confusing himself with his fictional character, Alice - is also evidence that he had autism.
So much of Warhol's artwork focuses on repetition. Judith Gould, director of Britain's leading diagnostic center for autism, thinks this was actually a symptom of autism - since people with autism often fixate on uniformity. Further evidence that Warhol had autism can be found in interviews, in which he would always give monosyllabic responses. This is interesting because autism often comes with some form of verbal dyslexia.
There's also the fact that Warhol would only wear one kind of green cotton underwear - no other brand and no other color. This kind of behavior is typical of people with autism.
Not everyone agrees that Warhol was autistic, though. Mark Frances, former curator of the Warhol Museum in Philadelphia, thinks there are other explanations for Warhol's behavior. Frances said, "His odd answers in interviews were designed to enhance the sense of mystery."