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How Autistic People Have Influenced Human Culture

This month plays host to the worldwide celebration of Autistic Pride Day.  The 18th June saw organisations and people across the globe come together to connect with one another through various events, with the aim to celebrate autistic diversity and to demonstrate to allistic (non-autistic) people that those with autism are unique individuals, and not cases to be treated or people to be discriminated against.

Modelled largely on the gay pride movement, Autistic Pride Day was first celebrated in 2005, and quickly gained traction to become a global event celebrated widely both online and offline.  As an autistic community event, the day originated from and is led by autistic people; it is not seen as a day for charities or organisations to promote themselves and stifle autistic accomplishment, but rather a day to celebrate the diverse scope of autism with “infinite variations and infinite possibilities.”

Autism and its impact on Human Culture

Autism is the broad term commonly given to a range of conditions known as autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).  ASD (formerly separated into the separate classifications of autism, Asperger’s and PDD-NOS) is a lifelong developmental disability that affects the way the brain processes information.  ASD presents with a widely varying range of severity.  However, all people within the spectrum encounter the same problems: difficulties with language skills, physical behaviour, social interaction, and social imagination, particularly when it comes to understanding and relating to other people.  Autism itself is not an illness or a disease; it cannot be “cured.”  People with autism feel their condition is a fundamental aspect of their identity, and an integral part of who they are.

Autism is a form of neurodiversity; as with all forms of neurodiversity, most of the challenges autistic people face come from other people’s attitudes about autism and a general lack of knowledge about the condition itself.  Many autism-related organisations tend to promote pity over fostering understanding.  Autistic self-advocacy groups have been keen to buck this trend in recent years, aiming to shift attitudes away from the notion that autism is a deviation from the norm that must be cured or treated.  Autistic Pride is quick to point out that autistic people have always been an important and integral part of human culture and society.

Name any person who has left an indelible mark on human history, and chances are that person sat somewhere upon the autistic spectrum. From science and technology, to culture and the arts, human history is full of the astounding achievements and impacts of autistic individuals, who succeeded despite of (or more likely because of) their autism.

Albert Einstein – A household name that just about everyone will recognise, the Nobel Prize winning, eccentric German scientist credited with developing the theory of relativity was almost certainly autistic, having trouble with language and social interaction. Obsessive and often forgetful, Einstein found it a struggle to learn at school. Despite this, he was a man of towering intelligence.  His mass energy relationship formula, E=MC2, is considered “the most famous equation in the world.”  Einstein laid the foundation for modern physics and quantum mechanics, and his influence on human sciences and advancement is still felt today.  Other famous scientists who had ASD are Sir Isaac Newton, who developed our modern laws of gravity, mechanics and motion, and Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, best known for his contributions to the design of modern AC electrical supply systems.

Michelangelo – The quintessential renaissance man, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, popularly known by his first name, was an Italian architect, sculptor, painter, and poet. His output in these fields was prodigious; he remains one of the most well documented artists of the 16th century.  Many consider him the greatest artist of his time, if not one of the greatest artists of all time. What many probably don’t realise is that Michelangelo was also very likely autistic. Unable to converse properly, and by all accounts strange and isolated socially, he was so reclusive he didn’t even attend his own brother’s funeral. Despite this, his works are considered some of the most famous in history; his paintings Genesis and The Last Judgement (adorning the ceiling and altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican), are two of the most influential frescoes in the history of Western art.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Another famous household name, this renowned and influential classical musician also displayed many symptoms consistent with that of autism – he was allegedly extremely sensitive to loud noises, had a notoriously short attention span, and could cycle through a gamut of facial expressions within seconds. Though he only lived for 35 years, he made over 600 musical compositions in his short existence, with his first written when he was just 5 years old. Many of his works have been acknowledged as pinnacles of the genre, with his work largely unsurpassed even to this day. Amongst the most enduringly popular classical composers of all time, he had a profound impact on Western art music.

Dan Akroyd – The modern fields of entertainment, cinema and art have certainly seen their fair share of influential autistics. While probably not as illustrious a name as the previous mentions on our list, the American actor Dan Akroyd has been diagnosed with both Tourette’s and autism.  His obsessive behaviour led to a fixation on ghosts and policemen, which in turn inspired the actor to conceive of and later write the script for the iconic film Ghostbusters.  The starlet Daryl Hannah, who acted in films such as Splash, Kill Bill, and Blade Runner was diagnosed with autism at an early age. While worried that it would adversely affect her vocation in Hollywood, and weary of the limelight, she has still gone on to lead a successful career. Renowned filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was also believed to be autistic.  Identified posthumously, experts pointed to the director’s obsessive interests, poor social skills and inflexible, literal thinking to make the diagnoses.  They believe that if Kubrick was autistic, for him the condition was certainly a gift considering how much he achieved.

What the above list shows, is that you cannot judge a person by a label, even if that label is “autistic.”  Not every autistic person will go on to change the world, but neither will every allistic person.  People with ASD can be, and are, incredibly successful in many fields, and no matter who the person, we can’t judge their abilities by the labels we give them.

Able Training offer courses in ASD for both the adult and child setting, offering knowledge about the condition itself and its association with mental health, the challenges associated with managing autistic behaviour, and teaches attendees how to develop positive and effective communication strategies when interacting with autistic individuals – autism is not a condition to treat, but a person to understand.

All people on the autistic spectrum are capable of learning and development. With the right kind of support in place, all can be helped to live a long and fulfilling life of their own choosing.

For more information on our ASD and Autism Awareness courses please visit us here

You can find further information on autism and ASD at the National Autistic Society’s website here

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