When thinking of people with autism, individuals seem to gravitate towards deficits in their existence- their “peculiar” routines, repetitive physical behaviors, and discomfort in social situations. We want to highlight individuals for their assets, their genius, and for their contributions to the world. Many autistic people actually have spoke music skills, math and science abilities and other creative spike skills. Listing off just 10 people with autism is just that- listing off 10 people with autism. In fact it well-known that this spectrum disorder is filled with unique individuals as unique and distinct as anyone else. What sets these individuals apart is not their struggle, but their triumph.
Perhaps the most famous living person with autism is Temple Grandin. Temple works as an activist and advocate and is well known in agriculture for her contributions to the bovine industry. Grandin describes a type of sensory experience much like mental movies, and was able to use her heightened sensory experience to see inside the minds eye of a cow. Not only that, but early on Temple learned to communicate her needs, and became a very important voice for autistic people across the globe. Today Grandin travels the world talking about autism acceptance and works hard to smash debilitating myths the general population may have about the spectrum disorder. She encourages everyone to think about assets over impairments when considering autistic children in schools, and autistic adults for employment. Her vision is simple: make space for all types of minds and do-ers including all individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).
“What would happen if the autism gene was eliminated from the gene pool? You would have a bunch of people standing around in a cave, chatting and socializing and not getting anything done,” – Dr. Temple Grandin
Emily Dickinson was a well-known American poet and wrote particularly unconventional poetry at the time. Unfortunately it is often Dickinson’s difficulties that people write about when discussing her autism. She was in fact peculiar, never married and lived a more insular life. She also had epilepsy, but perhaps what was truly remarkable about Dickinson was the nature of her poetry. To say that it was unconventional would be an understatement. It was in fact unconventional lacking in the tones and themes that were popular at the time but in perhaps what was more unconventional about her work was the fact that she was a woman doing it. Did her insular life keep her safe from gendered stereotypes? Did her unique mind shield her from pressures to conform with her writing? Perhaps the most important question to ask is- is it because of her autism that we have the body of work we have now? It’s too late to ask her, but Dickinson would want us to keep asking regardless: “the door should stay ajar,” she wrote. Perhaps she meant with regards to learning and in the case of Dickinson and her autism, perhaps we should keep our doors open to learning about autism.
3.)John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison currently scholar in residence in the department of neurodiversity at the college of William and Mary. Before advocating for autism awareness Robison lived his formative years unaware of his diagnosis, and grew up in a family quite at odds with the world. It wasn’t until receiving the diagnosis of autism at the age of 40 did Robison receive better understanding and a new lense from which to describe his childhood. He then wrote his famous memoir Look Me in the Eye.. Since then, Robison became a strong autism advocate and speaker. He coordinates autism programs with government agencies including the US Department of Defense, Education and Social Security. Robison continues to be present in research and underwent trans magnetic stimulation procedures to aid in his cognitive function. If you want to learn more about living life with Asperger’s syndrome read one of his many books.
Hollywood actress and advocate Daryl Hannah is perhaps best known for her roles in Splash, Blade Runner, and Kill Bill. However as a child Hannah was diagnosed with autism. She spent much of her childhood alone and rocking herself to soothe her feelings. Now middle-aged a diagnosis in her childhood would have meant a lot of misunderstanding and knee-jerk drastic treatment options. In fact for Hannah it was recommended she be institutionalize. But, thankfully that wasn’t the case. Instead Hannah put her creative spike skills and rich imagination to use as an actress. Again as with Dickinson, this begs the question: where would Hannah be without her autism? And would we ever have seen such an imaginative rendition of Pris?
Richter’ Law, Ohm’s Law, and Coloumb’s Law, and Charles’ Law could all be renamed to Cavendish’s Law. But because of Cavendish’s quiet nature m and secretive behavior, none of those findings were published. It is theorized of course that Henry Cavendish was autistic- specifically, with Asperger’s syndrome. Though according to the recent diagnostic manual, Asperger’s is no longer an official term, many people with Asperger’s like to keep that label. Cavendish also discovered hydrogen- what he called inflammable air, and figured out how to measure the density of the Earth. Many individuals with Asperger’s have spoke skills, work meticulously, and are often prolific. Many people with Asperger’s are not as vocal about their work as those without and may not work within the same social pressures. Could this be why Cavendish didn’t find the urge to publish his work? It is possible, but today one can only theorize.
When people talk about autism, there’s far too much stigmatic language attached to preferred methods of living or for lack of a better term/ behavior. One behavioral trait that is regularly discussed with autism is repetitious behaviors. However when learning to master a skill, repetition for hours is what makes a master. This is one of Michelangelo’s behaviors that were discussed as “peculiar” his reputations patterns. In fact Michelangelo was known to repeat his routines and without them would get frustrated. Yes, this can be problematic- rigidity. However would we have the Sistine Chapel if it weren’t for his tenacity and his ability to stick to a routine, focus on the details that make up anatomically accurate painting, and then of course paint for lengthy hours at a time on his back? Maybe seeing the world from an “upside down” perspective is what makes a genius.
Arms flapping, sensitive to sound to the point of illness, erratic mood swings and outbursts, and echolalia. If this were written on a medical report today a doctor might recommend sedating or ADHD-centric medications like amphetamines or even anti depressants. But then we wouldn’t have Mozart. If we knew that child was going to become Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, perhaps we would give him another outlet like music. Again the antisocial behaviors and curiosities are the markers we look towards when we theorize diagnosing Mozart with autism. But before we started connecting these traits, Mozart has been known for being a child prodigy and in fact is the grandfather of an entire Era of music- Classical. His mathematical patterns, chord progressions, surprise endings, and goofiness are all what made Mozart’s work and Mozart’s life stand out- what made him unique. If Mozart had autism, those skills were just as much about his autism as his mood swings and echolalia.
8.) Ido Kedar
Though maybe not yet famous the world over, Ido Kedar should be. His book, Ido in Autismland, discusses his journey as a person who lives with autism. In fact, for the first half of his life Ido lived in a silent prison- but understanding everything that was happening around him. He was subjected to repetitive drilling in isolation- a common method of treatment for people on the autism spectrum. It wasn’t until he learned to communicate by typing that he revealed the truth. “I had no hope that my intelligence would be discovered,” writes Ido. He had to fight to be an education from school and in fact did graduate from high school with a 3.9 GPA. Ido was in fact trapped in a silent prison but with the ability to now type to communicate he has literally written his way to freedom. Today Ido works as a powerful advocate and seeks to educate others about nonverbal autism which is prevalent for people in the autism community.
9.) Albert Einstein
Known for his theory of relativity, Einstein had an inexplicable and incredible mind. He was nodding off to sleep when his theory came to him in a dream, or so it is told. When Einstein was a little boy he was non verbal. In fact, Einstein did not develop language until he was 3 years old. Regardless, Einstein rapidly accelerated through school and began picking up on concepts far beyond his grade level. Einstein, like many people with autism struggled some with relationships. Though married with children he asked that his children not touch him- it made him uncomfortable. Einstein struggled socially. These are the types of hallmarks that people use when labeling someone with autism. But perhaps his mind wasn’t so inexplicable after all. Perhaps it is because of his autism that we have this incredible mind.
10.) Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick is known for his visually inspiring films and tedious methodical ways of working. Kubrick spent nearly an entire year directing and perfecting his last film Eyes Wide Shut. By comparison this is how long it took to film all three of the Lord of the Rings films (9 hours of film). Kubrick insisted on repeated take after take perhaps to a level of perfectionism that was uncomfortable for his actors. Those who worked with him on his films describe a person who truly had a vision- and worked tediously and repetitiously until his vision unfolded. We have his autism to thank for the start opening of 2001 and the deep intense moments in A Clockwork Orange.