We see them speaking at the United Nations, acting on the big screen, or singing in front of thousands of people, yet you might not know that Greta Thunberg, Anthony Hopkins, and Susan Boyle are some of the famous people with autism.
The singer Sia recently made headlines by opening up about her diagnosis and struggles with living in a neurotypical world. “I’ve felt like for 45 years […] I’ve got to put my human suit on,” she said. “And only in the last two years have I become fully myself.”
Let’s take a closer look at some famous people with autism and historical figures believed to have been on the spectrum.
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Historical Figures with Autism
The first person diagnosed with autism was Donald Triplett, who died recently at the age of 89. And he was only diagnosed in 1943, so due to no official diagnoses we might not know for sure which, we might not know for sure which historical figures were on the spectrum, but there is some evidence for the figures below.
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 and phrases until he was seven. Even scientific research shows that “there does not seem much doubt” that Einstein was on the spectrum.
Sir Isaac Newton
Similarly, Sir Isaac Newton, often called the father of modern science, is believed to have been on the spectrum. The English mathematician and physicist had telling traits such as:
- he hardly spoke
- he was constantly immersed in his work, and
- his temperament was believed to be either lukewarm or bad-tempered
While in isolation, these do not indicate someone on the spectrum, scientists found many other traits indicating Newton might have been autistic.
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. Later research examined this notion.
Hans described Ugly Duckling as “a reflection of his life.” He may not have been diagnosed, but he showed symptoms such as:
- narrow interests
- repetitive routines
- difficulties being with other people, and
- speech and language difficulties
It’s documented that the author’s school days were “dark and bitter.” Although he faced challenges in childhood, he was encouraged to pursue writing when acting failed. This journey led him to become one of the most recognized writers in history.
Leonardo da Vinci
While some believe that the famous painter was on the autism spectrum, two scientists studied historical accounts and came to the conclusion that the Mona Lisa painter likely had
attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) share traits with autism.
“His notebooks show mirror writing and spelling errors that have been considered suggestive of dyslexia,” the scientists found.
“Atypical hemispheric dominance, left-handedness, and dyslexia are more prevalent in children with neurodevelopmental conditions, including ADHD.”
It is said that the founding father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin, was on the autism spectrum. Albeit having a mild form of autism, Franklin famously explained his learning process: “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.”
This indicates many autistic people are visual rather than verbal learners.
It is, however, essential to be cautious and realize that Franklin was never officially diagnosed with autism.
Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins
Thomas Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom,” was a child piano prodigy who was blind and enslaved. He possessed the marveled gift of hearing a short selection of complex music and echoing it. At just four years old, he became a pianist and began touring the United States by age eight.
Although much of his profit was passed over to his enslavers, he became the highest-paid pianist of the 19th century, and in 1960, at ten years old, was the first black musician to perform at the White House.
If he was alive today, many believe that he would have been diagnosed with autism, according to experts. 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 was nonverbal.
Thanks to the knowledge we now have of autism, we understand Blind Tom sought after sensory input, as he was hypersensitive to sound, and rocking and twitching was probably his stim—music became his escape to feed his sensory needs.
Athletes on the spectrum
Experts sometimes link autism and being good at physical activity or sports. People with autism often excel at individual sports where teamwork is not required, but some athletes have bucked the trend. Below are some famous sports stars who have been diagnosed with autism.
Top surfer Clay Marzo was diagnosed with autism in 2007 and said he “always knew something was different about me.” Clay is intensely focused on his sport and says from a young age, he could only focus “if I liked something.”
At competitions, he is often seen rubbing his hands together at a fast pace, also referred to as stimming. Stimming is a common symptom of autism.
In 1982, Jim Eisenreich emerged as a prominent Major League Baseball (MLB) figure, showcasing his exceptional talent while representing the Minnesota Twins. However, his journey was not without challenges. Afflicted by the uncontrollable tics associated with Tourette’s Syndrome and later diagnosed with Asperger’s, Eisenreich faced an uphill battle. Regrettably, these conditions ultimately compelled him to leave the MLB in 1984.
With the aid of medication and a profound comprehension of his obstacles, Jim Eisenreich triumphantly reentered the realm of his beloved game in 1986. His perseverance bore fruit, as evidenced by his remarkable achievement of being crowned the Kansas City Royals Player of the Year in 1989. This accolade beganmarked the beginning of a flourishing career that would span an impressive 15 years.
Basketball player Anthony Ianni was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism that says few people are expected to succeed in school or even participate in sports. As a child, his parents would take him to games, and he would experience was he described as “freak-out moments.” The sensory overload – flashing lights, noise, and screaming was too much.
However, Anthony’s passion for basketball surpassed these moments. He pursued his love for the sport and attended Michigan State University from 2009 to 2012. Remarkably, he became the first known Division I college basketball player on the autism spectrum.
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 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.
Celebrities with autism
On the public stage, they might entertain us with their singing, acting, and dancing but in their private lives, these celebrities have gone through an autism diagnosis. By sharing their stories, it might inspire others to live fulfilling lives and achieve great things.
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 Susan sang her song, her performance amazed the audience and the judges.
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 I must live with and work through, but I feel more relaxed about myself,” said Boyle. “People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do what 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 when he discovered he had mild Asperger’s syndrome.
He’s shared that he has “obsessions” with ghosts and law enforcement and carries a police badge. In an interview, Aykroyd states: “If I don’t have a badge on me, I feel naked.” He also 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.
Sir Anthony Hopkins
Actor, director, and film producer Anthony Hopkins has won several accolades, including an Academy Award, three BAFTAs, two Emmys, and the Cecil B. DeMille Award. He revealed: “I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s, but I’m high- end. A lot of people with Asperger’s are highly functional but inconsistent. They have nervous ticks, nervous habits, inconsistently obsessive thinking.”
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 reckoned with in the acting world.
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Chris Packham is an English naturalist, 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), whom he taught how to fly.
He has commented his love for animals has been simpler than forging a relationship with people.
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.”
Chris Packham, an English naturalist, nature photographer, television presenter, and author, encountered unique challenges throughout his life. It wasn’t until his 40s that he received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome.
During his school years, Packham endured taunting and insults from his peers, bewildered by their behavior. This period became a “dark place,” but he found solace and joy during the six months he spent with a Kestrel, a bird he taught to fly. It was during this time that he experienced his happiest moments.
“[I am] able to see things and hear things that most people can’t [and it] is a gift,” he said
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. You name it, I’ve been there,” she commented.
Advocates And Entrepreneurs With Autism
Dr. Temple Grandin
Image credit: Rosalie Winard
Dr. Temple Grandin is an author and speaker on 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.
“I had an odd lack of awareness of my oddities of speech and mannerisms until I looked at videotapes,” she remarked in an interview.
Her friends were those who shared her interests, 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 been 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.
Greta Thunberg is a 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 not only to 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 blind spot 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, which allowed me to make so much sense of my life.”
She expresses having gone through a process of realization, being overwhelmed, frustration, and tears, adding: “Although my brain has been very busy processing receiving an official diagnosis, it is ultimately really positive for me.”
Stephen Wiltshire is a British architectural artist and autistic savant. His unique ability to draw an entire skyline using his photographic memory and 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 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 on National Geographic 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 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.
He describes his drawing as “my form of language.” “It makes me feel good and happy because it makes people smile; when they smile, I smile,” he said.
“I also like going up in the helicopter and seeing the cityscape from a bird’s eye view.”
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The businessman and owner of Twitter, Elon Musk, has been very open about being on the spectrum and describes his childhood as “very unhappy” and bullied at school.
“I was almost beaten to death,” he revealed in an interview. “So it was a close call. I was in hospital for a while.
In a viral TED talk, Musk explained how his brain works differently. “Social cues were not intuitive, so I was just very bookish,” he explained.
“Others could intuitively understand what was meant by something. I would take something very literally, as if the words that were spoken were exactly what they meant. But that turned out to be wrong. [People are] not simply saying exactly what they mean. There are all sorts of other things that are meant. It took me a while to figure that out.”
This list of popular figures shows 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.