October is Disability History Month. Colin Eldred-Cohen looks at some historical figures who may possibly have been on the autism spectrum.
By Colin Eldred-Cohen
A wise man once said, “To understand the future, we must go back in time.” Today, we’re going to embrace that saying as we look back at many historical figures who were thought to be on the autism spectrum. Admittedly, this is all speculation, since they all died before our understanding of neuroscience was advanced enough to diagnose them. However, some academic minds took a look back and deduced that quite a few icons of our past may have been on the spectrum. So without any further ado, here’s a look at six historical figures who were likely autistic.
Thomas Jefferson? – President
That’s right, our third president was thought to be on the spectrum. This may be stretching it when it comes to writers, but he wrote the Declaration of Independence, so I say it’s fair game. According to word from back in the day, he was an uncomfortable public speaker, had an inability to relate to others, and a huge sensitivity to loud noises. He also had very peculiar routines, like wearing slippers to important meetings or having a mockingbird on his shoulder a lot of the time (possibly as a method of self soothing in social situations). Unfortunately, as his childhood home burned down, we have no way of telling if he showed any of the childhood symptoms.
Hans Christian Andersen? – writer
The writer of The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid was said to be very gangly in his youth and prone to strange tantrums. His diary entries also show him pining after many unobtainable men and women, which I can tell you from personal experience can happen to people on the spectrum. A closer look at his stories show a trend of outcast characters who weren’t always lucky enough to get a happy ending, which indicates perhaps some self-projection into his stories.
Amadeus Mozart? – music
No doubt about it, the man was a musical maestro. But Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was also thought by scholars to be on the spectrum. Allegedly, the man had a set selection of facial expressions he cycled through, was active with a short attention span akin to ADD, and had ultrasensitive hearing that could physically make him sick when his surroundings were too loud. There was apparently one time that he got bored in a public setting, so he started meowing out loud, doing cartwheels all over the place, and vaulting and doing flips over tables. If nothing else, you now know that the world’s greatest musician was also a great acrobat. Truly, he’s a man of many talents.
Michaelangelo? – artist
We have two doctors to thank for this diagnosis, specifically Dr. Muhammad Arshad and Professor Michael Fitzgerald. They described him having very limited interests, a fiery temper, repetitive routines, and poor social and communication skills, all things associated with high-functioning autistics. All of this and more was determined through notes and accounts on paper from his friends and family, so there’s validity to the diagnosis. It’s very likely that his autism gave him the edge he needed to become one of the greatest artists the world has ever seen. Trust me, I’ve seen the Sistine Chapel in person.
Nikola Tesla? – scientist
For those who are unaware, Nikola Tesla was a brilliant scientist and a rival to Thomas Edison, who wound up stealing a lot of Tesla’s inventions and took advantage of him in other ways. He’s also what the subject of the latest car craze is named after. Records say that Tesla had an intense sensitivity to light and sound, a huge amount of phobias, tendencies to be reclusive, and an obsession with the number three (which is something I can definitely relate to). Sadly, he wasn’t recognized for his genius or struggles and died alone, penniless, and shunned by the scientific community. Now if you want a story with a happier ending…
Albert Einstein? – world renowned scientist
Now here’s a name we’re all familiar with, seeing as he revolutionized the scientific world. In addition to being a brilliant mind, there has been speculation that he was on the spectrum. He had difficulty socializing as an adult, which manifested in speech delays, he was very technical minded, and in his youth, he used to repeat his sentences to himself, a phenomenon known as echolalia. Those are all, you guessed it, signs of the spectrum. Another sign was his ability to focus his research around abstract details that only someone with Asperger’s or autism could spot.
History has been peppered with heroes on the spectrum, even if they didn’t realize it at the time. But armed with the tools and knowledge of our time, we can uncover the unsung aspies of the past and tell their whole story in the future. Tune in next time where we take a look at musicians on the spectrum and be prepared, there are a lot.
Colin Eldred-Cohen is a creative writer and story teller. He was born in San Diego and graduated from the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA), where he discovered his talents for performing, singing and Irish dance. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in film.
He is currently living in San Jose where he is writing regularly for fishandcherries.com and putting his writing talents to use working on his first novel (that he hopes will be a best seller, made into an Oscar-winning movie and a line of happy meal toys.)
Colin is on the Autism spectrum, and has channeled his creative and active mind to become a talented writer and story teller. He is an active member of the Autistic Creatives Collective. His first children’s book, The Fire Truck Who Got Lost available in the The Art of Autism Store was released in September. You can buy it here.
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