Diagnosing autistic people in history

There is quite a movement to “reclaim” figures from history as having been LGBT or to try to raise the profile or figures whose contribution was minimised because they were women or black or some other form of oppressed characteristic.

However, there’s also a push to say that we shouldn’t “diagnose” people as autistic or bipolar or any number of things that we now know exist, because one shouldn’t speculate on people’s mental health, that it wouldn’t have meant anything to them etc.

However, it seems to me that we have some fairly obvious aspie peeps that we should be able to take pride in. Much current discourse focuses on the impairments of autistic people, and it seems to be considered part of the signs of autism that you are a failure at life. People who achieved great things therefore either can’t be autistic or we have no right to speculate on their internal worlds. But these then destroys our own history.

Is this therefore something that we should be pushing back on, or something that we have to accept and just start again?

Interesting question! In Neurotribes Silberman spends quite a lot of time discussing historical figures and speculating about whether or not they might have been autistic, which was interesting. I’ve also found myself noticing autistic traits in people I’ve been reading about (I’m claiming Andy Warhol and anyone who wants to can fight me) - I think there’s a natural instinct to find and claim people like us!

But I do think the argument that you shouldn’t speculate about what goes on in people’s heads is a sound one, especially since we will never know for sure with people who are now dead. So I think about this a lot, and I haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer yet.

(Also this kind of crosses over with the Popular Culture thread here, so I’m linking that in case people are interested: Autism in Popular Culture )

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It reminds me of the debate about Anne Lister’s plaque.

The language we use and the concepts we use change over time. The idea of what ‘normal’ looks like is clearly a social construction, and so what falls out of scope of normal will also change over time.

I’m generally in favour of using the language people use themselves to talk about them. Obviously that’s harder if they have never had access to concepts like autism. I think its certainly possible to recognise that people have autistic traits, I would probably use careful language in giving absolute labels.


I think we have to be careful, but that doesn’t mean those who have the right qualifications and knowledge shouldn’t. Maybe the best way is not for them to diagnose the person as autistic but rather as potentially autistic.

One example of a well known historical figure that I believe have been possibly autistic is Beethoven. The more I learnt about him during my first year of my Bachelors the more it was concreted in my head as such. Reasons:

He was known to not get social cues
Bad Hygiene (or at least unaware of it)
Kept every notebook he ever written
Would leave a concert of his pieces mid-way if he didn’t like it
Could sight-read exceptionally well and then improvise on the page of music turned upside down,

Of course these are stereotypical traits, but if these remained as historical facts despite them being fairly abstract ones, then there might be some more deeper things that would have had him diagnosed as autistic.

But I do not have the expertise. So I shall leave it up to those more qualified than I.

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