Retrospective diagnoses of autism

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Musical savant Blind Tom Wiggins died decades before autism was identified. Modern neurologists speculate Wiggins' symptoms might meet the criteria for an Autism spectrum disorder.

A retrospective diagnosis is the practice of identifying a condition in a historical figure using modern knowledge, methods and medical classifications.[1][2]

Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) were first identified by Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner in 1943, and it was not until many years later that they were formally recognised by the medical community. Journalists, academics and autism professionals have speculated that certain famous or notable historical people had autistic disorder or other autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger syndrome. Such speculation is controversial and is often disputed. For example, several autism researchers speculate that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, while other researchers say there is not sufficient evidence to draw such conclusions.[3][4]

Validity of retrospective diagnoses[edit]

Michael Fitzgerald of the Department of Child Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin has written numerous books and articles on the subject, identifying over 30 individuals as possibly having AS.[5][6][7][8] Ioan James is a British mathematician who, in 2005, published Asperger's Syndrome And High Achievement: Some Very Remarkable People, identifying a number of historic figures as autism candidates.[9]

Speculation of this sort is, by necessity, based on reported behavior and anecdotal evidence rather than any clinical observation of the individual, and as such, is often controversial. Psychologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote that many of these claims seem "very thin at best",[10] and Fred Volkmar, of the Yale Child Study Center, has remarked that "there is unfortunately a sort of cottage industry of finding that everyone has Asperger's".[11] Michael Fitzgerald's research, in particular, has been heavily criticised, and described by some as "fudged pseudoscience"[12] and "frankly absurd".[13]

List of individuals[edit]

Person Speculator
Hugh Blair of Borgue – 18th century Scottish landowner thought mentally incompetent, now studied as case history of autism. Rab Houston and Uta Frith[14] Wolff calls the evidence "convincing".[15]
Stanley KubrickFilmmaker Michael Fitzgerald and Viktoria Lyons see it as "convincing" stating that he was well known to have obsessive traits and found it socially difficult with his collaborators on set.[5][16]
Henry Cavendish – 18th century British scientist. He was unusually reclusive, literal minded, had trouble relating to people, had trouble adapting to people, difficulties looking straight at people, drawn to patterns, etc. Oliver Sacks,[10] and Ioan James;[4][9] Fred Volkmar of Yale Study Child Center is skeptical.[11]
Charles XII of Sweden – speculated to have had Asperger syndrome Swedish researchers, Gillberg[17] and Lagerkvist[18]
Jeffrey Dahmerserial killer Silva, et al.[19]
Anne Claudine d'Arpajon, comtesse de Noailles – French governess, lady of honor, tutor Society for French Historical Studies, New York Times[7]
Emily Dickinson – poet Vernon Smith[7]
Paul Dirac - quantum physicist Graham Farmelo, biographer[20]
Glenn Gould – Canadian pianist and noted Bach interpreter. He liked routine to the point he used the same seat until it was worn through. He also disliked social functions to the point that in later life he relied on the telephone or letters for virtually all communication. He had an aversion to being touched, had a different sense of hot or cold than most, and would rock back and forth while playing music. He is speculated to have had Asperger syndrome. Michael Fitzgerald,[5] Ioan James,[9] Tony Attwood,[21] Peter Ostwald[22]
Adolf Hitler – Austrian born, Nazi-German politician, chancellor and dictator Michael Fitzgerald[7] and Andreas Fries;[23] although others disagree and say that there is not sufficient evidence to indicate any diagnoses for Hitler.[12]
Norm Ledgin[24] Tony Attwood,[21] and Ioan James[9]
James Joyce – author of Ulysses Michael Fitzgerald and Antionette Walker;[6] this theory has been called "a somewhat odd hypothesis".[25]
Bohuslav Martinů – Czech-American composer (1890 -1959) F. James Rybka[26]
William McGonagall - poet, notoriously bad yet he never understood that others mocked him Norman Watson[27]
MichelangeloItalian Renaissance artist, based on his inability to form long-term attachments and certain other characteristics Arshad and Fitzgerald;[5][28] Ioan James also discussed Michelangelo's autistic traits.[9]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – composer Tony Attwood[21] and Michael Fitzgerald;[5] others disagree that there is sufficient evidence to indicate any diagnoses for Mozart.[3]
Charles Richterseismologist, creator of the eponymous scale of earthquake magnitude Susan Hough in her biography of Richter[29]
Alan Turing – pioneer of computer sciences. He seemed to be a math savant and his lifestyle has many autism traits about it. Tony Attwood[21] and Ioan James[9]
Michael Ventris – English architect who deciphered Linear B Simon Baron-Cohen[30]
Blind Tom Wiggins – autistic savant Oliver Sacks[31]
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Austrian philosopher Michael Fitzgerald[32] Tony Attwood,[21] and Ioan James;[9] Oliver Sacks seems to disagree.[10]

Specific individuals[edit]

Isaac Newton (1643–1727), Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) and Albert Einstein (1879–1955) all died before Asperger syndrome became known, but Ioan James,[4] Michael Fitzgerald,[5] and Simon Baron-Cohen[33] believe their personalities are consistent with those of people with Asperger syndrome. Tony Attwood has also named Einstein as a likely case of mild autism.[21]

Not everyone agrees with these analyses. According to Oliver Sacks, the evidence that any one of these figures had autism "seems very thin at best".[10] Glen Elliott, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, is unconvinced that either Newton or Einstein had Asperger syndrome, particularly due to the unreliability of diagnoses based on biographical information. Elliot stated that there are a variety of causes that could explain the behaviour in question, and points out that Einstein is known to have had a good sense of humour, a trait that, according to Elliot, is "virtually unknown in people with severe Asperger syndrome".[33]

Isaac Newton[edit]

Isaac Newton hardly spoke and had few friends. He was often so absorbed in his work that he forgot to eat, demonstrating an obsessive single-mindedness that is commonly associated with Asperger's. If nobody attended his lessons, he reportedly gave lectures to an empty room. When he was 50, he suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by depression and paranoia.[33] After Newton's death, however, his body was found to contain massive amounts of mercury, probably from his alchemical pursuits, which could have accounted for his eccentricity in later life.[34]

Nikola Tesla[edit]

In Nikola Tesla's autobiography, My Inventions, he claims to have the ability to "visualize with the greatest facility", allowing him to fully design and test his inventions in his mind:

It is absolutely immaterial to me whether I run my turbine in thought or test it in my shop. I even note if it is out of balance. There is no difference whatever, the results are the same. In this way I am able to rapidly develop and perfect a conception without touching anything.[35]

Tesla also displayed other unusual behaviours; he was very sensitive to touch, had an acute sense of hearing and sight, was obsessed with the number three and pigeons, was disgusted by jewelery and overweight people, and had several eating compulsions.[36][37][unreliable source?][improper synthesis?]

Albert Einstein[edit]

Albert Einstein is sometimes thought to have had Asperger syndrome, despite forming close relationships with a number of people, marrying twice, and being outspoken on political issues. According to Baron-Cohen, "passion, falling in love and standing up for justice are all perfectly compatible with Asperger syndrome",[33] although he notes that Einstein's delayed language development and educational slowness may be more indicative of high-functioning autism.[9]

Fitzgerald describes Einstein's interest in physics as "an addiction", and says that it was important for him to be in control of his life. He also points to Einstein's lack of tact and social empathy, and his occasional naivety, as further traits he had in common with people with autism spectrum disorders.[8] Ioan James adds that Einstein was much better at processing visual information than verbal; Einstein himself once said "I rarely think in words at all".[9]

In her 1995 book In a World of His Own: A Storybook About Albert Einstein, author Illana Katz notes that Einstein "was a loner, solitary, suffered from major tantrums, had no friends and didn't like being in crowds", and conjectures that he may have had some form of autism.[38]

References[edit]

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