The autistic genius… and here we enter the realm of stereotypes!

Thanks to the film Rain Man and, more recently, The Good Doctor, and Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon), autistic people are associated with savants. Those people who are very limited in most areas of development – social skills, speech, appropriate emotional displays, but who have key areas of brilliance.

Guess what? The real life character that Rain Man was based on wasn’t actually autistic! The character of Raymond Babbit was based on someone called Kim Peek. Kim was originally diagnosed as autistic but that was a misdiagnosis. He is thought to have had a rare genetic condition called FG syndrome, resulting in the two sides of his brain not communicating properly. Alongside his developmental delays, Kim had processing and recall abilities that most of us cannot even comprehend. Astonishing, but there is no evidence to suggest he was also autistic. And how do we assess historical figures when the diagnostic criteria are continually changing anyway?

So, for people of my generation, our entire concept of what autism is has been built upon this film-led, multi award winning fabrication, that led anyone who watched it to feel they now understood who would be standing in front of them if that person declared themselves to be autistic!

Added to this, we have these ‘facts’ thrown at us. Here are just a few of the (long dead before they could ever be diagnosed) brilliant, historical figures that have been labelled, posthumously, as autistic:

Leonardo da Vinci

Thomas Edison

Alfred Hitchcock

Vincent van Gogh

Albert Einstein

Charles Darwin


Ludwig van Beethoven

George Orwell

Notably, these supposed autistics are all male! It’s completely inappropriate for us to diagnose historical figures as having been autistic. It’s a nice thing to consider quietly, but we can never really know, even though this stuff is all over the internet as FACT! And the danger is that we, as autistic people, continue to have this myth around us that we are all geniuses!

What’s probably more accurate is that autistic people are excellent at tapping into our special interests. Some of these interests, throughout history, will have inevitably produced brilliant outcomes. Without a really intense interest in any subject, how does anything get discovered, after all? That’s simply because we are single minded – monotropic – like a dog with a bone. And that’s how discoveries and inventions happen – at the exclusion of all else.

So, I’m certainly not wanting to take our skills away from us, I’m just saying that it is likely to be the combination of singular focus, hard work and an open mind that results in spectacular results. Is that genius? Is that autism? No idea. Just ruminating. It is magnificent to imagine that we, as autistics, have played a vital part in the world of discovery and the arts – and there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the case – we’re different and, if we are able to live authentically, we are not constrained by the norm – which means we can look beyond the obvious. But so can many neurotypicals. And arrogance is not a feature I have come across in neurodivergent communities so let’s not start here. We’re equally as capable, given the right conditions. And that’s enough.