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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"Famous People with Aspergers Syndrome"

This is a list of people who are thought to have (or had) Aspergers, a mild form of autism:

You have to keep in mind that lists like this are usually compiled by people who themselves have Aspergers, or parents of people with Aspergers, so they want to claim as many accomplished people as possible, in order to provide inspirational "role models." (It's a little like listening to homosexuals talk about celebrities: they want to claim all the good-looking ones.)

The list linked above includes Thomas Jefferson, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Isaac Newton, Beethoven, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and Mozart, among others.

I looked up a few other similar lists, and many of the same names are included.

Some of the people obviously deserve inclusion on the lists. Nikola Tesla, for instance, was obsessive-compulsive, which people with Aspergers often are, and extremely rigid in his personal life.

But is there really enough known about Michelangelo and his personal life to make that diagnosis? And there was nothing about Benjamin Franklin, a famous ladies' man, to indicate that he was mildly autistic. He was a successful diplomat, a role it would be hard for someone with Aspergers to fill, and he had a sense of humor, which those with Aspergers notoriously lack. It was almost as if they wanted to include him merely because he was so accomplished.

Ditto for Mark Twain: he was known for his sly sense of humor and his insight into others; yet the defining characteristic of Aspergers is an inability to read other people. (I'm guessing Twain was diagnosed as such because he became increasingly reclusive in his old age, but this seemed to be a misanthropy borne of disenchantment and world-weariness rather than an organically asocial nature.)

On the other hand, the list of contemporary people mostly rings true. It has been widely speculated that Bill Gates may have Aspergers; he evidently rocks back and forth in meetings, an autistic trait, and he certainly fulfills the nerdiness quotient. Al Gore was widely described as a "wooden Indian" when he ran for President, his pronouncements certainly seems tone deaf enough, and he is awfully rigid in his world view, most notably when it comes to global warming.

Seeing Keith Olbermann's name on the list was a real "aha" moment. Suddenly his personality made sense to me. Olbermann was despised by his coworkers at ESPN, and his colleagues at MSNBC ended up feeling the same way. He is annoying, and extremely rigid in his thinking. And he is widely described, even by those on his side of the political fence, as "crazy," the most common word used by those who don't understand Aspergers to describe those who have it. I had always assumed he was just a garden variety narcissist, but there are aspects of Aspergers which overlaps with narcissism, most notably in the unwillingness to admit one is wrong. And most intelligent narcissists do a better job of hiding their narcissism than Olbermann does.

Take a look at the list; you may have some aha moments as well.


Anonymous said...

John--After reviewing the list of people in the article who are speculated to having Aspergers, I hereby announce that I also have Aspergers. My own family members inform me that "I don't remember anything" and that I can somehow still get by in the world and in business, I must have this going on--latent till now. Interesting article. Thanks, Brian

John Craig said...

Thanks Brian -- I don't think, by the way, that memory is an indicator of Aspergers, one way or the other. Although, now that I think of it, savants, who are full-fledged autistics, often have exceptionally good memories.

Anonymous said...

Robin Williams is on the list, but he seems more bipolar than autistic.

John Craig said...

He could be bipolar, but I could also see him having Aspergers. He's definitely an awfully needy individual.

The one thing he's not is funny. He gets people to laugh by being manic and doing good impersonations, but if you ever read what he actually says, it's not funny at all.

Anonymous said...

Twain could not have had Aspergers because he was witty?!

The idea that people with Aspergers have no sense of humor or wit is completely false. Aspergers people are in fact known for a particular dry wit and sense humor that is appreciative of the absurd. Monty Python has a very Aspie sensibility about it. Michael Palin of Python himself has Aspergers. Ever heard of Andy Kaufman? Dan Akroyd has publicly acknowledged being diagnosed with Aspergers as a child.

People have to remember that Autism is a SPECTRUM. People with Aspergers obviously do not have the completely paralyzing limitations of people with very severe autism. And even the idea that people with severe autism are incapable of humor is unsubstantiated. You're conflating things like characteristic difficulty in real-time social interaction and limited use of facial expressions, for example, as an indication that Aspies can't perceive, appreciate, or create humor, and I can tell you first-hand that is just completely false.

You can't really take these gross descriptions of real-life phenomena like this, as an outsider, and extrapolate these kinds of things from them. Realize that the descriptions you're relying on to inform you are only approximations: They don't really capture the essence of the thing. For example there is a distinction between "can't" meaning "is incapable of" and "can't" meaning "is effectively prohibited because unease resulting from sensory overload". Clearly people with Aspergers *CAN* (literally) make eye contact with other people. However, for some to a greater degree than others, it can be quite difficult for complicated reasons beyond the scope of this quick reply... so that many typically avoid this. The layman (and even some professionals) read "can't" and they blow this out of proportion in a way that makes the Aspergers person seem much less relatable and "less human" than they actually are. And this is very unfortunate. Such superficial descriptions lead to real misunderstandings about who Aspies are, and what they experience, and they serve to stigmatize and perpetuate ignorance and objectification. I feel like this is kind of what you're doing here.

People with Aspergers are not dummies, insensitive, "slow", or backward. You cannot "talk over" them and patronize them like this. They are regular people with particular gifts, and particular challenges, as compared to the general norm.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous poster of June 20, 2012 2:52PM:

THANK YOU! Couldn't said it better myself!

In addition to everything you just said, many people on the spectrum, myself included, can also "fake it" for a limited period of time. That means they can act totally normal, but it takes a huge mental and even physical effort. You could compare it with visiting a foreign country and speaking their language all day. At the end of the day, you just want to go home and relax your own way.

kisbie said...

In reference to Al Gore, AS and a sense of humour (or supposed lack thereof), are you unaware of his appearances on Futurama? I'd say the people who made that show know something about humour, and many were effusive in their praise for Gore's willingness and ability for the art of self-caricature.

Also, care to elaborate on why Robin Williams isn't funny? By your logic Daffy Duck is also 'not funny'. Surely, funniness is measured by a person's manner or aura, not their ability to craft a witty line. What's that old saying - the best comedians can get laughs by reading the phone book.

Also, in response to the poster who mentioned about Asperger's in Monty Python, I certainly don't think Palin has it, but you could make an interesting case for Graham Chapman. Many of the others have commented on his emotional distance and strange behaviour.

(PS Ricky Gervais' sidekick Karl Pilkington is definitely an Aspie. He exhibits every typical AS trait.)

John Craig said...

Kisbie --
Well, funniness is in the eye/ear of the beholder/listener, I won't argue with that, and a lot of people do seem to have found Robin Williams funny in the past, though even a lot of his fans found him cloying in the end.

But I would say that merely reciting lines someone else has crafted is evidence of neither wit nor a sense of humor. Sarah Palin, when she was first introduced as the Vice Presidential candidate in '08, gave a great speech laced with biting humor that someone else wrote for her. At the time a number of commentators said that "a new star has been born," or words to that effect. But she turned out to be neither witty nor smart; or do you think her ability to read someone else's lines made her witty and smart?

Isn't Michael Palin a self-admitted Aspie? I know nothing about Chapman or Pilkington, will defer to you on them.

Anonymous said...

All celebrity scientists are speculated to have had Asperger's nowadays on the most spurious grounds (try Googling "Robert Oppenheimer Asperger's", "Marie Curie Asperger's" or pretty much any scientist you can think of and they're bound to come up dx'd with AS). This is true even when other diagnoses would blatantly suit them better. Einstein didn't have any DSM symptoms of AS and was reportedly a good conversationalist...yet he's the most popular example of "celebrities with autism". Henry Cavendish was extremely shy and avoided seeing people at all costs, which sounds more like schizoidism or Avoidant PD than Asperger's.

Even George Orwell and Enoch Powell were said to have AS - even though both served in the army (could someone autistic cope in a war zone without having a meltdown, let alone be promoted to Brigadier?) - the former later becoming a police officer and the latter a very popular politician. I even saw people diagnose Socrates with AS because he didn't like crowds which, in the absence of other traits, sounds like garden variety introversion - not a psychiatric disorder. Besides, aren't Aspies supposed to struggle with philosophy and abstract theories, much preferring concrete facts?

It seems people are diagnosing all these famous dead guys with AS without actually properly having a look at what the DSM criteria for the disorder actually says....

John Craig said...

Anon --
That's a really good point, and the examples you give all makes sense -- as non-Aspies -- when you explain them that way.

I think that some of what we may be seeing here is the desire of Aspies to "claim" these various luminaries as one of their own. (Hey, if so-and-so was an Aspie, then the condition can't be all that bad -- in fact, really, we're better than other people.)

It reminds me a little of the way gays often like to "claim" various good-looking and appealing celebrities as one of their own, based on pretty much nothing other than the fact that they are good-looking and appealing.

Anonymous said...

(Same Anon here)

I see what you mean about them claiming all these celebrities in order to make AS look less bad. Surely you know that there are some Aspies out there who claim AS isn't a disorder at all ("just another way of being") - do you think these celebrities are being appropriated as a way of bolstering that argument? Personally, I think the people making the claim that AS isn't a disorder have cognitive dissonance: on the one hand, they complain about the difficulties they have understanding people and, on the other, they still claim there's nothing wrong with them. It's a bit odd. Even more laughable is the idea that Asperger's is "the next stage in human evolution". LOL!

They seem to be appropriating all the quirky celebrities as if they think "quirky = autistic". Yet there is a reason Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham and Richard Feynman were not pathologised when they were around - because they could function perfectly well in society, however eccentric they were (although, it wouldn't surprise me if they've been diagnosed with AS by now - like all famous eccentrics have been). Those obsessed with diagnosing dead people with AS don't seem aware of the difference between harmless eccentrics, and people who have a problem needing psychiatric help. They also don't seem to get that someone as brilliant as Kant or Feynman has to, almost by definition, be a bit quirky - how could a mundane person possibly be as original and genius as they? Neurotypical eccentrics and introverts worldwide probably take umbrage at the knowledge that it is impossible nowadays to be unconventional without having a label of autism tacked onto you, whether you're suffering from it or not.

John Craig said...

Same Anon --
I couldn't agree with you more. It makes absolutely no sense to complain about their disorder and then claim it's not a disorder.

And yes, there is a huge difference between being eccentric, and not having any clue as to what others are thinking. The models for Aspergers as far as I'm concerned are the characters Zach Galafianakis plays in "Due Date" and "The Hangover" films. Awkward, clueless, annoying, extremely literal, and no common sense. If that's the next stage of human evolution, we're doomed.

Another one they've claimed as an Aspie is Mark Twain. This seems ridiculous; what made Twain great was his understanding of human nature. He may have been a depressive, but he was the exact opposite of an Aspie.

Anonymous said...

Mozart is indeed a bit of a strange one to label as autistic. He was married, had several children, had many friends and was a member of more than one Masonic lodge in which he achieved the status of Master Mason. Does this sound like your stereotypical Aspie?

Immanuel Kant is another one I'm seeing a lot on lists of people who had Aspergers. The reason for this seems to be his structured life and insistence on doing the same things over and over again in the same way: for example, he would go for a walk at the same time every day, whatever the weather.

However, I've done lots of background reading on Kant and I doubt he had autism. My book (by Roger Scruton) has this to say about him: "He would invariably have guests at his midday meal...he conversed, to the delight and instruction of his companions, until three, endeavouring to end the meal in laughter. Kant's writings contain many flashes of satire, and satire, indeed, was his favourite reading". Someone who attended his lectures wrote that one had to be present an hour before he arrived in order to be able to get a seat in the theatre because Kant was such a skilled orator. Knowing this about Kant, would people still regard him autistic?

The presence of one symptom from the DSM-IV list is not enough to diagnose Aspergers. In diagnosing Kant and Mozart, it seems people are forgetting what is arguably the most significant criterion of all:

"C. The disturbance causes clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."

John Craig said...

Anon --
You make a very good case against both Mozart and Kant. All I know of Mozart is what I gleaned from the movie "Amadeus," which is to say, very little. those who are calling him an Aspie may be basing it partly on his reputation as inexplicably gifted, even as a child prodigy, which they assume means he is not normal in other ways. But I agree with your arguments.

I also agree, anybody who makes a diagnosis of anything from just one of many symptoms listed in the DSM is jumping to conclusions.

Anonymous said...

I saw an article about this that you might be interested in:

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
Thank you, that was an excellent article. Heresy Corner makes a lot of good points, mostly about how ASD, like ADHD may not be over diagnosed. I have to admit, by his broad definition I am under suspicion for ASD myself, given that I've become somewhat of a recluse in my old age and border on obsessive about some of my interests.

Separate topic: I'm curious: did you, like me, look up the picture of the autistic woman who had evidently been an exotic dancer? I must confess, found myself quite curious to see what a successful screenwriter with autism who had been a stripper looked like.

Anonymous said...

That's just it, the criteria for autism are so broad nowadays that anyone who is a combination of a) somewhat eccentric, b) introverted and c) intelligent can be lumped in on The Spectrum with people who can barely hold conversations. This leads me onto a confession: the whole reason I'm interested in Asperger's syndrome in the first place is because I've been diagnosed with it. I was suffering from depression years ago and the psychiatrist I saw put me down as having AS too. To bolster her case, all sorts of lies were put into the report such as that I am "clumsy", that I have "sensory issues", that I have "stereotyped, repetitive movements", a "lack of imagination" and that I have "difficulties making conversation".

I have no idea where any of these allegations came from as I have extremely neat handwriting, was on the rounder's team at school, listen to Led Zeppelin on full volume so much that I fear for my hearing, used to have no problem with creative writing class as a child, and have never, to my knowledge, had difficulties making conversation. The only repetitive movement I make is stroking my beard when deep in thought, but that's hardly a symptom of mental illness when thousands of men do that. I was pretty shocked when reading the report, and felt betrayed. It baffled me why a doctor would make symptoms up just to give me the diagnosis du jour. I then found out that she's an 'autism specialist', so I guess everything starts to look like a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer. If I really was autistic, surely other people would have commented on the symptoms by now too? It doesn't make sense that no one else has ever noticed any difficulties making conversation, except this one psychiatrist. I even asked another mental health specialist for a second opinion, and got a "no, you don't have that". Ever since, I've been interested in reading about AS (I actually found your blog due to that one post you made) to try and understand what's going on with this autism-mania amongst psychiatrists. My conclusion is that they're lazy, and simply stick the most popular label on patients rather than diagnose objectively.

As for your other question: yes, I was curious what she looked like.

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin -
What an infuriating story. That psychiatrist should lose her license. I wonder if she wasn't diagnosing you that way in order to gain more clients/patients for herself. And it's bad enough that she was incompetent enough to misdiagnose you, but to lie about you in order to make her case is an order of magnitude worse.

I've "corresponded" with you for a while now, and have gotten no sense of autism; all of your comments have been right on the mark.

As far as depression goes, I recommend vigorous exercise. It doesn't have to last long, just enough to get the endorphins roiling around. I've been a fitness fanatic all my life, and exercise regularly, and have found that it does a pretty good job of warding off the blues.

BTW, I spent about 45 minutes reading various essays from the Heresy blog, they were uniformly great. It's fun to come across (or be sent) a site like that which just exudes common sense and intelligence and is so well written. Thank you for passing it along.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the only one I know who has been misdiagnosed. I recently met a warm, funny, easy-going girl in her twenties who said she was diagnosed with it. After she told me that she works at a nursing home for the mentally disabled, I started a conversation about how autism is over-diagnosed these days. She disagreed and told me she'd been diagnosed with it as a child and that the only reason I couldn't tell was because "I had a really good child psychiatrist". I reject that excuse. AIUI, no psychiatrist can cure autism in anyone. They can help the patient mask the symptoms, but they cannot completely cure the condition. That woman is as extroverted and social as they come - there's no sign of any mental health problem, let alone a communication disorder. Yet, she still accepts her diagnosis even though there's nothing wrong with her. The "symptoms" she told me amounted to very mild, benign eccentricity.

I find it a huge shame that healthy people like her are not speaking out about being wrongfully diagnosed. This is an epidemic - psychiatrist Allen Frances wrote a book called 'Saving Normal' about people being diagnosed with disorders they haven't got. People are no longer eccentric, introverted or nerdy - they're now suffering from Asperger's. No one is simply moody anymore - they've got bipolar. And no child is simply hyperactive - they're psychiatrically sick with ADHD and need to be medicated. Unfortunately, I see this as a trend that will keep continuing...

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
I agree with every point you just made. That girl you know should not be so accepting, she is being way over-deferential to someone just because he/she was in a position of authority -- and supposedly, an expert. It's a crying shame.

And yes, ADHD is way over-diagnosed these days as well, actually, probably more so than Aspergers. Don't know if you ever saw it, but I wrote a post once about how what is called ADD is actually evolutionarily more viable:

(I posted it on December 19, 2010.)

A large part of the reason Aspergers is over diagnosed, especially in Fairfield County where i live, is that parents know that if their children are given that diagnosis, they're given extra time on tests (even the SAT), so they "encourage" the doctors to give that diagnosis, and since doctors have to be businessmen as well as healers, many comply. (Fairfield County is an intensely competitive place.)

I wouldn't be surprised if bipolar is also over diagnosed, though probably less so.

Having said all this, I've known people who seriously have all three, to the point where their lives are dominated by their disorder. ADD (or ADHD) is the least serious of the three, but I've seen the other two take a serious toll.

Anonymous said...

I am aware of the "diagnosis-hunting" that parents do to try and buy extra time for their kids in exams - this happens a lot in the UK. Although that plays a huge part of wrongful diagnosis, I think there's another explanation: that psychiatrists are over-zealous in trying to hand out diagnoses. I read a book on how psychiatrists diagnose some form of disorder in almost every patient they meet - very rarely will they tell the patient's parents that their child is just a bit odd, but otherwise healthy. That's just not done - it's seen as more professional to slap some sort of label onto the child.

The reason I was so affronted when I was diagnosed with AS is because your personality, your preferences, your habits and everything else about you is viewed in terms of the diagnosis from that moment on. And autism is particularly damning inasmuch as it cannot be cured. It would have been different if she'd diagnosed me with, say, a personality disorder or OCD because at least they're curable. I wasn't going to accept autism as a diagnosis lightly because I didn't want my whole life viewed in terms of it.

A bit off-topic, but I used to identify as a nerd before I learned that Aspie activist Temple Grandin said "nerd is another word for Asperger's". No, it isn't - being interested in classical music and astrophysics is not the same thing as having a mental illness. I'm sick of how celebrities and labels like 'nerd' are being appropriated in the name of promoting this disorder. I'm sure these "famous people with Asperger Syndrome" would all agree with me. It's nonsense that autism is some sort of a gift, and how autistics are all supposed to be maths/computer geniuses who contribute so much to society. More than 85% of them are long-term unemployed! How's that for a gift!

- Gethin

John Craig said...

Gethin --
Again, I agree with everything you say. The bit about psychiatrists searching for and "finding" a disorder to diagnose really rings true. (They have to prove their value.) I suspect it may have something to do with wanting to drum up more business, too. If someone is brought to them and given a clean bill of health, well, no more visits. But if they can diagnose an illness, aha, a new patient to treat and more fees! (Always, but always, look to the self-interest.)

And yes, you're right, autism is permanent. It can't be "cured" anymore than your eye color or race can be changed.

Some people will try to claim that rich and attractive and successful celebs have the same malady that they do is purely to make themselves feel better. It reminds me of how most of the homosexuals I've known were always claiming that various good-looking celebrities were gay; they did it to make their fraternity seem larger. There are plenty of celebs who are gay, obviously, but not as many as the gays I knew liked to claim.

And yes, autism is no gift.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to read that Daryl Hannah, James Taylor, John Denver, Charles Schulz, Henry Thoreau, and Jim Henson supposedly had/have Asperger's Syndrome.

- Susan

John Craig said...

Susan --
I saw that list recently too. I wasn't that surprised about Hannah and Taylor, from what I've heard about them. Thoreau makes sense, given that he wanted to live in solitude by a pond. Schulz I was surprised by, also Henson, though I knew little about them.

That list also included a number of others I'm doubtful about; my guess is it was compiled by some Aspergers support group which wanted to claim a number of luminaries for their club in order to make it seem more appealing.

Anonymous said...

According to the article, Marilyn Monroe had Asperger's Syndrome, being skeptical about her having had it.

- Susan

John Craig said...

Susan --
Yeah, she was one of the ones I doubted, though she was supposed to have been a difficult personality. (Always late, completely irresponsible, somewhat drug dependent.)

Anonymous said...

Gethin, on the 8th of March at 1:40 wrote:

"...anyone who is a combination of a) somewhat eccentric, b) introverted and c) intelligent can be lumped in on The Spectrum with people who can barely hold conversations."

Yes, this is one of the problems in thinking that autism and/or Asperger's Syndrome exist on some kind of spectrum; it lacks clear and precise definition. I tend to view the twin conditions as being easily discernible within anyone who has them, and since we are also often informed by those who believe in all of this 'neurodiversity' nonsense that people are born this way, it stands to reason that no one could ever be able to transcend it, and yet people initially diagnosed as being on that spectrum can often, given a sufficient amount of time, determination and effort, learn to adapt to the demands and requirements of mainstream society. This shouldn't be possible in something that is as unalterable as one's birthday (if it is indeed entirely genetic, which I don't believe is the case). The advocates of neurodiversity don't want to consider the possibility that there may be an environmental component to this, because that would seriously undermine their efforts to convince everyone, including the sufferer, that any attempt by anyone to try to improve the lives of these people is misguided. They want as many people as they can get to join their special 'in-group', because that translates into political power.

I myself display many of the characteristic features of Asperger's Syndrome. I'm sensitive to certain sounds and flickering lights, take things literally, am precise, fussy, logical, despise deception and dishonesty, and really do prefer animals to people. However, I can (now anyway - I couldn't before when I was young) look people in the eye if I have to without much discomfort, can ride a bike, drive a car, type VERY fast, can have quite good conversations with people without making any of the more basic errors that Aspies do (ex. interrupt the other person at inappropriate times), don't 'stim' (ex. flap my arms like a demented penguin), and am not morose. At the moment I don't seem to fit in as being either an N.T. or an Aspie, although when I was in school anyone who knew anything about Asperger's Syndrome would have said that I was afflicted with it. I KNEW when I was very young (about 5, 6 years of age) that there was something seriously wrong with me, but I couldn't figure it out then.

Human nature isn't unalterable: people can, and do, change over time. People who identify on the internet as being "Aspies", on the other hand, need to hold onto that label, because in their mind it determines who they are. They don't have much else to crow about, which is why they also try to pass their condition off as being just the flip side of genius, which is, of course, laughably absurd. Labels represent definitional boundaries that exist only in people's minds, and I don't want to be known as being an Aspie because I am so much more than just that. I still have trouble getting along with most people, but I am working on it. If I were to say, "Oh well, it's genetic, it's who I am", I would in effect be giving up on life. That's unacceptable to me, and it should be to them as well. The fact that they prefer to wallow in their misery tells me all I need to know about them.

John Craig said...

Anon --
That's a very insightful comment. Yes, the advocates of neurodiversity DO want to keep their syndrome etched in stone, so to speak, and yes, any deviation from that line weakens their political position.

Good for you for overcoming your Aspergers Syndrome, to some extent. You can do all those things, AND you're smart. (Aspies, like the rest of us, come in a full range of IQ's.)

And yes --

"If I were to say, "Oh well, it's genetic, it's who I am", I would in effect be giving up on life."

-- Well said. (Not sure Aspies who say that are quite giving up on life, but they're certainly going up on any attempt at self-improvement.)