Written by George Perry, February 2021
Last time in my blog article (which you can read here, if you’re yet to do so) I featured a list of 8 people from history that have made an incomparable contribution to society yet they are now considered to be on the autistic scale (or have a proven diagnosis, of Asperger’s syndrome, for example).
I talked about how were it not for these people in their space of time ‘daring to be different’, then we may have never had the benefits of scientific breakthroughs or artistic expression to society. For this reason, neurodiversity should be embraced at every turn.
Admittedly, in this list I only focus on people that are said to be on the autistic scale, whilst I recognise that neurodiversity is far wider reaching than only this condition. However, merely searching within these parameters alone has dug up all sorts of curious points.
Therefore, whilst I may return to this topic and discuss about those other elements of neurodiversity at a later date, for now, I’ll use this space to report my findings around autism and the benefit people have had on society through the ages.
You’ll remember from last time that I mentioned that around 1-2% of the population are expected to have autism. Here is what I found:
Perhaps Britain’s greatest contribution to the sciences, and without a doubt a gift to the world, Isaac Newton is well known for his work around physics and motion, including theorising about gravity – which was extremely innovative at the time.
Perhaps it was Newton’s ability to ‘see things differently’ which allowed for his deep-thinking, big-picture perspective that set him aside from others at the time, but did you know that he was also a famous mathematician and theologian?
If you’ve ever studied calculus you owe that mostly to Newton, but were you aware that he was also staunchly religious? Many scholars recognise this as a deep contradiction to his scientific breakthroughs which has, in turn, turned the world more secular – somewhat an irony considering Newton’s own views.
There are many other quirks and contradictions to Newton’s life and works you could look into, which may lead you to believe he was autistic. In the meantime, here are 9 more factoids about him that I dug up in my research, which paint a picture of Newton and may help to establish whether he could belong to the autistic scale:
- Newton had a very secretive personality which is largely due to his unhappy childhood following the death of his father, who was an illiterate farmer.
- Newton’s mother was disappointed as she had always wanted him to be a farmer(!)
- If it wasn’t for the Black Death (bubonic plague) Newton would’ve never have travelled back to his family home to then sit there and watch THE apple fall from a tree.
- As a professor at Cambridge University, Newton’s lectures were poorly attended (and I bet those students regret that now!)
- Newton was in charge of the Royal Mint (the organisation responsible for creating currency – back then based at the Tower of London) and as part of his duties he cracked down on forgers and had them executed.
- Newton was seriously interested in alchemy (believing any metal could be turned to gold) – a somewhat contradictory aspect of Newton’s life and personality, to his otherwise rational scientific views.
- Newton was an MP (for two short spells under a year, back when Cambridge and other universities were granted seats). It is understood that needing to travel to London to attend parliament inadvertently granted Newton the opportunity to rub shoulders with bigwigs of the time, including the King and philosopher John Locke, who is thought to have influenced some of Newton’s thinking.
- Newton was often jealous and vindictive when it came to his intellectual rivals (such as his long term, bitter feud with Leibniz).
Definitely quite the polymath, and what a measure of a man! From reading the above, would you say that Newton may have fitted in with the autistic spectrum?
Deeply regarded as a genius, and by far one of the greatest and most talented exemplars of their craft. Mozart came at a time of high classical music, and whilst he didn’t invent the genre so to speak (it had been passed down into its form by the sons of Bach), he did definitely go about refining style into what is regarded as timeless cultural treasure.
Of course, back then it wasn’t thought of as classical music (and today we must really think of it as Western classical music, as other cultures have their own variants of what is the accepted standard), it was thought of simply as ‘music’ (to those living in the west at the time).
Mozart’s simple yet effective melodies, built upon layers of harmony, using the full timbre of the orchestra is just something very appealing to all of us with its order and form. It is something which caught the attention of people back then and has retained its attraction to this day, demonstrating that there is something rather magical about Mozart’s compositions.
But what is it exactly that appeals to us so much about the works of Mozart? Is there something about Mozart’s desire to create order from disharmony which puts him on the autistic spectrum?
This would go some way to explaining why and how Mozart was able to tap into many of our inner thinking, but there are also other signs that signify Mozart could’ve been autistic. Despite creating musical scores for large orchestras, Mozart was apparently extremely sensitive to loud noises, had a short attention span, and also went through a large number of facial expressions in a matter of seconds.
While less has been written about the link between Beethoven and autism, more recent studies looking at the evidence have revealed that he is likely to have had Asperger’s syndrome, along with several other great minds and musicians. According to the study, genius cannot exist without mental disorder, and these artists were driven to express themselves through music, painting, or literature as form of ‘self-help’.
This would certainly go a way to explain why Beethoven, albeit most evidently a pioneer in his field (shifting classical forms into a ‘romantic’ style of western music), was known for being socially awkward and rather grumpy. Not that this is an accurate portrayal of anyone on the autistic scale, but to his counterparts, whilst recognising his talent, also recognised his flaws, and these have been well-documented.
According to the study, Beethoven was "clumsy", "emotionally immature" and "had an unusually large head", all indicators that also fit the criteria for Asperger's syndrome -- albeit whether this fits the description of Beethoven is disputed scholars.
Nevertheless, it is probably of no surprise that two of the greatest musical composers in all history who managed to bring striking emotion to our hearts, somewhat organizing chaos, are now considered by certain researchers to have been autistic; something which would not have been realised at the time but can be better understood now, with hindsight.
Continuing with our science theme, you’ll see another great contributor to the sciences now also being considered to have been autistic. We all know Darwin for his work on evolution, and the publication of his seminal classic, ‘The Origin of the Species’, in which he shook the world with his defiance of the powerful establishment of the time, in which the Church was a key player.
Whilst Darwin never admitted to being an atheist, and he is remarked to have believed in the existence of god, labelling himself as more of an agnostic, the fact that he dared to be different and stood against the tide with conviction is expected to be a reflection of a positive trait of Asperger’s syndrome.
Certainly, along with many others in this list, we’ll never truly know if Darwin was autistic, however, perhaps his success was driven by it. His singular, almost obsessive focus, was unmatched by any of his contemporaries; for example, he’s said to have spent eight years studying just barnacles – certainly a dedicated scientist to say the least, evidently extremely curious about all of Earth’s wonders.
Darwin saw things differently, he had another perspective in a critical area where science and society combines to form a singular entity, yet somehow managed to stand up and go against the grain and provided the world with a gear change to look at things differently. His views, even though sticking out at the time, have since been widely adopted, like as if it was something that had been staring us in the face the whole time, just no one could see it properly.
The argument goes that this kind of determinism that Darwin displayed was driven by his autism, urging to get his ideas out as a kind of ‘self-help’ method in the same way that musicians, artists, and writers strive to put across their message about the way they perceive the world.
So far, this list has comprised of either musicians or scientists, and so it probably comes as no surprise that the inventor of the electric lightbulb is now expected to have been autistic. In fact, our icon for coming up with a new idea is now represented by a light bulb coming on in our heads – one has to wonder if this is exactly what Edison saw in his mind as he came up with an idea for the lightbulb?!
The so-called ‘Wizard’ (of Menlo Park) must’ve indeed seemed like he was performing magic tricks as he experimented with all sorts of gadgets using an invisible power source – electricity. Not a lot was known or understood about electricity back then, and it must’ve seemed like a fantastical force, yet Edison was there at the forefront just experimenting with it all
The lightbulb in itself is a fairly phenomenal invention. It has had a resounding effect on not just science, but society – global society – itself.
Prior to the invention of the lightbulb, people had been relying on actual burning flames to see at night. Not very useful, and effectively when the sun had gone down, the productivity of the day was over for most people. I suppose in that regard, we can blame (or lament) Edison for creating the 24-hour society that we know now – whether that was a good or bad thing.
For me though, when I think of where the lightbulb has gotten us since its invention, I think of the satellite images of earth from space at night, and find the imagery very beautiful. Being lit up at night would not be possible if Edison hadn’t been the bright spark to invent the lightbulb first.
However, not only did Edison invented the lightbulb, but he didn’t stop there at making cutting edge discoveries that have led on to change our lives forever. He also experimented with other ideas about capturing sound and images.
Aside from the lightbulb, Edison’s other inventions included the phonograph. Not only can we thank him for finally being able to record voice and music, so that verbal information and everyone’s favourite songs could finally distributed and experienced with much greater longevity than simply having to wait for a chance at listening to a live version, but this means we can thank Edison for the 2TB hard drive sitting in your computer now.
Essentially, a hard drive is based on the same technology that Edison came up with, as a spinning disc with flats and pits (the raised or lower parts that store data) and a reader arm (much like you’d see on a record player, just a lot smaller).
Without this principle of capturing a recording being laid out early on by Edison, modern computing would not have been able to advanced so rapidly, as it is based on the ability to access long-term data storage as a major part of the operation.
Notably, Edison also invented the motion picture camera, which again was not only a game-changer for science, but for the very fabric of society. Later developments were made in television broadcasting and cinematography, but without Edison laying the groundwork we would never be able to get live news feeds, or watch our A-list celebrity actors in the latest Hollywood blockbuster for entertainment.
This side of modern information culture would be completely void had it not been for Edison pioneering the way in this.
He was famously paraphrased as saying, “I have not failed, I have just found 1,000 ways to make it not work” (after a reporter asked him how it felt to fail 1,000 times), and it is this kind of dogged determinism that set Edison above the rest of his contemporaries.
Alongside other historic figures in this list, we’ll never really know if Edison was autistic, but we do know that he only ever attended a public school for around 12 weeks before being taken out and home-schooled after he was deemed ‘difficult’ by his teachers due to his hyperactivity and distractibility – signs of being on the autistic spectrum.
As one thing inadvertently leads to another, all in the sequence of events due to the circumstances, and perhaps it was the home schooling that led Edison on to do greater things.
Firstly, it is believed that Edison’s mother exposed him to books that were a far higher level for his age than he would ever have been required to read when attending a regular school. This exposure would’ve never happened had Edison not been home-schooled due to a regular school environment not being a suitable place for him, and the reasons are now being attributed to his autism, supposedly.
It is also expected that Edison’s unconventional approach of wanting to sell newspapers at the age of 12 (to which his parents reluctantly agreed to) was his way to feed his constant appetite for new information (otherwise referred to as his ‘inability to concentrate for too long’).
Since Edison was selling the newspapers, he would be able to actually read the news every day before selling them on and making a small profit for the day (a rather clever ploy, I must say). This means, in effect, that he was to all the latest developments, including technology, exposed from a young age.
Technological developments had begun move at a rapid pace and this means that going into adulthood Edison has able to get ahead of the game compared to most of his contemporaries. As this demonstrates, it is Edison’s thirst for constant new knowledge that may have led him here.
Once again, we have another scientist reach our list, and once again this person was highly influential, not just in scientific discovery, but also in changing the very fabric of society itself.
Notably also, Nikola Tesla was a contemporary of Thomas Edison – in fact they shared a huge rivalry.
Furthermore, even though Edison started as a mentor to Tesla, it was claimed that the former stole many of the latter’s ideas, in effect meaning that history has in fact been honouring the wrong person.
Nonetheless, Tesla did work on, and is credited with developing the system of alternating current electricity (which was the significant advancement that allows electricity to be transported over long distances emanating from a remote power station – in other words the ability for us to plug devices into a socket in the wall, something which we all now take for granted).
No one has ever doubted Tesla’s brilliance, and his dedication to research and record-keeping put him up there with all of the greatest scientists, yet it is thought that if he were alive today, he would almost certainly be diagnosed with autism.
Many of the behaviours he displayed would be associated with being on the autistic spectrum – including having a large number of phobias, and extreme sensitivity to loud sounds or bright lights, and a continuous obsession with the number three.
As with Edison, Tesla had a thirst for knowledge, and is noted as having had an extremely long attention span, meaning that he was able to continue dedicating long periods of time on projects where others may have given up. It is this kind of ability that made him the perfect kind of scientist to bring us so many breakthroughs in such a short span of time.
Tesla was also well-known for being able to visualise very complex concepts that others at the time would’ve had a hard time grasping, such as radio waves, which was cutting edge technology in its day and not understood well.
Tesla was also able to imagine complex machinery before they became a technological possibility (in other words, making him a visionary). As it happens, he appears to have shared this ability with the next person on the list (although whether either of them should be referred to as visionary is up for debate).
The next person on the list is similar to Tesla (as well as another direct link) in that like Tesla, he has been able to see the potential of electricity and then use the technology to his advantage, allowing him to ‘drive’ (excuse the pun) towards the future.
7. Elon Musk
2020 was a busy year – for some. Whilst many of us had to tuck ourselves away behind doors, WFH home culture and spending all day on Zoom calls, baking banana bread, and jumping up and down in our living rooms to a Joe Wicks workout; other people were quite busy blasting astronauts into space, rolling out electric cars, and working on tunnel tech with his ‘boring company’ (that must be a joke, I still haven’t figured that one out yet).
With such a busy schedule on his hands and his fingers in all pies, it probably comes as no surprise that Elon Musk is now the highest paid CEO in the world, giving himself a paycheque of a cool $595.3 million. Despite this, however, he is still not the richest CEO to have ever lived.
Apparently, that title goes to Jeff Bezos, the founder and owner of Amazon, who has also benefited nicely from the pandemic, as you might expect – key workers apparently now being NHS workers, supermarket checkout staff (and shelf-fillers to restock the aisles with toilet roll as soon as they disappear), and Amazon delivery drivers (who allow us to indulge in a slice of the real world outside our locked down homes, via whatever brown box we’ve ordered them to drop off for us, without actually being allowed to experience it for ourselves beyond what we can see from the window).
Another report suggests that whilst the Amazon still has a larger market value than all of Musk’s holdings combined, his profit value in the past year leap-frogged that of Bezos and if he carries on in this manner that will mean he’ll overtake the retail giant in no time.
Musk is definitely a man who can see where the future is going, and he also provides us a healthy nod to the other futuristic visionary predecessor I mentioned – Tesla, but does Musk actually display enough traits to be recognised as being autistic, and does this bear any semblance on his success?
Actually, this is up for debate, and nothing has been proven. On the one hand, it is said that Musk is tell-tale Asperger’s because of the way he talks, and taking a long time to answer questions, also coming across in a way that is described as being ‘awkward’; but on the other hand, it is pointed out that displaying so-called ‘autistic traits’ does not mean that it defines you as being autistic per se.
This does lay into a whole debate that is passed around about what is or what is not autism, or about what can be diagnosed as being on the autistic scale, as well as definitions of ‘high’ vs ‘low’ functioning autism.
Unfortunately, this is a much too large debate to get under the surface of in an article at this level, but it’s a good point to ruminate on as I head into the final person in this list.
8. Greta Thunberg
Someone of our modern times that is definitely diagnosed with Asperger’s, and she recognises and celebrates this, is Greta Thunberg.
I recently watched a documentary about the recent life and social movement that Thunberg created, becoming a teenage environmental activist at the age of 15 and inspiring a generation. The documentary was broadcast to celebrate the passing of her 18th birthday, just recently in January.
Actually, I still thought she was 15 (where has the time gone?!), so that was the first surprise.
What also surprised me though is the portrayal of Greta, which revealed her to be a very confident young person, possessing such conviction that I had never considered before. It would make sense that anyone willing to sail across the Atlantic Ocean in a wind-powered boat would have that level of conviction, but that did not become truly apparent to me until I watched the entire documentary unfold.
However, what I also saw in Greta Thunberg was a young person with vulnerabilities, and definitely a lot of imperfections – certainly, I never expected her to be the invisible eco-warrior and hero of her generation that the media had portrayed her.
Nonetheless, she is someone driven by a huge inner conviction, and someone that stood out one day (perhaps as a microcosm of how she had felt her entire life) and she harnessed people to then follow her quest.
And so, that would be a key takeaway regarding neurodiversity for me: What may seem out of place or out of the ordinary at first, is just a vision, and like all the others that came before Greta on this list, it is the daring to be different and ability to stand out from a crowd, which stems from a different perspective on life, a different world view to most of the rest of us, which makes having a neurodiverse team invaluable to any organizstion wishing to get ahead of the game.