Historical figures with autism

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I am never sure what to think of those statements or thesis where divers great figures of history are post mortem diagnosed with autism, or any other condition only known and researched during the last century. I am sure you have seen these and other examples, too. I mean, I believe that there was autism all throughout history, and I am not saying that some descriptions by other people of the time do not sound like at least autistic traits in some of the personalities. But without knowing their exact circumstances and what else could have caused similar behaviours, a post mortem diagnosis can only be speculation. Yes, I guess it feels good to point out these people (..all men?) as examples how greatness has been achieved in spite of – or was it because of – their autism, but although my son has a clear preference for science, at the moment, our main goal is really a happy life of acceptance and fulfilment rather than putting the pressure of outstanding achievement  or talent (in whatever) on my son.

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10 thoughts on “Historical figures with autism

  1. 744ie

    I used to do a lot of this when I was younger just to feel better about myself, to say that I had something in common with famous people. But whether or not these people were on the spectrum, they were the exceptions rather than the rule. Same goes for the teenage boy today who is working on his Masters degree in some science-y area.

    It is already difficult enough when people expect me to perform on par with my peers, to be able to do things like drive and get a part-time job. Why not raise the bar and expect me to be BETTER than my peers in some areas, like getting amazingly good grades to compensate for my difficulties? I for one never could stand traditional education, and I have been damn lucky to get a 2.7 GPA at the university I am going to, where the disability services are a joke. Plus I have zero work experience, only a little volunteering experience, and I have completely lost my passion for the science ever since I had to memorize so many useless facts and work in so many groups with less enthusiastic classmates. So I have given up, and decided that I am far better off getting a job where I get to work with autistic children and young adults.

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  2. Ish

    Yes, yes and yes.
    These memes are so incredibly annoying in that they tend to give people who do not understand autism an alternative to the “So he’s like Rainman” comments.

    My boys will do what they are interested in regardless of their autism as I will support them. Much as I will support my daughter in anything she chooses to do, and won’t let her gender stop her.

    I prefer to listen to people like Temple Grandin, who has an actual diagnosis and can speak for herself 😉

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  3. autisticook

    First of all, I think diagnosing historical figures with autism is incredibly icky because they have no voice in it. The experiences of the person themselves should always come first. I wouldn’t like everyone around me telling me I’m autistic without listening to *my* experiences either. So there’s that.

    Secondly, I agree with you and ischemgeek about setting the bar too high. My role models are not famous people. They’re the people I know who I admire for certain qualities. I admire my grandmother for devoting her life to her career, even though I feel sad that she did so at the cost of her family life. I admire one of my friends for having a great relationship with his children, even though he’s a bit of a mess professionally. I admire my brother for always having time to give love and support and a shoulder to cry on to whoever needs it, even though he’s terrible at protecting himself. They’re all role models in the sense that I aspire to grow in ways that mirror the qualities that I admire in them, while at the same time being aware that they’re ordinary human beings just like me and just as capable of making mistakes.

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    1. suburp Post author

      I am not one to look for inspiration only in those that are on a pedestal or way back in time either. In my family, people have (had) the most divers talents, passions and occupations. They also have their flaws, had struggles and disappointments. But I can find inspiration in many of their qualities, and I feel I know more about them, and you are right, they are more real than those that made it into the news or in the history books..

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  4. ischemgeek

    I think pointing to historical figures with autism is kind of like pointing to Marie Curie for girls who want to be scientists: for one, it sets the bar at a seemingly impossible height (remember, Marie Curie has won the most Nobel Prizes of any scientist, and she did it at a time before women were typically allowed to science, and this despite the fact that her science led to an early death – and Einstein is likewise a legend who rewrote humanity’s understanding of theoretical physics before he turned 25). For two, it creates the implication that successful people of your demographic are so vanishingly rare that they have to point to people who’ve been long dead in an attempt to find a role-model. So in trying to make success seem more accessible, you actually reinforce internalized stereotypes.

    Talking history and making history inclusive, it’s important to point out that Roosevelt had a mobility impairment and that Curie was a woman, and that Catharine was a woman so powerful they called her “the Great” just like Alexander, and that Gengis Khan at one point controlled most of Eurasia and remains the only world leader to have successfully invaded Russia, and that Keller was a woman with multiple disabilities and that Nichelle Nicols played one of the first Black people to be shown in a non-menial role on television which inspired Dr. Mae Jemison to become a real-life black woman astronaut, and that Einstein seems very likely to have had classic autism, definitely. That’s how you show that history wasn’t all straight cisgendered currently-able white dudes, and take the wind out of the myth that such people dominate our cultural narrative because they were the sole movers and shakers throughout history. We know that’s simply not true.

    But talking role models? I think we should pick people who are alive and doing stuff now. Not only do you raise the profile of deserving people who are overlooked largely because of their marginalization, but you give someone who’s marginalized a real, flesh-and-blood role model to look to, rather than someone who has been dead for decades or even centuries. I’d much rather point an autistic kid to Kassiane Sibley or Ari Ne’eman than Einstein, I’d much rather point a girl to Dr. Annette Doherty or Prof. Mary Garson than Curie, and so on. Why? Because, those people show those kids people who exist and are doing stuff now, not historical figures, many of whom died long before those kids were born.

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    1. suburp Post author

      I am almost relieved you and autisticook agree..thanks for your long reply ! After I finished the comic, I thought maybe people really need those high profile examples, in the interest of ‘awareness’ and education on what could be possible with autism.. I don’t want to seem like a negative person, but i think the reality of many autistics, even those verbal or extremely intelligent, seems to be that they are struggling both professionally and socially throughout their adult life. The very basis of why we even “diagnose” those historical figures is often similar social struggles – or at least what we know of them.
      It’s true, too, that there are many positive figures with autism that are not only inspiring, but also a bit more reliable with regards to diagnosis. We really do not have to look that far back..
      I see my task as a parent to help my child, autistic or not, find their place in life, the tools to earn a living, make a few, but real friends and feel loved and supported by their family. If he becomes a genius programmer or shines in quantum physics, if he becomes a rock star or if – beyond being confident and himself – to be a public self-advocate, is really his choice in the end.
      I just want him to be happy. =)

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      1. ischemgeek

        I think it is important to see people like you doing stuff you want to do. Some don’t need the example, and if the time in history happens to be right, they set the example for those to follow. But a lot of people need the person who went before so they can say, “If ___ did it, I can, too.”

        I didn’t really think much one way or the other about examples to look up to when I chose to enter my field, and I’ve always been the contrary sort that if you tell me “You can’t do that because [bigotry],” I’ll do it just to prove you wrong. So maybe I didn’t really need an example to look to (though it certainly helped) because I’m the sort that would keep going out of stubborn spite, but there are young women who I TA’d who told me after the semester that because of me, they were changing their majors to Chemistry – that before, they thought chemistry was more of a guy thing, but I showed them otherwise simply by being a woman in chemistry. I wouldn’t be surprised if, like those women thought they couldn’t do chemistry because they were women, there are autistic people out there who think, “I can’t do that because I’m autistic” – particularly with respect to the more stereotypically social fields, like music and acting.

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        1. suburp Post author

          =) Well, in time I will see if my son likes to follow the example of others or will simply be finding his own path..Where ever that path will lead him. At the moment, his view of the future changes every day, which is kind of normal at 8 yo, lol..Hey, that must be a good feeling to have other women tell you they did Chemistry because of you! (Good that they were able to tell you, too) Good on you!

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          1. ischemgeek

            Thanks. Yeah, I was pretty pleased about it when I found out. 🙂

            Also, yeah, when I was 8 I wanted to be a police-officer-fire-fighter-astronaut-veterinarian-concert-pianist-meteorologist, so I get you.

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