Though autism did not become the mainstream diagnosis it is today until well into the 20th century, it is certainly not anything new. Indeed, history is full of people who many consider to be or have been somewhere on the autism spectrum. Like the 30 people on this list.
While we are well aware that retrospective diagnosis of autism is near impossible, the figures on this list have been carefully chosen. Experts ( both medical professionals and those who experience autism first-hand) agree that every person listed here probably shows or showed autistic tendencies, and we’ve noted those cases in which some experts disagree with others. Despite the challenges associated with the identification of autism, this list is meant to be helpful and inspiring to those who themselves fall somewhere on the spectrum.
Popular comedic actor Dan Aykroyd had already been expelled from two different schools by the time a doctor diagnosed him with mild Asperger’s Syndrome as a child. Since then, Aykroyd has been pretty honest and up-front about his experiences with the autism spectrum. The Academy Award-nominated actor and writer has even spoken to great extent about how his experiences with autism contributed to his character in Ghostbusters.
Hans Christian Andersen
The experts go back and forth over whether Hans Christian Anderson, the beloved writer of such fairy tales as The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling, was autistic or not. Most of those who insist that he appeared somewhere on the spectrum are those who are autistic themselves, and therefore can relate to Andersen on a personal level. For example, Andersen’s diary describes to great length his many bouts of unrequited love for those who were, quite frankly, unattainable — a common personal experience, say those on the spectrum who can relate. They also cite the recurring theme of outcast characters in his stories. Most never achieve their sought after happy endings.
Benjamin Banneker was an African-American author, surveyor, naturalist, astronomer, inventor, and farmer who lived as a free man in 18th century America. Plenty of contemporary documents refer to Banneker’s “unparalleled brilliance” and “odd methods of behavior,” lending credence to the common idea that Banneker had a high-functioning form of autism. He was known to fixate on certain objects, such as a friend’s watch, until that fixation ultimately led to an experiment or invention of his own.
Most people know Susan Boyle as the shy Scottish introvert who sold more than 14 million albums after appearing on Britain’s Got Talent. But even more people found Boyle inspiring when she announced she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a diagnosis that Boyle said, felt like “a relief.” Boyle is still learning about the autism spectrum and how it affects her, but as long as she keeps singing, people are sure to continue to be inspired by her.
Is Hollywood director Tim Burton autistic? His long-time partner, Helena Bonham Carter, seems to think so. At least, she once speculated that he was “possibly autistic” during an interview. While researching an autistic character for a film, Carter claims, she had an “a-ha moment” and realized that much of her research applied to Burton. Said Carter, “Autistic people have application and dedication. You can say something to Tim when he’s working and he doesn’t hear you. But that quality also makes him a fantastic father; he has an amazing sense of humor and imagination. He sees things other people won’t see.”
There are few historical figures as controversial as Lewis Carroll, the author of the children’s classic Alice in Wonderland. While some of his behavior, such as continuously seeking out the company of young girls, has made some wonder if the university professor was a pedophile, others use the same information to insist that Carroll was actually autistic. After all, Carroll lived in a different time and place, with far different social customs than what we are used to today. He was also known to be a poor communicator, and therefore likely found interacting with children much easier. His difficulty with communication was exacerbated by a severe stammer. Finally, Carroll showed great mathematical ability and even considered himself to be a minor inventor, both common characteristics of those on the spectrum.
Henry Cavendish is perhaps one of the most important scientists in history. A natural philosopher, chemist, and physicist, Cavendish is perhaps most famous as the discoverer of hydrogen. He is also thought to have been autistic. Besides his weekly meetings at the prestigious Royal Society Club, Cavendish did all he could to avoid company and social calls. Indeed, he was so reclusive, he communicated with his servants in writing, ordered his meals via a note left on the table, and even added a private staircase to the back of his house so as to avoid the housekeeper. He also avoided eye contact and was described by a contemporary as the “coldest and most indifferent of mortals.” But he was also brilliant, though it was only after his death that fellow scientists went through his many papers and realized all he had accomplished.
Trinity College professor Michael Fitzgerald, a leading psychiatrist, researched and published a paper concluding that Charles Darwin had Asperger’s Syndrome. There are records from Darwin’s childhood that state he was a very quiet and isolated child, who avoided interaction with others as much as he could. Like so many others with Asperger’s, he sought alternative ways of communicating, such as writing letters. He had fixations with certain topics like chemistry, but was a very visual thinker — all traits of someone on the autism spectrum.
In her book Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome have Influenced Literary Writing, academic Julie Brown includes classical poet Emily Dickinson. Brown is part of a large group who believe Dickinson showed plenty of signs of being autistic: she wrote poems that were extremely unconventional for her time period, she was reclusive, she got along best with children, she wore white clothing almost exclusively, and had a fascination with scented flowers, among other things. While Dickinson’s biographer, Lyndall Gordon, insists that Dickinson’s epilepsy is what made her so reclusive, medical professionals are quick to point out that those with autism have a much higher chance of also having epilepsy.
Paul Dirac has repeatedly been referred to as one of the most significant and influential physicists of the 20th century. The Cambridge professor greatly contributed to early quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, and even received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933. That Nobel, however, was almost refused by Dirac, who was so reclusive that he didn’t want the publicity. Such shyness is one of many reasons why a large number of people think Dirac may have had some form of autism. Besides his shyness, they cite his intense focus, extreme literal mindedness, lack of empathy, and his rigid patterns, among other things.
Perhaps the most famous scientist and mathematician in history, Albert Einstein had a number of interesting and possibly telling characteristics. For one, he had trouble socializing, especially as an adult. As a child, he experienced severe speech delays and later echolalia, or the habit of repeating sentences to himself. And of course, there is the fact that Einstein was incredibly technical. Such characteristics have led many experts to conclude that he appeared somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Bobby Fischer, the chess grandmaster and World Chess Champion, is said to have had Asperger’s Syndrome in addition to paranoid schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Fischer was known to be extremely intense, and did not relate well to others thanks to his lack of friendships and poor social abilities. His extreme focus on chess is another sign, as his track record for not being able to cope in an unstructured environment.
Could Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world be autistic? Quite a few autism experts seem to think so! While nothing has ever been confirmed regarding whether or not Gates falls on the autism spectrum, those who seem to think he is cite things like the distinct rocking motion Gates displays when he concentrates, his shortened and monotoned speech patterns, and his habits of avoiding eye contact on the rare occasion he speaks directly with someone else. These are all common characters of those on the spectrum, and the evidence that Bill Gates may be autistic is quite persuasive.
There may be no autistic person alive today more famous than Temple Grandin. The author and Colorado State University professor didn’t begin speaking until she was almost four years old, and the doctors who diagnosed her recommended she be institutionalized. Fortunately, her parents did not agree with those doctors. Grandin has gone on to become a leading force in animal sciences, has been named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people, and even produced an award-winning biopic about her life. She remains an outspoken advocate in the autism community, and has been unapologetic about her belief that the “characteristics of autism can be modified and controlled.”
Daryl Hannah — the beautiful star of films like Splash, Blade Runner, and Steel Magnolias — only came out about her experiences on the autism spectrum about five years ago. Since then, Hannah has been nothing but inspirational as she’s told the honest truth about her challenges with Asperger’s Syndrome. As a child, we rocked herself to self-soothe, and was so shy that once she began acting she refused to give interviews or even attend her own premieres. Though she has mostly learned to control and live with her diagnosis, Hannah has all but left the entertainment industry to focus on environmental issues and other passions.
This one is especially controversial. Those who argue that the third president of the United States fell somewhere on the autism spectrum cite the fact that Jefferson was well-known to have been an uncomfortable public speaker and one who could not relate well to others. A number of contemporary documents even reference Jefferson’s sensitivity to loud noises and his many strange routines, such as the constant companionship of a pet mockingbird. Despite the evidence, the best we can do when it comes to Jefferson is speculate, as most documents dating from his early life burned down with his childhood home.
Those who associate Steve Jobs with autism admit that it’s pure speculation, but they are also quick to point out that that speculation has grown more and more mainstream since the Apple genius’s death in 2011. Those who believe Jobs landed somewhere on the spectrum cite such behavioral quirks as his obsession with perfection, his unorthodox ways of thinking, and his general lack of empathy when dealing with others.
Ask any autism expert about James Joyce, and you’ll likely hear them argue that his writing itself is extreme evidence of Joyce possibly being autistic. After all, his two most famous works, “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’s Wake”, are brilliant, yet intentionally difficult to read and understand. As Joyce told Harper’s Magazine, “The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole life to reading my work.” Some claim that this intentional approach to his work showed Joyce’s desire to distance himself from society, a very autistic thing to do. These same scholars also reference Joyce’s youth, during which he was extremely intelligent, but also suffered from a number of phobias and had trouble keeping friends.
Alfred Kinsey was a famed sexologist and biologist who founded the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. As is just about anything in his line of work, Kinsey was extremely controversial. Though the controversy surrounding his work has died down since Kinsey’s death, a new controversy has since arisen: was Kinsey autistic? Many medical professionals seem to think so. A 1999 article in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders stated that Kinsey meets the criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome because of his “qualitative impairment in social interaction,” “failure to develop appropriate peer relationships,” and “lack of social and emotional reciprocity.”
Stanley Kubrick is most famous as the innovative and exceedingly creative director of films like “A Clockwork Orange,” “Dr. Strangelove,” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But could he also have had some form of autism? The experts are split on this one. Those who argue that Kubrick was indeed autistic cite the director’s reclusive nature and his habit of hoarding animals. He was a chess mastermind, and said to be uncomplimentary and cheap. Still, there are plenty of reports that refute these allegations.
Barbara McClintock was a famed scientist who made great breakthroughs in the study of chromosomes and how they change during the reproduction process. McClintock has long been thought of as autistic in some way. She had an extreme fixation on her work and was able to focus for long periods of time. She was also very particular about what she would and would not wear. Notably reclusive and one who went to great lengths to avoid any attention of limelight, McClintock nearly didn’t accept the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine that she was awarded for her excellent and groundbreaking work.
Dr. Muhammad Arshad published in the Royal Society of Medicine’s Journal of Medical Biography a convincing paper arguing that Michelangelo was almost certainly autistic. Another leading researcher on the topics, Professor Michael Fitzgerald, agrees. Their evidence: the artist’s singular interest in his work, a temper that could change at the drop of a hat, strict routines, and very poor social skills. Such characteristics, all of which were determined through dozens of contemporary notes and letters, are consistent with those with high-functioning autism.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Most scholars agree that musical maestro Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was somewhere on the spectrum. Mozart was allegedly extremely sensitive to loud noises, had a notoriously short attention span, and could fly through a cycle of facial expressions within seconds. In one well-documented incident, a bored Mozart began doing cartwheels and vaults over tables while meowing loudly like a cat.
Sir Isaac Newton
Thanks to researchers at Cambridge University, we have a pretty good idea that Isaac Newton had Asperger’s Syndrome or something else on the spectrum. The researchers, who also argue that Albert Einstein was autistic, mention in their article evidence that Newton isolated himself as much as possible and was notoriously awkward when it came to typical daily conversation. He was not good at keeping friends, and relied strongly upon routines. Lastly, there are a number of reports that suggest that he was often so focused on his work, that he went for days at a time without eating or sleeping.
Jerry Seinfeld, one of the most popular comedians of all time, has said in multiple interviews that he believes himself to be on the autism spectrum. Though he has never been officially diagnosed by a medical professional, Seinfeld has defended his self-diagnosis by citing various social challenges that he has experienced since childhood, as well as his tendency to think literally. While Seinfeld may consider himself to have Asperger’s Syndrome, others in the autism community disagree. In fact, Seinfeld’s revelation has been quite controversial, with many feeling that his self-diagnosis has only served to make light of actual issues.
As a child, Satoshi Tajiri was fascinated by insects and was even nicknamed “Dr. Bug” by other children. As an adult, Tajiri turned that interest into the world-wide phenomenon that is Pokemon — which itself makes him an inspiration to millions of children (and adults!) around the world. But Satoshi Tajiri is also on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Though he confirmed that he does indeed have Asperger’s Syndrome, Tajiri does not talk about it in public, choosing instead to let his many accomplishments speak for themselves.
Thanks to his major rival, Thomas Edison, who reportedly stole many of his best ideas, Nikola Tesla died poor and alone. More recently, Tesla is finally getting the credit he deserves for many of his most genius ideas. It’s likely the inventor was also autistic. According to records of Tesla’s time, he suffered from a large number of phobias, was extremely sensitive to light and sound, isolated himself, and was obsessed with the number three.
Experts like Judith Gould, the director of the leading diagnostic center for autism in the United Kingdom, insists that it makes perfect sense that Andy Warhol was autistic. After all, much of the artist’s work focuses on repetition, on which those with autism usually fixate. In interviews, Warhol almost always responded to questions with monosyllabic answers, possibly evidence that he had the verbal dyslexia that is so common among those on the spectrum. He reportedly refused to wear anything but a certain kind of green underwear. Still, not everyone agrees that Warhol was autistic. Those who argue against this posthumous diagnosis suggest that Warhol’s different behavior was calculated in an effort to “enhance a sense of mystery.”
The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is another inspiring historical figure who very likely had autism. In fact, Wittgenstein’s most famous work, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” has been cited again and again as a classical example of the autistic thought process. Contemporary letters and diary entries reference Wittgenstein’s persistent irritation, especially when it came to understanding and dealing with those around him.
William Butler Yeats
Professor Michael Fitzgerald, the same Trinity College professor who recently published a paper asserting that Charles Darwin likely had some form of autism, claims the same thing about Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Fitzgerald cites Yeats’ extreme difficulty in school, where he was bullied for his lack of interest and awkward social behavior. He also brings up the fact that Yeats pined for years for Maud Gonne, despite her stated disinterest. Still, Yeats’ biographer, Oxford professor Roy Foster, rejects Fitzgerald’s idea’s.