Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Is There a Link Between Autism and Some Historical Figures?

Recently, I have been hearing and reading about many different famous men from history who may have been autistic. Names I have come across include Archimedes, Charles Darwin, Lewis Carrol, Adolph Hitler, and Albert Einstein. Wikipedia has a list of them at People speculated to have been autistic.

A good description of autism can be found at Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) published by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education. Autistic individuals have difficulties with social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors or narrow, obsessive interests. These behaviors can range in impact from mild to disabling.

And some are speculating that autism may actually be linked to creativity. Some aspects of autism may help focus the mind on tasks such as language, math, science, and art. The biggest proponent is Michael Fitzgerald in his book from 2004, Autism and Creativity: Is There a Link between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability? The description of that book reads, "Autism and Creativity is a stimulating study of male creativity and autism, arguing that a major genetic endowment is a prerequisite of genius, and that cultural and environmental factors are less significant than has often been claimed. Chapters on the diagnosis and psychology of autism set the scene for a detailed examination of a number of important historical figures. For example: * In the Indian mathematician Ramanujan, the classic traits of Asperger's syndrome are shown to have coexisted with an extraordinary level of creativity. * More unexpectedly, from the fields of philosophy, politics and literature, scrutiny of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sir Keith Joseph, Eamon de Valera, Lewis Carroll and William Butler Yeats reveals classical autistic features. Autism and Creativity will prove fascinating reading not only for professionals and students in the field of Autism and Asperger's syndrome, but for anyone wanting to know how individuals presenting autistic features have on many occasions changed the way we understand society."

This is interesting. Autism may indeed spark creativity in some people. It is not unreasonable that some of these people are famous in history. However, I do find it hard to give anyone an autism diagnosis long after he is dead. Sure, they may have exhibited autism symptoms but so do people who do not have autism. Social awkwardness is fairly common. Contemporary critics of a person were more likely to focus on negative behaviors and ignore positive ones which may make a person appear to be autistic retrospectively even if they were not. With even the recognition of autism being fairly recent, I think it makes the task even harder.

This is an area that historians (with caution!) may want to explore. Could considering autism when looking at a historical figure's biography be helpful in understanding the person and the events that happened in their lifetime? It will be interesting to see if future historians or doctors want to pursue this research route. More information on autism can be found at the Autism Research Institute, the Autism Society of America, and the Autism Blog.

1 comment:

Nessa said...

I agree that one should always be cautious when diagnosing someone with any mental condition posthumously. Right now, autism is a hot topic so it makes sense that people want to connect it to historic figures. I'm always interested in reading about any famous people who may have had autism, but greet these findings skeptically.

You asked, "Could considering autism when looking at a historical figure's biography be helpful in understanding the person and the events that happened in their lifetime?" My answer is yes, since it may help us understand a person's sensitivities and challenges, but I hesitate to "credit" autism with being the deciding factor in someone's exceptional abilities. As a mother of a son on the autistic spectrum, I want others (and historians potentially) to see him as a person, and not look at his exceptional accomplishments as merely the product of a disorder.