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 autism or other autism spectrum disorders such as Asperger syndrome. Such speculations are 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] Temple Grandin, a professor who is herself autistic, speculates that very early inventions like the stone spear were probably the work of autistic cavemen.[5][6]

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, including Andy Warhol, Charles Darwin, Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll, Éamon de Valera, Keith Joseph, George Orwell, Enoch Powell, and W. B. Yeats.[7][8][9][10] 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, including mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, writer Jonathan Swift, composer Erik Satie, Paul Dirac, and composer Béla Bartók.[11]

Speculation of this sort is, by necessity, based on reported behavior and anecdotal evidence rather than any clinical observation of the individual. Psychologist and author Oliver Sacks wrote that many of these claims seem "very thin at best",[12] 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".[13] Michael Fitzgerald's research, in particular, has been heavily criticised, and described by some as "fudged pseudoscience"[14] and "frankly absurd".[15] Jonathan Mitchell, an autistic blogger, has written that parents' expectation of savant abilities from retrospective diagnoses legitimizes aid workers' fees and encourages false hope.[16]

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[17] Wolff calls the evidence "convincing".[18]
Prince John of the United Kingdom – 20th century British prince famous for his epilepsy and isolation. He exhibited repetitive behavior and is often believed to be autistic and intellectually disabled. K. D. Reynolds[19] and Paul Tizley[20]
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.[7][21]
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,[12] and Ioan James;[4][11] Fred Volkmar of Yale Study Child Center is skeptical.[13]
Charles XII of Sweden – speculated to have had Asperger syndrome Swedish researchers, Gillberg[22] and Lagerkvist[23]
Jeffrey Dahmerserial killer Silva, et al.[24]
Anne Claudine d'Arpajon, comtesse de Noailles – French governess, lady of honor, tutor Society for French Historical Studies, New York Times[9]
Emily Dickinson – poet Vernon Smith[9]
Paul Dirac – quantum physicist Graham Farmelo, biographer[25]
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,[7] Ioan James,[11] Tony Attwood,[26] Peter Ostwald[27]
Adolf Hitler – Austrian born, Nazi German politician, chancellor and dictator Michael Fitzgerald[9] and Andreas Fries;[28] although others disagree and say that there is not sufficient evidence to indicate any diagnoses for Hitler.[14]
Thomas JeffersonPresident of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence Norm Ledgin,[29] Tony Attwood,[26] and Ioan James[11]
James Joyce – author of Ulysses Michael Fitzgerald and Antionette Walker;[8] this theory has been called "a somewhat odd hypothesis".[30]
Bohuslav Martinů – Czech-American composer (1890 -1959) F. James Rybka[31]
William McGonagall - poet, notoriously bad yet he never understood that others mocked him Norman Watson[32]
MichelangeloItalian Renaissance artist, based on his inability to form long-term attachments and certain other characteristics Arshad and Fitzgerald;[7][33] Ioan James also discussed Michelangelo's autistic traits.[11]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – composer Tony Attwood[26] and Michael Fitzgerald;[7] 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[34]
William James Sidis Michael Fitzgerald [35]
Alan Turing – pioneer of computer sciences. He seemed to be a math savant and his lifestyle has many autism traits about it. Tony Attwood[26] and Ioan James[11]
Michael Ventris – English architect who deciphered Linear B Simon Baron-Cohen[36]
Blind Tom Wiggins – autistic savant Oliver Sacks[37]
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Austrian philosopher Michael Fitzgerald[38] Tony Attwood,[26] and Ioan James;[11] Oliver Sacks seems to disagree.[12]

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,[7] and Simon Baron-Cohen[39] 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.[26]

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".[12] 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".[39]

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.[39] 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.[40]

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.[41][10]

Tesla also displayed other suggestive behaviours, according to Fitzgerald, such as reclusiveness, obsessiveness (sometimes working for two or three days without sleep), limited sense of humour, and lack of empathy.[10]

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 pro-social political issues. According to Baron-Cohen, "passion, falling in love and standing up for justice are all perfectly compatible with Asperger syndrome",[39] although he notes that Einstein's delayed language development and educational slowness may be more indicative of high-functioning autism.[11]

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 occasionally perceived lack of tact, social empathy, and naivety, as further apparent traits he had in common with people with autism spectrum disorders.[10] 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".[11]

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.[42]

By contrast, the economist Thomas Sowell claims that Einstein actually had a condition that he termed Einstein syndrome and was not autistic. Sowell states that Einstein syndrome includes delayed speech development, intellectual giftedness, and no dramatic impairments in mental functioning during adulthood.[43] Dr. Stephen Camarata, a professor at Vanderbilt School of Medicine, said that if Einstein was diagnosed as autistic, it would be misidentifying him despite his late talking.[44] Additionally, Walter Isaacson, in a book about Einstein, has doubted the validity of an autism diagnosis for Einstein, writing that "Einstein made close friends, had passionate relationships, enjoyed collegial discussions, communicated well verbally, and could empathize with friends and humanity in general."[45]


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