Although autism can create challenges and difficulties with everyday life, it can also be seen as a gift which enables people to share amazing talents with the world around them.
There are many notable figures in today’s society who have received an autism diagnosis. Plus, with autism being a fairly “new” diagnosis, several geniuses throughout history are believed to have been on the spectrum.
This article looks at current popular figures with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as well as delving back in time to celebrate scientific and musical wonders. Today, these individuals are examples for every child on the spectrum who feels different, to help them realize that being autistic does not limit people from achieving their dreams.
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Famous people with autism in history
Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins
Thomas Wiggins, known as Blind Tom, was a child piano prodigy who was blind, and a slave. He possessed the marveled gift of being able to hear a short selection of complex music and echo it. At just four years old, he became a pianist, who began touring the United States by the age of eight. Although a lot of his profit was passed over to his slave owners, he became the highest paid pianist of the 19th century and, in 1960, at 10 years old, was the first black musician to perform at the White House.
His skills were said to surpass Mozart. If he was alive today, many believe that he would have been diagnosed autistic. He was highly fascinated with sound and had the ability to mimic sounds from bird calls to trains. He is also said to have rocked and twitched, and he was nonverbal.
Thanks to the knowledge we now have of autism, we understand Blind Tom sought after sensory input, as he was hyposensitive to sound, and rocking and twitching was probably his stim—music became his escape to feed his sensory needs.
It’s not certain the great Albert Einstein was on the autism spectrum, however, it has been widely speculated. Features of autism were present in his personality: namely, obsessive interests, difficulty in social relationships, and problems communicating.
Einstein was described as a loner and repeated sentences until he was seven years old. He also had trouble socializing. Looking simply at character traits might be too presumptuous, but it is worth noting great minds who have shaped major fields such as science are not superhumans, they just have abilities or gifts that many of us don’t.
Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton, often called the father of modern science, was an English mathematician and physicist.
Just like Einstein, there are speculations he too could have been on the autism spectrum. His telling traits were that he hardly spoke, he was constantly immersed in his work, and his temperament was believed to be either lukewarm or bad-tempered with the few friends he had.
Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen was a Danish author. He wrote plays, travelogues, novels, and poems. He is best known for his fairytales.
It’s believed he spoke of his challenges, speculated to be autism symptoms, through his storytelling; for example, the Ugly Duckling. Hans described this story as “a reflection of his life”. He may not have been diagnosed—autism wasn’t really named at the time; but he showed symptoms such as narrow interests, repetitive routines, difficulties being with other people, and had speech and language difficulties.
It’s documented that the author’s school days were “dark and bitter”. Although he faced challenges in his childhood, he was encouraged to pursue writing when acting failed. This journey led him to become one of the most recognized writers in history.
Celebrities on the spectrum
Image credit: Deborah Wilbanks
Susan Boyle graced the musical stage in 2009 on Britain’s Got Talent. At first sight, some audience members were amused by the eccentric middle-aged woman on stage. But when quirky Susan sang her song, her performance amazed not just the audience but the judges as well. In an interview, Boyle expressed she often had unfair labels placed on her throughout her life, later revealing her asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. She describes being diagnosed as “a relief.”
The singer’s asperger’s, which was undiagnosed for a long time, meant she felt like an outsider during childhood because people did not understand her
“Asperger’s doesn’t define me. It’s a condition that I have to live with and work through, but I feel more relaxed about myself,” says Boyle. “People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do.”
Comedian, singer, actor, screenwriter, and Blues Brother, Dan Aykroyd was diagnosed with autism in the 1980s. He was expelled from two different schools by the time he discovered he had mild asperger’s syndrome. He’s shared that he has “obsessions” with ghosts and law enforcement, and he carries a police badge. In an interview with Terry Gross, Aykroyd states: “If I don’t have a badge on me I feel naked”. In another interview, he shares he was also diagnosed with Tourette’s at 12, but symptoms were later controlled through therapy.
Aykroyd did not let his diagnosis stop him from winning an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy-Variety or Music Series, an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from Carleton University, and being inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame.
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Sir Anthony Hopkins
Actor, director, and film producer Anthony Hopkins has won several accolades such as an Academy Award, three BAFTAs, two Emmys and the Cecil B. DeMille Award. He revealed: “Well, I’ve been diagnosed with asperger’s, but I’m high end…”
Sir Anthony describes himself as “a poor learner”, which he believes caused him to be ridiculed in early life and led to an inferiority complex. He states he grew up believing that he was stupid and had a sheer contempt for authority.
“They put me in the boarding school because they didn’t know what else to do with me,” he said. “So, my school history was poor and I think that breeds in any child a lot of anger and loneliness.”
When questioned about his work ethic, Sir Anthony has stated he reads character lines until they become natural and he can recite them without thinking; and once he has performed a part, he “discards” it. Despite his challenges, Sir Anthony has become a force to be reckoned with in the acting world.
Chris Packham is an English naturalist, nature photographer, television presenter, and author.
He was diagnosed with asperger’s in his 40s.
During his school years, Packham was often taunted and insulted by his peers, but he could not understand why. He describes this time in his life as a “dark place” and says the happiest time of his life was the six months he spent with a Kestrel (a bird), that he taught how to fly.
He has commented his love for animals has been simpler than forging a relationship with people. Packham’s partner describes him as sometimes being “like an alien” and admits it is “hard to deal with his lack of empathy”.
When asked about his experience as an autistic person, Packham shared it has allowed him to experience the world differently. Although he has heightened senses which can be overwhelming, and a mind that often wonders, he believes being “able to see things and hear things that most people can’t is a gift.”
Courtney Love is an American singer, songwriter, and actress on the autism spectrum. She is the lead vocalist of the alternative rock band Hole.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, she briefly spoke of her autism diagnosis. She shared she is an introvert and was diagnosed with autism at an early age when, at the time, she couldn’t speak.
“My first visit to a psychiatrist was when I was, like, three. Observational therapy. TM for tots. You name it, I’ve been there,” she commented.
Advocates and entrepreneurs
Dr. Temple Grandin
Image credit: Rosalie Winard.
Dr. Temple Grandin is an author and speaker on both autism and animal behavior who works as a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University.
Dr. Grandin began speaking at the age of three-and-a-half after several speech therapy sessions. Dr. Grandin says that, in her early life, she was teased, bullied, and considered “weird” by her school peers.
Her friends consisted of those who shared the same interests as her such as horses, electronics, or model rockets. She describes her mom and her teachers as being important figures in her life who encouraged her interests.
A fun fact about Dr. Grandin is that, in 2010, HBO made an award-winning movie about her life. She has also featured in publications such as Time Magazine, New York Times, Discover Magazine, Forbes, and USA Today.
Dr. Grandin encourages parents to teach their children to be flexible, and not focus on their child’s deficits but build on his/her strengths.
The mastermind behind Pokémon is also on the autism spectrum.
Growing up, Satoshi Tajiri had a strong interest in collecting bugs. Because of this, his peers nicknamed him “Dr. Bug”. He disliked going to school and skipped classes to spend time in arcades playing video games. Eventually, he obtained his high school diploma and went to the Tokyo National College of Technology.
At 17, Tajiri and some friends formed a magazine group for gamers called Game Freak which later became a gaming company. In the early 1990s, Tajiri had an idea to combine his love for bugs and gaming into a Game Boy product through Nintendo. Although the company doubted his idea, he caught the attention of the legend Shigeru Miyamoto. His idea would later become a reality and be called Pokémon.
Although he hasn’t shared when he was diagnosed with high-functioning autism, it’s known that he was a child at the time. As we know, autism is partly characterized by fixations and special interests—this might explain his obsession with bugs and gaming.
Stephen Wiltshire is a British architectural artist and autistic savant. He has a unique ability to draw an entire skyline using his photographic memory and his work has gained worldwide popularity.
Wiltshire was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and didn’t say his first word “paper” until he was five years old. At the age of eight, his first commission was to draw for the British Prime Minister. Even then, he struggled with language.
At 13, Wiltshire published his first book of drawings. Despite his photographic memory, an account of him states: “He still managed to get lost and walk 45 minutes in the wrong direction before finding Cheyenne’s Diner.”
He has drawn cities around the world, from Jerusalem to Sydney. One project brought Mexico City to life on a 13-foot canvas. In 2006, he opened his own gallery in central London. Among his accomplishments, Prince Charles appointed him as a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to the art world.
Greta Thunberg is an 18-year-old Swedish environmental activist. She is the public face of the school climate strike movement.
On her Twitter account, she shared: “I have asperger’s and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And, given the right circumstances, being different is a superpower…”
She uses Twitter to not only share her experiences of being an activist on the spectrum but also to raise awareness for climate change.
She shared: “I’m not public about my diagnosis to ’hide’ behind it, but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an ’illness’, or something negative. And believe me, my diagnosis has limited me before.”
Author of Period Power and expert in menstrual health, Maisie Hill, shared snippets of her autism diagnosis on her Instagram account and podcast.
She shared a picture bearing the words “I’m autistic”. In her caption, she wrote: “A year or so ago I had a professional blindspot in terms of how autism presents in those born female…as I researched, I realized that a lot of it rang true for me and I’ve spent the last year wondering if I’m autistic. Last week I received a formal diagnosis and it has allowed me to make so much sense of my life.”
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She expresses having gone through a process of realization, overwhelm, frustration, and tears, adding: “although my brain has been very busy processing receiving an official diagnosis, it is ultimately really positive for me.”
Armani Williams is a 20-year-old American stock car racing driver who was diagnosed with ASD at the age of two. Among his many accolades, he is the first NASCAR driver to be open about his autism diagnosis.
Williams spoke his first word at the age of three. He struggled with social interaction and with sensory information difficulties during childhood, and was very interested in cars and watching NASCAR at a young age.
You will often find the word “autism” written on Williams’ track car and suit and he has sported blue paint schemes with the blue autism puzzle piece to raise awareness. He is currently studying chemical engineering while pursuing his love for fast cars.
From this list of popular figures we can see that autism is not limited to any particular social background, ethnic group, intellectual ability, or appearance. These inspirational people also highlight that an autism diagnosis does not always limit one’s ability to excel.
Even though many of the people above faced challenges at a young age, they have surmounted many obstacles. By drawing on their interests, they’ve used autism as a gift and shared their respective talents with society.
As a parent, receiving an autism diagnosis for your child can feel overwhelming. Perhaps this article can offer some encouragement that, although the road to independence can be challenging, your child can thrive with your support.