Autism occurs more frequently than it used to, but even back in the 80s ... whether it was the 1780s or the 1980s ... there were plenty of undiagnosed cases.
When you have a child with autism or work with those who have special needs, you become intimately educated about autism's symptoms. And if you have a relentlessly curious mind like I do, you can't help but wonder about some historical figures when you hear about their unique behaviors.
In particular, three famous people stand out in my mind as likely undiagnosed autistics: POTUS 3 and Mt. Rushmore face Thomas Jefferson, artist Andy Warhol and rock icon Kurt Cobain.
If you ever get the opportunity to tour Jefferson's Monticello home, I highly recommend it not only for its historical significance, but because you will giggle the entire way through the tour. There are so many things about his home that suggest he had autism.
First, there was his preference for beds built into alcoves. This practice was popular in France, where Jefferson spent a considerable amount of time, but never really caught on in the colonies. According to our tour guide, Jefferson preferred the alcoves because he didn't like furniture cluttering up rooms and he liked the cozy, enclosed spaces that alcoves provided. Sounds like autism to me,
Oh, and then there are all the octogon-shaped rooms (like the one shown below) that he preferred. Why? Because the lighting was better. Rooms with four walls had dark corners, Jefferson said. Mmhmm.
And then there were the pictures. In nearly every room, Jefferson hung pictures of people he knew and those he admired. They were all precisely hung equal distance from the ceiling or centered so. Now to be fair, this style was popular in colonial days. It still made me giggle because hello, he's collecting things and lining them up! Can't you just see modern day Jefferson lining up his DVD collection on the floor like our kids?
I couldn't find a good photo of his library, but the way he organized those books, lining them up by size and displaying them with surgical precision ... when I walked into that room I burst out laughing because autism.
And speaking of books, check out the photo below.
His bookstand revolved and held five books. The tour guide said he'd read a page or two, spin it to a new book, read another page or two, spin it to the next book, and so forth. Short attention span, anyone? Heck, I'm jealous, I want one of these!
Jefferson's hobbies included inventing gadgets, meticulously documenting literally all of the flora and fauna in Virginia, and making tiny locks, keys and chains. The tour guide said Jefferson would become obsessed when making locks in his workshop and would shut himself in there for days at a time. Everyone in his household, including his grandchildren, knew better than to disturb him because he couldn't quit until he was done. Yep.
He also did odd things like carry around a notebook and, at precisely 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., no matter where he was in the world, he would would take out a thermometer and record the temperature. Why? Because he had to. Repetitive behavior much?
The entire tour was like this, insight after insight into Jefferson's life that made me laugh out loud and think, "yep, that sounds like autism." Seriously, if you get the chance, check it out. I mean, how cool is it that one of our greatest presidents had autism?
Well yeah, you're probably thinking, Andy Warhol was a weird dude. But c'mon, that doesn't mean he had autism.
No, it doesn't. But he did have a nervous system disorder (Sydenham's chorea) that was the result of a childhood infection of both rheumatic fever and Streptococcus. If you know anything about PANDAS/PANS, Strep and rheumatic fever are both infectious causes of autism. Which, apparently, doctors knew back in 1937 when they subsequently diagnosed him with a nervous system disorder resulting from those infections. And yet doctors today can't put that together. But that's a topic for another post.
So there's that, and also his artwork. They say Andy Warhol invented pop art. I say he was an artist with autism who saw art in repetition and every day objects.
I mean, c'monnnn!
And then there was his lifestyle. Warhol gave zero fucks about how society wanted him to live. Warhol was openly gay back when it was definitely not acceptable, and he'd throw parties and mix extremely wealthy people and celebrities with outrageous trans guests and homeless people off the street. Without giving any fucks whatsoever.
And people crowned him one of the best artists of all time, which he was, at least in part because he had autism. I think that is wonderful.
I'm not sure if Kurt Cobain can even count as an undiagnosed autistic because he was put on Ritalin as a kid to treat hyperactivity. Maybe he wasn't officially diagnosed as autistic, but that was only because "hyperactive" was what they called mild to moderate autism back in the 1970s.
And look at how he has his thumb looped through his shirt sleeve. Apparently, Cobain always ripped his shirt sleeves to shreds, picking at them, and often putting his thumb into the resulting hole so he wore his shirt sleeves like a makeshift glove. What do you want to bet he chewed his shirt collars to shreds when he was little?
He also had well documented stomach problems; specifically, severe abdominal pain and constipation, like most kids with autism. The mother in me cringes at the Pennyroyal Tea lyrics that read, "I am warm milk and laxatives. Cherry flavored antacids."
NOOOO! Dairy makes it worse! Those cherry flavored antacids have Red40 and give you rage! I mean, he did channel that rage into some amazing genius punk rock, but still. Poor Kurt.
So there you have it. Three amazing, groundbreaking people I think had undiagnosed autism. What do you think? Anyone you'd add to that list?
Heather Anderson is a blissfully happy autism mom and lover of life in Southern California who is on a mission to help autism parents rediscover their happy place.
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