Although you may or may not know it, the first time the word autism was used, in 1908, it was to describe a small subset of patients with schizophrenia who were more withdrawn and egocentric than others. However, the first significant diagnoses of autism occurred in 1943 when Leo Kanner published a paper with 11 children who, while highly intelligent, “a powerful desire for aloneness” and “an obsessive insistence on persistent sameness.” Despite this timeline and the fact that “infantile autism” was not officially a DSM diagnosis until 1980 (yes, 1980!), the truth is that there are several well-documented and inspirational people who likely had autism.
So, what is the importance of knowing these inspirational people to autism parents? Well, we all need to know that our children have their expertise and that we should help them foster a love for learning more about their areas of interest if they are to discover their paths in life.
Inspirational People with Autism
The following inspirational people were either famous or held historically significant places in the world. Although they may or may not have received an official diagnosis of autism, it has been suggested, after analyzing their biographies, that they would have received a diagnosis if one had existed or had been pursued.
In 1879, Einstein was born in Germany and eventually developed the special and general theories of relativity. According to Biography.com, he felt alienated in elementary school and had speech challenges. While he dropped out of school and dodged a draft, his “superb mathematics and physics scores on the entrance exam” got him into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, provided he finished his pre-university education first. Due to Einstein’s propensity toward only wishing to do independent study, he alienated some professors and had a difficult time gaining any academic positions.
A Huge Breakthrough
In 1905, he published four papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, the special theory of relativity, and the matter/energy relationship (E = mc²). In 1915, he developed the general theory of relativity. Then, in 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. Even though he won the Nobel Prize for the photoelectric effect, he chose to speak about the general relativity theory during his acceptance speech instead.
Other Major Accomplishments
Along with his earlier papers, he had several other major accomplishments, including alerting the U.S. President in 1939 of the Nazi possibly making a-bomb and working on Navy-based weapons systems during WWII. Yet he was against the usage of the a-bomb and eventually became isolated from the rest of the physics community as they became interested in quantum theory and he was more interested in the creation of the university and the possibility of time travel. On April 18, 1955, age 76, Einstein died after refusing treatment for an abdominal aortic aneurysm, stating the following, “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” One of the most brilliant people with autism died elegantly and naturally, just as he wished, a day after denying medical intervention.
According to Britannica.com, Sir Isaac Newton was born prematurely in 1642 and was raised by his grandmother (his father died prior to his birth and his mother remarried). Unfortunately, he hated his stepfather, Barnabas Smith, who kept him separated from his mother for 9 years (until his death in 1653). Although he was not the best at school, in 1661 he wound up studying law at Trinity College in Cambridge.
Early on, Newton was interested in the writings of Aristotle, which was not a part of the curriculum during his undergraduate years. Later, while studying philosophy, he became interested in Rene Descartes and other mechanical philosophers who held the belief that all physical reality was composed of particles of matter and that all things in nature came from the mechanical interaction of matter. Consequently, in 1664, his journal, where he kept track of his studies, had a new section entitled “Certain Philosophical Questions” with the subtitle “Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my best friend is truth.”
Viva La Scientific Revolution
Sir Isaac Newton is a man who did a lot in his lifetime, but he is most famous for his work on gravity. Everyone knows the story about the apple that fell from the tree, inspiring his thoughts on gravity, but he also did some major work in mathematics. He found the generalized binomial theorem, amongst other things. To write all that Newton accomplished would take an entire book, because he was a busy, busy man who eventually became a knight (the first scientist who was knighted).
Several sources report that Mozart had repeated facial expressions and unintentional constant motion of his hands and feet. In addition, people also believe that Mozart’s hearing was very sensitive, so intense and loud sounds made him ill. He was also very active, and Mozart was unable to have real conversations with others and was careless and reckless with impolite and frequent mood changes. Mozart’s letters show that Mozart possibly used echolalia. These characteristics indicate that Mozart could have been on the autistic spectrum, yet he had a perfect musical ear with the ability to tell whether an instrument was out of tune quickly and could memorize musical pieces in half an hour. At age 8, he composed his first symphony and wrote over 600 pieces of music. Among his most famous works are Eine kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music, 1787) and the operas Don Giovanni (1787) and Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute, 1791). To say he inspired many people with his music would be an understatement.
Marie Curie did not much care what impression she created by her actions. People found it quite difficult to engage in conversation with Curie and found her liable to naively misunderstand other people’s reactions and attribute them as an affront to her. Her famous determination to isolate radium had an obsessive quality; likewise her practice of keeping a detailed record of domestic expenditure. ‘I feel everything very violently’, she once said, ‘with a physical violence.’ Although she found social interaction difficult, she and her husband won the 1903 Nobel Prize for their discovery of radioactivity and Marie Curie continued to investigate the properties of polonium and radium, produced radium as a raw metal, and discovered the properties of radioactive compounds, which became important in medicine. She won the 1911 Nobel Prize for this discovery, which was later used to treat tumors.
While there are at least 25 other people I could name who accomplished major things and also quite possibly had autism, Temple Grandin was actually diagnosed with autism within her lifetime, documented her struggles in her own biography (a GREAT read), Emergence: Labeled Autistic (affiliate link), and used her obsession with livestock to work with the livestock industry. From her own website, it says “Dr. Grandin didn’t talk until she was three and a half years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping, and humming.” Although she had difficulty maintaining friendships, Dr. Grandin found a mentor who helped her accomplish these great things with her life. She is the Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University, has been featured on NPR, 20/20, and many others, and speaks worldwide about autism and livestock handling. If you haven’t seen one of her presentations, you should, because she is amazing. She is a woman that I would love to meet one day to obtain some more of her wisdom as I raise my autistic child. One of my favorite quotes of hers is “there needs to be a lot more emphasis on what a child can do instead of what they cannot do.”
Nominate Inspirational People
This article goes to show that no matter what ability people have, they can become inspirational people. You don’t need perfect social skills, a certain IQ number, a certain skin color, or any one “special” characteristic to make an impact on the world. All of God’s children are special and loved by Him, and many of these children have wonderful, caring, supportive parents behind them helping them achieve great things and become an inspiration to those around them. The same is true of the young men and women on Born This Way, who are out in the world reaching for their life’s goals. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you should check it out. The fine people at Born This Way not only sent me a $25 Target gift card, but sponsored a $25 Target gift card giveaway, so make sure you check out Season 2 of Born This Way, which is on every Tuesday night on A&E. Check out this scene about Rachel and find out about a terrific young lady with remarkable parents who love her more the anything: