5 Inspiring People You Didn’t Know Had Autism
Despite its prevalence, autism is still a misunderstood disorder. When you say “autism,” many people think Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man — a socially and intellectually stunted person with incredible mathematical gifts. But this stereotype is just that: a stereotype with little basis in the reality of autism.
Many of history’s greatest thinkers and and today’s most talented people have some form of the disorder.
Recently, we heard about Alexis Wineman, who is now the first Miss America contestant with autism. Wineman plans to bring awareness of autism to the public — which made us wonder who else has some form of autism. Check out these people who have autism and are all kickass in their own right.
1. Heather Kuzmich
America’s Next Top Model contestant Heather Kuzmich knows what it’s like to be different. The beautiful model and fifth runner-up in the 9th season of ANTM was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.
“It’s tough love for myself, forcing myself to look people right in the eye,” Kuzmich revealed in an interview with People magazine. “I get nervous, but I have to calm myself down.”
Kuzmich is a avid supporter of autism awareness and says she has “Aspie pride.” The model reveals that life has been tough living with Asperger’s, but she wants to be an example for young girls.
“I wanted to be a role model for girls who aren’t the most popular and are picked on,” says Kuzmich.
When People last spoke with Kuzmich, she was on her way back to school at the Illinois Institute of Art and had high hopes of continuing her modeling career. Good luck, Heather!
2. Daryl Hannah
We know Daryl Hannah from her wicked role as Elle Driver in the Kill Bill movies. She also starred in unforgettable films like Mermaid, Wall Street and Blade Runner. But what many people don’t know is that the actress has Asperger Syndrome.
Hannah fell in love with the movies, specifically the Wizard of Oz, at a young age. She suffered from insomnia and chronic shyness, but the one thing she loved about the movies was to be taken to a fantasy world.
“It wasn’t that I wanted to be an actress, or I wanted to be a movie star, or on TV,” says Hannah. “It was just that I wanted to go to the land of Oz, and to live in a fantasy.”
Hannah did just that. She says that sometimes it’s difficult to be an actress with autism since press junkets and interviews are not her forte.
“I never could figure out how to lie,” joked Hannah. “What if you didn’t like somebody on the set, and [interviewers] are like, what was so-and-so like to work with … and I’m like, He was a jerk.”
Check out this video of Hannah talking about her life with autism.
3. Virginia Woolf
Many speculate that Virginia Woolf, the prolific English writer, had autism. Woolf was famous for her novels To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, and Orlando. In her book Waves, Woolf has an uncanny ability to describe what her characters see. She communicates in images, which can be a symptom of autism.
Temple Grandin, the most notable living person with autism (see her description at the end of this post), describes this ability in her book Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports from My Life with Autism.
“I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR type in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures.”
Although Woolf used words as her primary form of communication, many people believe she had borderline autism since much of her work used such vivid imagery.
4. Charles Darwin
It’s not 100% clear if Charles Darwin, the explorer and author of On the Origin of Species, was indeed autistic, but some scholars believe the man who penned the theory of evolution had autism.
Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Dublin’s Trinity College notes that Darwin had an exceptional attention to detail but “had difficulties with social interaction.”
“Asperger’s syndrome gave Darwin the capacity to hyperfocus, the extra capacity for persistence, the enormous ability to see detail that other people missed, the endless energy for a lifetime dedication to a narrow task, and the independence of mind so critical to original research,” says Fitzgerald.
It’s also speculated that, like a lot of people with autism, Darwin had an extremely visual brain. This gave him the ability to observe, introspect and analyze. His attention to detail and persistence may have been the very foundation of evolutionary biology.
“It is suggested that the same genes that produce autism and Asperger’s syndrome are also responsible for great creativity and originality,” added Fitzgerald. Whatever his true autism status might’ve been, it can’t be denied that Darwin was one wicked thinker.
5. Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein, notable big-brained theoretical physicist and guy with the raddest hair, was also believed to have a high-functioning form of autism.
Einstein didn’t speak until the age of four, and when he did speak he often repeated sentences obsessively. This is a known autistic trait called echolalia.
Although Einstein was considered a slow learner, it was evident he was very intelligent. His high IQ was hindered by his inability to communicate effectively. Einstein preferred solitary pursuits and was regarded as eccentric — but in the end, his extreme focus on mathematics and physics would earn him great acclaim.
According to his biographer Don Howard, “To the scientifically literate and the public at large, Einstein is synonymous with genius.”
Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his phenomenal work in theoretical physics.
In 1999, Time magazine named him the Person of the Century.
Bonus: Most Notable Public Figure with Autism
Temple Grandin: Innovator, author, activist
Dr. Temple Grandin revolutionized the slaughterhouse industry. She’s currently a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Grandin used her ingenuity to invent the most ethical and humane slaughterhouse process imaginable. She’s also the creator of the “hug box,” a device used to calm autistic children.
Grandin was diagnosed with autism when she failed to develop verbal skills as a child. She was previously labeled brain damaged, but with the help of speech therapists, Grandin spoke her first words at the age of four.
Grandin is also an animal activist and bestselling author. She released her first book, Emergence: Labeled Autistic, in 1986 when little was known about autism. Her work in the ethical treatment of livestock has put her on the 2010 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Grandin’s story was captured in an original movie by HBO, starring Claire Danes.
For more famous people with autism, click here.