Undiagnosing Gates, Jefferson and EinsteinAn article by Jonathan Mitchell
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"You've done very well," a research psychologist once told me. Sometimes my mother tells me how well I have done. Others have told me this also.
My autism without question has caused a myriad of problems and impaired my life, making me feel like I have not done well. Of course, success is all relative. One other person with autism likes to quote from an old H.G. Wells story, commenting that in the country of the blind the one eyed man is king.
I can point to some successes I have had in life. I was able to be mainstreamed in a regular public school at age 14. I managed to graduate from college, half of my college time being spent at a major university. Upon finishing school, I have managed to spend substantially more time making a living than being unemployed over the long haul. I managed to learn the field of medical transcription and make a semi-decent living, doing skilled work. I have had some friends albeit not very many. I can drive a car and I don't need an aide to help me. I have written 11 nonfiction pieces, 22 short stories and a novel.
Have I really been that successful? Even though I partially recovered from my autism it is still not 100%. Ivar Lovaas has claimed that nearly half of the autistics that he treated with 40 hours a week of ABA therapy achieved completely normal functioning and were indistinguishable from their neurotypical peers.
Why should someone settle for merely 'normal' functioning? After all, I'm not the president of the United States, I haven't won the Nobel prize in physics, and I'm not a multibillionaire. It is very unlikely that any of the children who Lovaas claims have achieved normal functioning will ever accomplish any of these things either. It has been alleged that persons with autism or at least autistic traits have accomplished all of these feats.
Should it give hope to parents after finding out what others allegedly autistic have been able to do? If it's possible for these persons, why not their child? It has been claimed that because these allegedly autistic persons have been able to do these things that this gives hope to others who are on the spectrum. Conversely, it has been argued by some persons on the autistic spectrum who view autism (or least some aspects of it) as some sort of gift that this is a reason that autism should not be cured and/or that no early intervention on children with autism should be done. Of course there is the middle ground that even if these individuals had autism it is not a given that others with autism could achieve what they have achieved. These persons would be the exception to the rule.
Bill Gates founded Microsoft, marketed the DOS operating system and developed the top operating system windows. He is now the wealthiest man in the world with a net worth of about 60 billion dollars. Albert Einstein won the Nobel prize in physics and revolutionized the world with the theory of relativity. Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States.
Were any of these people autistic? There are some people who insist that the answer is yes or at the very least they had autistic traits. In addition to giving parents hope for their child's future, it could be used to make an autistic person feel better about himself Of course there is the flip-side that it could induce anger and bitterness to the autist who considers himself far less successful than many neurotypicals. I fall into this last category, therefore, I feel that it is of utmost importance that these diagnoses be dissected. I have attempted to do so in this essay.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, as previously mentioned, is the wealthiest man in the world. He single handedly has revolutionized the world. Whether his effect on this planet is for better or for worse or a combination of the two does not seem relevant to this discussion, but he is someone who clearly has been successful in his endeavors. He managed to do well enough in prep school to go to Harvard which he subsequently dropped out of. His dropping out of Harvard was not due to failure but a conscious choice of getting into the computing field while the iron was hot. He then went on to found Microsoft and the rest is history. Gates success did not start when he founded Microsoft at age 20. As a young boy Gates and his friends formed a club, The Lakeside Programmers Group. They learned about programming and wrote and debugged computer programs for corporations in exchange for computer time. Later they wrote a program called Traf-o-data which helped determine the location of traffic lights for Washington state.
In 1993 Oliver Sacks published the book An Anthropologist On Mars in which he described Temple Grandin as well as some of the characteristics of autism. John Seawald wrote an article in the New Yorker called E-mailing Bill Gates in which he described some of Gates' idiosyncrasies. Time magazine ran an article titled Diagnosing Bill Gates in which comparisons were made between some of the things mentioned in the New Yorker article and some of the characteristics of autism that Sacks mentions in his book.
Temple Grandin comments on this further in her book Thinking In Pictures. The first trait that she mentions is Gates' reportedly rocks to and fro in a fashion similar to a person with autism. Next, she mentions Gates' lack of social skills and quotes a sentence from the Seawald article, "Social niceties are not what Bill Gates is about." She further goes on to allege that Gates has remarkable savant skills, giving an example of him having memorized long bible passages and reciting them without making any mistakes. She further goes on to state that Gates' voice lacks tone and comments on how he looks young and boyish for his age. She comments on Gates' lack of hygiene and nice clothes.
Seawald, in his article, does indeed say that social niceties are not what Bill Gates is about but one must read the article itself for the context to be apparent. He is not commenting on Bill Gates' social skills in general, but the manner in which Bill Gates sent him e-mail. He states that Gates never signed his e-mails, addressed him by name and had no letterhead on his emails. It is very common for people to send an e-mail without the salutation, 'dear so and so'. People don't usually sign e-mails or have letterheads on them. A comparison between e-mail and regular mail is not really apt. It is possible that in 1994 Seawald was a newcomer to online nuances and did not understand the differences between e-mail and regular mail.
Did Bill Gates really have savant skills? The bible passage that Grandin refers to is discussed in James Wallace and Jim Erickson's book Hard Drive The Making of the Microsoft Empire. It talks about a contest in which the Reverend Dale Turner gave to buy a free dinner to anyone who could memorize chapters 5,6 and 7 of the book of Matthew, known as the Sermon on the Mount. Bill Gates at age 11 was able to quote the passage from memory, not missing a word. This does not necessarily mean he was a savant. Though the passage is rather long, about a few pages from the bible it is something that could be committed to memory by someone with no photographic memory who had spent enough time and hours studying over it. The book does not specify whether or not Gates just picked it up and read it once and then stated it word for word, or if he spent many hours for several weeks or longer studying the passage and learning it. The latter seems more plausible than the former. I do not believe this shows any evidence that Gates had any form of savant skills analogous to persons who are often retarded and can hear a music piece once and play it on the piano or memorize something and recite it, having read it only once. The book also mentions that 31 other people were taken out to dinner by the reverend. These people managed to accomplish the same feat as Gates. Does this mean they were also autistic savants?
Does Bill Gates lack of hygiene point to an autistic spectrum disorder? Poor hygiene is not mentioned as diagnostic criteria in the DSM-IV-R for autism. However, many persons with autism, including myself, have had problems with hygiene. When I was younger I would often be too disorganized to use deodorant and bathe properly. I often smelled bad. In my case, and probably in the case of others with autism, this is due to executive dysfunction. Executive dysfunction, the inability to formulate goals and carry out plans, is common among autistic people. It is hard to concentrate and to think about hygiene even if you know you have to do it. Is there evidence that if in fact Bill Gates did have problems with hygiene that it was a result of executive dysfunction or an impaired ability to get things done? One must remember that when Bill Gates and Paul Allen were first starting Microsoft, they would work 20 hours a day, nonstop. It would seem a likely explanation for Gates lack of hygiene (assuming that at least some of it is not embellishment by the media) would be his long working hours and being so driven to succeed that he did not take the time, to shower or use deodorant or dress in overly nice clothes.
Although Gates has sometimes been reported to wear dirty clothes or have unkempt hair this was not always the case. Whenever Gates would meet with executives from IBM he would don a suit and comb his hair and would appear very well-groomed. It seems that when it was necessary for Mr. Gates to make an impression, even with his busy schedule, he could make time for good hygiene.
The fact that Bill Gates has a rocking behavior is mentioned numerous times in various magazine articles, including Seawald's, as well as in the Wallace and Erickson's book and The Plot To Get Bill Gates. He started doing this behavior as a very small child after his parents gave him a rocking horse which he used. He apparently had a lot of energy and used this to rock. Is his rocking a definitive sign of autism? I have a friend who has schizophrenia and I noticed him rocking from time to time. When I commented on the fact that he seemed to be like me, rocking in a manner reminiscent of autism, he replied that schizophrenics rocked also. I was very surprised to hear this as I had no idea that schizophrenics rocked as well as autistics. On MRI scans schizophrenics have cerebellar abnormalities that are similar to autism. It is possible that if portions of the cerebellum are smaller in both autistics and schizophrenics that this could cause some sort of vestibular abnormality that would cause both of them to rock. As far as I know nobody has ever suggested that Bill Gates may be schizophrenic or have schizophrenic traits.
I was also in a group therapy session with a person who had mild cerebral palsy he rocked also. As far as I know, Gates has never been suggested to have cerebral palsy.
Another arcane neurologic condition called jactatio capitis also causes persons to rock in a manner similar to persons with autism while they are either asleep or in a drowsy state. One certainly cannot rule this condition out in Gates. It is possible given the long hours that Bill Gates works and the fact he may sometimes try to get by on only four hours of sleep could cause him to rock a lot if he had this condition. Unlike autism the persons with this condition sometimes rock and head bang but they still lead normal lives and it does not impair a person's ability to function the way autism does.
Is Bill Gates rocking behavior evidence of autism or some type of neurologic condition or could it be possibly a nervous habit. For example, there are people who have nervous tics but this does not mean they have full blown Tourette's syndrome with all of its other impairments such as the shouting of profanity.
One of the cardinal symptoms of autism is the inability to relate to people and make friends. From reading about Gates' childhood there is no evidence to suggest that this was the case. One good friend of Gates whom he met in the fourth grade was Carl Edmark. They went to elementary school and high school together and continued to be friends for many years afterwards. Another friend was Kent Evans with whom he attended Lakeside prep school. One of Gates most well-known friends is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Gates and Allen met when they were students at Lakeside Academy. They spent a lot of time together on the new computer system that the school bought as the two had a common interest in that subject and later starting Microsoft together. Some of Gates' classmates at Lakeside did not think of Gates as a social outcast. They remember him as someone with a sense of humor, risk taker, and someone fun to be with. This would hardly fit the stereotype of an autistic person. This included another one of Gates' friends at Lakeside, Paul Carlson who stated that anyone who remembered him as a nerdy person did not deal with him very closely or was remembering wrong.
Autistic men, including myself, often have problems finding girlfriends and rarely marry. If Bill Gates had fared well in this department, that would diminish evidence of his having autistic traits.
Though a late bloomer, Gates had a variety of girlfriends. He would approach women with the same competitive zeal as he approached his business dealings. He competed with Borland founder and CEO Phillipe Kahn in the selling of computer language packages as well as romance. Gates dated Kahn's ex-wife for a while. He also dated ex-wife of Oracle rival Larry Ellison. At the time Microsoft was a fledgling company Gates dated the company secretary.
Gates' first serious girlfriend was Jill Bennett, A DEC computer sales representative whom Gates started dating in 1983. Their relationship lasted about a year. Shortly after they split up Gates found a new squeeze, software venture capitalist Ann Winblad. In the book Hard Drive The Making of the Microsoft Empire, authors James Wallace and Jim Erickson report that Winblad debunks the stereotype of Gates as the nerdish character the media had made him out to be. She considered him as "an adventurous risk taker who likes to live close to the edge." Their relationship lasted three years before they split up. In the late 1980s, Gates met his future wife, Melinda French, at a Microsoft media event. They dated for several years and then married in the 1990s. Gates seems to have had a normal life in terms of his relationships with women.
A person with autism or Aspergers' would likely have an impaired ability to relate to people and would not be successful in any profession involving salesmanship skills. This is not the case with Bill Gates. Wallace and Erickson describe Gates' aptitude as a salesman in their book. For the first several years of Microsoft's existence it was Gates who made cold calls, approached hardware makers and gave them the compelling argument to buy Microsoft products in spite of the fact the company often did not meet deadlines and sometimes did not adequately debug software products before releasing them to the market. Also, what made Gates a billionaire, was his ability to cut a deal with Seattle Computer Products and purchase DOS for only $50,000. Would a person with autism or Aspergers' be able to think outside of the box and change language in a contract specifying buying outright rights rather than an exclusive license? Gates obvious salesmanship abilities and deal making talents would seem to me to argue against autistic traits.
Never, to my knowledge, has having a high pitched voice or looking young for one's age been an indicator for autism. Grandin, in her book, does not state why these traits would be indicative of autism.
In Gary Rivlin's book, The Plot To Get Bill Gates, Rivlin talks about a computer industry journalist named Graham Lea who also claimed to have evidence that Bill Gates had Asperger's syndrome. He states that Lea claimed to have written a definitive paper proving that Bill Gates had Asperger's. For months, Rivlin tried to persuade Lea to send him the paper. Lea was evasive and would only write back statements discussing a book he was writing and share intelligence that other journalists with an interest in Microsoft had. When Rivlin pressed him further, Lea cut off correspondence to him. A Google search with the words 'Graham Lea Bill Gates Asperger's' brings up nothing about a paper proving that Gates has Asperger's. Could this reduce the evidence that Bill Gates has autism and or Asperger's?
Albert Einstein is likely the most famous theoretical physicist of all time. While working as a patent clerk, he did research that revolutionized thinking in modern physics. He is famous for the theory of relativity and he is also a winner of the Nobel prize in physics.
Is it possible that Einstein was autistic or at least had autistic traits? Temple Grandin writes in her book Thinking in Pictures that Einstein could not talk until he was 3 years old. He also wore green slippers to his job as a patent clerk. He was reportedly aloof as a child. She also comments on Einstein's grooming. He let his hair grow long and did not comb it. He wore old clothes and did not care about style. Grandin goes on to say that genius is an abnormality and implies that Einstein's genius is a result of autistic traits.
Far more blatant in trying to give persons on the spectrum hope is writer Norm Ledgin. His book with the not so subtle title Asperger's And Self-esteem Insight and Hope Through Famous Role Models also claims that Einstein was on the autistic spectrum or at least had some autistic traits. He writes that Einstein recoiled from intimacy. He claims that Einstein had no friends as a child. Ledgin also talks about Einstein's brain abnormalities that were found on postmortem autopsy that allegedly enhanced Einstein's intelligence. He then compares this to the case of person's with Asperger's syndrome having neurologic differences. Ledgin only gives the most superficial treatment of the subject and neglects to go into any detail about the neurologic findings in Einstein's brain and how they might relate to autism and/or Asperger's syndrome.
Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen also claimed that Einstein had autistic traits. He rehashes the arguments of Grandin and Ledgin but also adds to the list by claiming that Einstein repeated sentences obsessively at the age of 7 and that Einstein was a confusing lecturer who people did not understand.
How valid are these claims that Einstein was on the spectrum or at least had autistic traits? One of the most mentioned is Einstein's late onset of speech. If Einstein were a late talker would this demonstrate an autistic trait?
A person with autism usually develops normally for the first 18-30 months of their life and then starts regressing. Often they have a normal level of speech for just before age two and then they lose what speech they have. This does not seem to be the case with Einstein. There are only reports that he talked late or took a long time in forming sentences. There is no indication that Einstein developed normally in the first two years of his life and then regressed. This would fit the pattern of someone who was a late talker rather than someone who is autistic or has autistic traits.
In fact, there is evidence that Einstein's late talking may have been apocryphal. Einstein biographer Denis Brian states in Einstein A Life that Einstein himself claimed that he made no attempt to talk until he was older than three and his parents sought medical attention for him fearing he was retarded. Einstein also claimed that he deliberately skipped the 'baby-talk' phase of talking, waiting until he could talk in complete sentences. A different story is told by Einstein's grandmother who states that at age two Albert had droll ideas that they talked about a lot. Brian inquires as to how Einstein could have expressed droll ideas without talking. There is another story that his sister tells, using the parents as a source, that right before her birth, little Albert was promised a new baby to play with. The 2-year-old Einstein believed that it was a new toy and he greeted his sister's appearance with the question, "where are the wheels?"
Another possibility that would be totally inconsistent with autism that the author brings up is that Einstein was just very introverted, not incapable of speaking, but saying very little, not dissimilar to an adult who is poor at small talk.
In Thomas Sowell's book, The Einstein Syndrome the author gives numerous examples of persons who did not start talking until relatively late yet went on to be highly educated and successful. He compares the characteristics of these people with autism. While conceding that there is some overlap between the characteristics of late talking children and those with blatant autism, he also differentiates between the two. For example, both have social impairments and are aloof in early childhood. Yet these problems don't seem to persist in adulthood for late talking children or high IQ persons who are socially aloof as young children. As adults they are often highly social, get married and have friends. Sowell gives Temple Grandin as an example of a highly successful autistic person who was able to get a Ph.D. and start her own livestock business, yet had social difficulties that persisted into adulthood. So this would seem to be one thing that could differentiate autism from the late talking children. Einstein seems to fit the pattern of the late talking group rather than the autistic group.
Although there are some reports that he was aloof and not very social in childhood, these characteristics did not persist into adulthood. As an adult Einstein had numerous friends. When he lived in Switzerland these included Marcel Grossman, Michelangelo Besso with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life, and last but not least there was Mileva Maric and Elsa Lowenthal, both of whom he eventually married. Although men with definitive diagnoses of autism do get married sometimes it is an anomaly, so this would not necessarily discount Einstein as having autistic traits, but would diminish its likelihood.
His relationships with Mileva Maric and Elsa Lowenthal were not isolated incidents of just a couple of girls liking Einstein and the rest of them rejecting him. As an adolescent Einstein attended a high school in Switzerland. He lived with Jost Wintler one of the teachers at the school. He had a daughter, Marie. They fell in love with each other and she became Einstein's first girlfriend. He reportedly wrote her numerous love letters, contradicting the social apathy with which many autistics approach the world.
Einstein was married to Elsa until her death in 1936. However, while he was married to her, there were numerous instances of infidelities. The best known of these was with his secretary, Betty Neumann. Another affair was with Margarete Lenbach, another was Toni Mendel who would have a chauffeur pick up Einstein for their nights out.
After Elsa's death, Einstein never remarried. The trysts with women did not stop. One of these was with a Russian woman named Margarita Konenkova. Einstein maintained correspondences to the various women that he was involved with both before and after Elsa's demise and these were sold off at a Las Vegas auction.
Not only have persons interested in autism claimed Einstein one of their own but so have persons with an interest in schizophrenia and dyslexia. If Einstein had traits of all three disorders then it would quite interesting that he would be one of the greatest scientists and thinkers of the 20th century in addition to being one of the most afflicted persons in the world.
Because of Einstein's inability to remember events from his past and his childhood in spite of a nonfailing memory for scientific details from his physics research, psychologist Anthony Storr speculated that Einstein had schizophrenic tendencies. He noted a desire to detach oneself from personal ties is a common trait for schizophrenics. Also, his rebelliousness in school, his renunciation of his German citizenship.
Storr also suggested that if Einstein had not been schizophrenic it would not have been possible for him to develop his theory of relativity because its creation could have only come from a mind with a great deal of detachment, capable of viewing things from the outside.
Just as Temple Grandin and others have claimed autistic tendencies for Einstein because of his shoddy clothing, lack of grooming and hygiene, Storr claimed that these were characteristics of schizophrenia. One of the problems is that autistics and schizophrenics have many attributes in common. If one were to speculate on a medical condition for any given historical figure it might be hard to distinguish which of these two conditions they had.
Grandin gives no indication of why wearing green slippers, having uncombed hair or sloppy clothing in Einstein's case would have been indicative of autism. I have met autistics who wore nice clothes and had good grooming but in other areas such as behavior and being able to hold and keep a job they were dysfunctional.
Persons interested in dyslexia have also claimed that Einstein suffered learning disabilities as a child. Einstein's late talking is sometimes given as evidence that Einstein had dyslexia just as it is said to be proof of autism. They also point to the fact that Einstein was a failure in school and failed the college entrance exam the first time he took it.
Just as Einstein's late talking may have been apocryphal or at least the facts behind it distorted, similarly, the stories about his academic failures seem to be rooted in fallacy according to Einstein biographer Abraham Pais. He states that at age seven Einstein was at the top of his class in school and his mother could not stop raving about his report card. Einstein began reading physics books at age 12. At age 13 he was reading philosophers such as Kant and reading physics books as well.
After his death, Einstein's brain was preserved by pathologist Thomas Harvey. There have been some studies done on Einstein's brain. Autopsies have also been done on post-mortem autistic brains. MRI scans have also been used to study the autistic brain.
If Einstein's brain showed abnormalities that were similar to an autistic's then this would be evidence that he could have been autistic. In his book Norm Ledgin states that Einstein's brain was malformed in ways enhancing his intelligence but engages in somewhat of a cop out as far as comparisons between Einstein's brain and those on the autistic spectrum. He states that Asperger's syndrome is a neurologic difference but the scientific team did not venture far down that path.
Is Einstein's brain similar to that of an autistic person's based on the studies that have been done so far? Neuroscientist Sandra Witelston studied Einstein's parietal lobes and found that they were 15% larger than normal controls Also, it was noted that a structure called the Sylvian fissure was more or less absent in Einstein's brain. Witelston speculated that this allowed Einstein's brain to make connections more easily than a normal brain and helped improve his visual thinking.
In an MRI study of the parietal lobes of the brains of autistic persons, neuroscientist Eric Courchesne and colleagues found decreased volumes in the parietal lobes of 43% of the autistic persons that they studied versus normal controls. Thus the findings of Einstein's brain would appear to be exactly the opposite of those found in at least some autistic persons.
Witelston and her colleagues also found that Einstein's brain weighed the same as a normal brain. This also contradicts the findings in autistic brains which weigh more than normal brains in childhood and then tend to shrink into adulthood weighing less than the brains of controls on autopsy.
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Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States. He was also the author of the Declaration of Independence. His other accomplishments include diplomate, lawyer, scientist, farmer, architect. He was thought by many to be one of the most brilliant men to ever occupy the White House. Could he have been on the autistic spectrum? Norm Ledgin, author of Diagnosing Jefferson states that this was absolutely the case. Ledgin provides what he believes is unequivocal evidence that Jefferson had Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism and in his book he openly challenges anyone to refute his proof. I have decided to accept that challenge. His book was also endorsed by Temple Grandin who wrote a postscript to Ledgin's book, stating she was totally convinced that Jefferson was on the spectrum.
Ledgin documents instances showing that Jefferson was shy, had an inability to relate to people, was a poor public speaker and was sensitive to loud noises. He attempts to show that the explanation for these is Asperger's syndrome, claiming that it cannot be coincidence that Jefferson had so many supposedly Asperger's traits that have been documented by various historians and biographers.
Ledgin also claims that it is because of Asperger's that Jefferson had the habit of recording all of his financial transactions yet died in debt. Also, his obsession with remodeling his mansion, Monticello, for many decades can be attributed to Asperger's. Jefferson also had eccentricities such has having a pet mocking bird always on his shoulder. He also often dressed casually and would wear slippers at important meetings.
A diagnosis of autism or Asperger's is made based on behavior that occurs in childhood. Autism is usually diagnosed by the age of 4, often based on an inability to speak or abnormal use of language. Asperger's syndrome usually does not include an impairment of language but abnormal social behavior and is often diagnosed later than autism, usually by about age 8 or 9 at the latest. Therefore, in order to equivocally say that Jefferson's behavior is even reminiscent of Asperger's there should be documentation that Jefferson had some social impairments in childhood.
In his book, Ledgin right off the bat admits to one of the major limitations to his thesis of diagnosing Jefferson. A fire destroyed Thomas Jefferson's childhood home and all of the records of Jefferson's childhood. Therefore there is sparse biographical information concerning Jefferson's childhood so that a speculation of Asperger's cannot be adequately made. Ledgin states that because of all of the evidence of behavior that he considers Asperger-like that has been documented by various Jefferson scholars that he can still claim unequivocally that Jefferson fits the bill. However, without knowledge of problems that Jefferson faced in childhood the likelihood of Asperger's is greatly diminished.
In issuing his challenge, Ledgin claims that no alternative explanation for Jefferson's shyness, sensitivity to sounds, poor public speaking, etc. exists other than Asperger's. I disagree. I believe that a much more likely explanation is bereavement. One has to remember that Jefferson lost his father at age 14. His mother died when he was 32 years of age. Jefferson's daughter Polly died in childbirth in 1804. Ten years after their wedding, Jefferson's wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson died. After the death of his wife Jefferson went into a deep depression. He completely isolated himself from human contact for a period of time and went out horseback riding a great deal. Most of Jefferson's children never reached maturity, dying in infancy or childhood. Could all of these untimely deaths caused Jefferson to be shy, a poor public speaker, possibly sensitive to noise and other problems that could be construed as Asperger like. It seems to me that this could very well be the case as there is no evidence of Jefferson having any sort of dysfunction that impaired his abilities socially or occupationally.
One example of Jefferson's alleged Asperger's traits, according to Ledgin, was his lifelong obsession with remodeling his home, Monticello, a project to which Jefferson devoted fifty-four years of his life. Ledgin alleges this devotion to Monticello fits the DSM IV criteria of Asperger's for an intense abnormal pattern of interest. He goes even further stating that a half dozen separate traits for Asperger's went into the construction of Monticello.
One of the factors accounting for the lengthy construction of Monticello was its location. Jefferson owned land along the Rivanna River where a home comparable to Monticello could have been constructed far more quickly and easily. Instead he selected a very steep mountain that required major work to make the ground level for Monticello's foundation. Because they had no four wheel drive motor vehicles in the eighteenth century to reach the summit of the steep mountain several hundred feet high, construction of a road was required before serious work could actually begin on the house itself. Due to the logistics of the property and steep incline, a well could only be dug from a considerable distance from the top of the mountain. The reason Jefferson chose this formidable building task had nothing to do with Asperger's but with his romantic notion of the view from the mountaintop and the aesthetic considerations which were important to him. He writes about these in a letter to Maria Cosway.
Another factor, unrelated to Asperger's, for the length construction of Monticello was the need to provide lodgings to Jefferson's ever increasing family. His sister moved in with him, as did offspring of his friend Dabney Carr. As his daughters got married and had children, more room was needed in the mansion to accommodate all of these people who lived with Jefferson.
Throughout his life, Jefferson incurred huge debts. Ledgin ascribes this to Asperger's syndrome. In his zeal to pin an Asperger's diagnosis on Jefferson, or at least allege that Jefferson had autistic traits, Ledgin conveniently ignores the fact Jefferson inherited a great deal of his debt from his father in law. He loaned money to friends who did not pay him back. Ledgin ascribes Jefferson's willingness to loan money to Asperger's but does not offer any explanation as to why this would be indicative of Asperger's or autistic traits. He does claim that it was naivete on Jefferson's part, but does not say why it would be aspergerish. This would mean that everyone who loaned someone money and was not paid back did it as a result of Asperger's. Somehow this seems to be a stretch. Jefferson was also raised as an aristocrat and was used to a very high standard of living and spent money lavishly. Also, the construction of Monticello contributed to Jefferson's financial difficulties. The final nail in the coffin for Jefferson was the embargo against Europe in 1812 which caused the panic of 1819. There were tough economic times in the entire country and not only did this worsen Jefferson's troubles but caused other people to be in debt as well.
One of the traits that autistic persons often have is poor eye contact. Ledgin claims that Jefferson had this trait. He gives the example of Alexander Hamilton stating that Jefferson had a "shifty glance". There is no way of knowing if this is similar to autistics who don't look people in the eye and that Hamilton and Jefferson were in different political parties and had vast differences on many topics. Historically they clashed on many topics and were political enemies. It is much more likely that Hamilton was ascribing qualities of dishonesty due to political bias than describing an autistic-like trait of lack of eye contact. He describes William Dunlap talking about Jefferson's "very animated eye". How an animated eye would have anything to do with lack of eye contact seems enigmatic. Ledgin also goes on stating that Dunlap describes Jefferson's ability to converse with "ease and vivacity" which would contradict autistic traits.
Ledgin also attempts to ascribe noise sensitivity to Thomas Jefferson. He claimed that Jefferson's sensitivity to high voice volumes including his own. He cites examples of biographers who state that Jefferson was not able to speak loudly. With no real evidence, other than speculation, Ledgin interprets this to mean that Jefferson could not bellow due to being sensitive to the sound of his own loud voice. Yet, this is very uncharacteristic for person's with autistic spectrum disorders who often have loud voices and have difficulty controlling the volume of their voices. This would seem to me to suggest Jefferson was unlike autistics rather than like them.
In addition to loud voices, autistic persons often have trouble controlling their temper. Apparently not Jefferson. In the first chapter of her Jefferson autobiography Fawn Brodie describes Jefferson as one of the most calm and well tempered of all of the presidents. She describes how Jefferson's daughter, Martha, recalls Jefferson having lost his temper only on two occasions and was a very calm and even tempered man the rest of the time. Again this would refute an autism or Asperger's connection.
Like Gates and Einstein, Jefferson had a large circle of friends and lovers. His friends included George Wythe, Dabney Carr, Edmund Randolph and marquies de lafeyette. He was married to Martha Wayles for ten years until her death. He also had romantic relations with Maria Cosway and Sally Hemmings.
Temple Grandin provides an afterword to Ledgin's book. She again puts forth her thesis that genius is an abnormality. She states that people with social tendencies would not spend their time away from other people to create new technologies or write "complex documents fundamental to our democracy", obviously alluding to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. She even goes so far as to state that civilization would likely pay a terrible price of the genes for autism and Asperger's syndrome were eradicated and that it is possible that people would become too social and no one would accomplish creative, productive things. She seems to forget about all of Einstein's and Jefferson's set of friends, their numerous liaisons with women that somehow did not interfere with discovering the theory of relativity or with writing the declaration of independence.
Do people allege that Gates, Einstein and Jefferson had autism or at least autistic traits because it is of historical interest that a famous person could be on the spectrum or could there be some other reason? How about other celebrities who have autistic traits? After all, there is Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, the unabomber Theodore Kaczynsi, or possibly chess prodigy Bobby Fischer? All of these individuals could be construed to have traits in common with autistic persons. It has even been occasionally suggested that at least some of the above-named people have autism. These individuals have often been anti-social, have behaved bizarrely and some of them have shown prodigious talent or intelligence. But what group wants to identify within its ranks a possible child molester, a convicted rapist with a propensity to bite someone's ear, a mass murderer and a blatant anti-semite who applauded the 9/11 attacks on our country?
It seems that certain people want to either give people hope for success, make them feel better, or elevate autism on a pedestal or imply that it is some kind of gift that society could not live without. One autistic person has a web site in which he states that he likes the fact that people believe Gates may have Asperger's syndrome because it means that autistic people in general are smarter and more successful than people think they are. Another example is Frank Klein, a man with autism, has used Einstein as an example of why autism is a good thing that should not be cured. He alleges that Einstein would be an ordinary patent clerk had autistic intervention been tried.
British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen suggests that the evidence that Einstein had Asperger's traits can make it possible for those with the condition to excel and find their niche in life. He also goes on to state that autistic spectrum disorders makes those with the condition depressed and sometimes even suicidal. "If we can do something to make life easier for those with the condition then we should do so," states Baron-Cohen.
These comments may suggest that there is really so little that is good about autistic spectrum disorders that trying to find successful persons of great celebrity would prove a quick fix for those wishing to give hope, raising self-esteem of those on the spectrum. These facts present an argument for persons who take offense at the thought of eradicating autism to mitigate suffering.
Have I unequivocally disproved the autism of Gates, Einstein, Jefferson and possibly other celebrities and historical figures alleged to be on the spectrum? No, admittedly, I have not. A pre-mortem diagnosis of a disorder with no known biologic markers would seem difficult enough. Post-mortem diagnoses are certainly more difficult if not impossible. I do believe that I have provided plausible explanations for a lot of the so-called evidence to suggest that these individuals do or did have autistic traits. The reader can judge for himself or herself.
Contrary to what Baron-Cohen and Norm Ledgin and Temple Grandin say I do not believe the speculation about Gates, Einstein, Jefferson and others is helpful. It will only lower the self-esteem of those whose handicaps might prevent them from achieving what they want, let alone what the above-named individuals were able to do. It also places undue expectations on those who are expected to measure up. Worst of all, it provides fodder for the special educators, special education attorneys, ABA therapists etc. to legitimize their profits and to encourage the false hope and tears for toasted snow that so many parents of these children have.
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|Copyright 2004, Jonathan Mitchell - All Rights Reserved.|