Why a Dash Of Autism May Be Key To Success
By Nigel Hawkes
Many highly successful people owe their eminence to a small dose of
autism, experts in the condition believe.
Autism is a disabling and alienating disorder, cutting sufferers off
from normal human contact, but milder forms have probably helped
successful scientists and artists to achieve the isolation they need to do their best
Hans Asperger, the Austrian doctor who first described what he
called autistic psychopathy of childhood, said: “It seems that for success in
science or art a dash of autism is essential.” He was describing a set of
peculiarities, now named after him, that set apart some children.
Asperger’s patients were all boys, who often had relations with
similar quirks. They were intelligent, original and good at abstract
thinking, but ploughed their own furrow to the detriment of schoolwork.
They spoke “like little adults”, but were poor listeners, making
little conversational effort. Asperger wondered if the condition he was
observing might be “an extreme variant of male intelligence, of the male
Since his work became widely known, psychiatrists have enjoyed
retrospectively diagnosing figures from the past as having Asperger’s
Syndrome. Among the earliest, says the psychiatrist Lorna Wing, who played a
leading part in making Asperger’s work known, was Brother Juniper, a
follower of St Francis of Assisi. He displayed the literalness of mind
often seen in autism.
Urged to give up his earthly goods to the poor, he stripped and handed
over all his clothes. A classic Asperger’s sufferer was Henry Cavendish, an 18th-century aristocrat and scientist, who gave his name to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. His most important discovery was hydrogen.
He was such a perfectionist that he published only those results that
satisfied him completely, and was so reluctant to make contact with others
that he built his library four miles from his home.
His female servants were told to keep out of sight on pain of dismissal. To avoid talking to them, he ordered his dinner by means of a note placed on the hall table.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein did not speak until he was four. He hated school, and did poorly there. He said that his inability to recognise another’s humanity was exactly like somebody listening to a foreign language he did not understand.
Yet Wittgenstein had a towering intellect which enabled him to write
his philosophical work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while serving with
the Austrian Army in the First World War. His relations with others were often
strained. On a visit to the United States he was offered rye bread and
cheese for his first lunch. He ate the same thing during his entire stay.
To Dr Wing, such examples emphasise how the isolating effects of
Asperger’s Syndrome can be turned to advantage by those who also have the
intelligence for intellectual pursuits. Other candidates for retrospective
diagnosis, she suggests, include Albert Einstein and the composer Erik
Satie. Others have nominated the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, a genius of
the keyboard, who retired from the concert stage at 31 and thereafter
played only in the recording studio. He used the telephone as a lifeline, talking
on it to people for hours at a time, enabling him to carry on relationships
without having to meet people.
The artist Andy Warhol, described by some who knew him as “socially inept”, also hated change, a common feature of autistic people. Some have seen in his repeated images the obsessive preoccupations found in people with Asperger’s Syndrome.
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd.