Ten Historical Figures Who May Have Had Asperger's Syndrome
Since becoming an accepted diagnosis in 1994, the autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s Syndrome, has captured a lot of attention. First discovered by Hans Asperger in the 1940s, the disorder is characterized by obsessive focus and often brilliance in a specialized subject, but also causes problems reading social cues, which can result in a number of consequences, such as the inability to maintain relationships and friendships, bullying as a child and phobias and crippling obsessive compulsive behavior. Today, most people with Asperger’s can learn to cope with the symptoms and lead full, normal lives but there has also been much speculation as to what historical figures might have had undiagnosed Asperger’s.
Because the symptoms of Asperger’s are similar to traits we associate with “eccentric genius,” dozens if not hundreds of historical figures have been suggested to have Asperger’s, many of them as dubious claims in my opinion, but here are ten that I consider to be highly likely candidates for having Asperger’s Syndrome.
Albert Einstein -- Though his name is now synonymous with genius, the eccentric behavior of Einstein has been downplayed when people talk about his life. As a child Albert was unusually withdrawn and he had a very hard time relating to others his age. He also had difficulty communicating with adults and was known to have fits of rage as a child. (Common with children with Asperger’s Syndrome) Even as an adult, Einstein still exhibited some of the telltale signs of Asperger’s syndrome. His unusual hair style shows a lack of desire to conform to accepted norms in looks and Einstein also famously owned seven identical suits, one for each day of the week, because he liked to know what he was going to wear each day and not have to think about such a mundane decision. He also was famous for telling people brutal truths regardless of how much it hurt the person’s feelings. To his first wife he famously said, “Expect neither affection nor fidelity” and he was true to his word on both. A number of quotes from Einstein reflect a worldview that suggests Asperger’s Syndrome. Einstein said many times that he did not consider himself smarter than others in his field but only that he had been blessed with unusual drive and focus that his peers lacked.
Patricia Highsmith-- Calling Highsmith simply a crime writer, as many have done, is to do a disservice to her unique and darkly funny body of work. Highsmith is most famous for her books about Tom Ripley, a charming sociopath. While some who knew Highsmith describe her as having traits similar to the character Ripley, her personality is more similar to what you might find with Asperger’s. When you read accounts of those who knew Highsmith, it sounds like they are describing two different people. Some call her “misanthropic and cruel” while others say she was “plainspoken, dryly funny and great fun to be around.” People with Asperger’s are often mistaken for being cruel when they simply have a hard time reading others emotions and also find it difficult to tell the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the context of social situations. While Highsmith herself said she disliked people in general she was an intense lover of animals. Autistics often have trouble relating to human beings they just as often have high empathy for animals. Highsmith struggled with a number of problems throughout her life, including alcoholism but if she did indeed have Asperger’s then diagnosis of this disorder might have helped her to live a happier life.
Thomas Jefferson-- The third president of The United States has become revered in US history to the point that much of the eccentricities of his personality are now known by very few. Jefferson would probably never have been elected if he had to appear before television as today’s presidential candidates do. Jefferson disliked public speaking so much that he wrote out the state of the union address rather than giving it before congress. He had a pronounced stutter (speech impediments are common with people with Asperger’s) and while many people considered him to be very polite he was known to be very uncomfortable in most social situations. As president and secretary of state, Jefferson was also known for his disheveled appearance that many thought was inappropriate for a head of state and for greeting foreign dignitaries in his bathrobe. All these personality traits when taken together make a strong case for Jefferson to have some form of autism.
Stanley Kubrick—While the great film director Stanley Kubrick did not have as antisocial a personality as others on this list, he did exhibit a number of eccentric behaviors that are consistent with Asperger’s. As a filmmaker, Kubrick was known for his tireless perfectionism, often spending decades working on a film. He also would do as many as hundreds of takes of a scene in order to get it perfect. After moving to England in the 1960s, Kubrick never returned to the United States because he was afraid to fly and even recreated Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket and New York City in Eyes Wide Shut rather than leave England. Most telling, is Kubrick’s relationships with his collaborators. He became very upset with Peter Sellers during the filming of Dr. Strangelove, because Sellers could not do all four characters he was originally supposed to play and the fourth role had to be recast. Afterward, he never spoke to Sellers again. A similar fate met Ryan O’Neil when he criticized the voiceover Kubrick had used for Barry Lyndon. Kubrick was often so obsessed with his work that he treated others disrespectfully. Actress Shelley Duvall has spoken candidly at how Kubrick had terrorized her during the filming of The Shining and author Stephen King has recounted how Kubrick woke him in the middle of the night to discuss whether he believed in God while filming that same movie.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-- As a child Mozart began composing music and like many people with Asperger’s, he showed skill at a specialized interest that surpassed most adults. For Mozart, music was the center of everything and he cared less about anything else, even relationships with other people, than to be able to work on his music. He was known for vulgar outbursts and a strange obsession with bodily functions. (weird obsessions are common with Asperger’s.) Many discount Asperger's saying that these traits can be accounted for by Mozart’s difficult relationship with his father but while this may account for some of his eccentricity, this does not account for his obsessive genius. While his father wanted to use his son's talents to make money, Mozart still rewrote his compositions tirelessly and obsessed over perfection well past the point where monetary gain was the main issue.
Isaac Newton-- Another unquestionable genius, Newton had a difficult time with social interactions all his life and was known for saying outrageous and inappropriate things. He also was known for not being able to tear himself away from his narrow field of interest. If we are to ignore Asperger’s as a possible explanation it would seem that Newton was an angry and anti-social individual. But if we consider the possibility of Asperger’s a lot of Newton’s behavior can seem much more sympathetic. His inability to retain lasting friendships and romantic relationships could be seen as just a symptom of his inability to know what constituted correct social behavior. Newton had many intense rivalries with others in the scientific community of the time and was obsessed with his own stature in the history of science. All of these strongly suggest Asperger’s as a possibility. If Newton did indeed have Asperger’s then it took a toll on his life. He was often so engrossed in his work that he forgot to eat. If he had lived during a time when more was known about the affliction he might have been a much happier man.
Friedrich Nietzsche-- Many philosophers have been suggested as candidates for Asperger’s syndrome but Nietzsche makes one of the most compelling cases. As a child, Nietzsche had an obsession with religion and was dubbed by adults as “the little preacher.” He suffered from many health problems that seem to be neurological and genetic and while these symptoms are rare among those who have Asperger’s, other neurological problems sometimes do accompany the disorder. Nietzsche was such an iconoclast that he alienated academia with his views and retired early. He was known for being extremely polite but socially awkward and his philosophy has a heavy emphasis on the individual, going so far as to claim that empathy can be a bad thing for those who seek to achieve greatness. Though Nietzsche was sometimes seen as apathetic to his fellow man, he had a nervous breakdown after seeing a horse being brutally whipped, suggesting a very strong empathy with animals.
George Orwell-- Often considered one of the greatest writers in the English language, Eric Blair, also known by his pen name George Orwell, showed many signs of Asperger’s syndrome. Orwell had very few friends throughout his adult life but stayed very close to a few associates. Several people who knew Orwell describe him as being very polite but socially awkward. Most telling is that as a boy he experienced brutal bullying from other kids. He wrote an essay on the subject as an adult and those who grew up with him described him as being aloof and strange. After he became famous he attracted many fans but those who loved his writing were often put off by his personality upon actually meeting him. Like many people with Asperger’s Orwell was also known for having very obsessive tendencies. Orwell was thought to be very dull by some people and he seemed to have no time for anybody who did not share his intellectual interests.
Andy Warhol-- Despite the fact that Warhol is famous for his “factory” and the wild parties that took place there, he himself was not known for partaking in much of the social revelry. Warhol was far too awkward to be comfortable in such social situations and instead indulged in people watching. Warhol also was bullied as a kid brutally. He struggled to make close friends all his life and even among all the hangers on that he attracted, he was known for being distant and having difficulty with eye contact and conversation. Warhol’s art itself is somewhat reflective of an Asperger’s viewpoint of the world. His “pop art” mocks the conventions of modern American life in a truly iconoclastic way. Warhol did not like revealing details about himself and even admitted that he made up a lot of his background when asked about himself and would invent an entirely new persona when asked again.
Ludwig Wittgenstein-- One of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century, Wittgenstein also seems an almost textbook case for Asperger’s. He often wore the same clothes every day and ate the same kind of food. His philosophy showed an obsessive study of linguistics and he believed that all philosophical problems were merely a miscommunication of language. Wittgenstein was incredibly eccentric, and though well-liked by both his teachers and later his students, he was known for his egocentric personality, strange way of speaking, obsessive tendencies and iconoclastic worldview. Though Wittgenstein was obsessed with solving all philosophical problems, he discouraged his students from becoming professional philosophers, suggesting instead that they do something, “important with their lives,” which suggests that his own obsession with philosophy bordered on the pathological and he hoped that others could escape such extreme obsession.