When you think of Autism, you may picture Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, or a sad quiet child sitting in the corner. If you are lucky enough to be related to someone with autism, a complex developmental disorder, you smile.
Autism wears many different faces and hats. The symbol recognized worldwide for autism is a puzzle piece, reflecting the mystery and complexity of the autism spectrum. Its different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition. Like puzzle pieces, no two autism cases are the same. And that can be a gift.
Autism was first diagnosed in 1943. Back then, the estimated number of people in the United States with autism was 1 in 10,000. Today the number of children diagnosed is 1 in 68. That’s a more than 6,000 percent increase!
While the cause and treatments for autism are not yet clear and vary by individual, one trait stands out—talent! That’s right, talent. People with autism excel at art, music and science—anything that requires hyper-focus and imagination. As actress Helena Bonham Carter reportedly said of her husband, film director Tim Burton, who she believes is on the autism spectrum, “He sees things other people don’t see.” Here are just a handful of examples of the autistic imagination at work.
Temple Grandin is a high-functioning autistic who has changed the world for both people and animals. Grandin, a professor of animal science at the University of Northern Colorado, used her keen perception of the perspective of animals to champion a more humane slaughterhouse now used throughout the cattle industry. Grandin has written a number of books, including the award-winning Different Not Less, a compilation of success stories about adults with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, a type of autism that hampers social and communication skills. HBO released a film about her in 2010, starring Clare Danes.
Andy Kaufman was an actor, performance artist and comedian famous for playing mechanic Latka Gravas on the popular TV sitcom Taxi, and for his own variety show. As an autistic, Kaufman’s eccentric humor was often misunderstood, but he found success as a performer, at one point doing a one-man show at Carnegie Hall. The rock band REM wrote a song about him called Man on the Moon, and a movie, starring Jim Carrey, followed.
Satoshi Tajiri, or Dr. Bug, is the Japanese video game designer who created Pokémon. He earned the nickname Dr. Bug as a child since he was consumed with his fascination with bugs. Tajiri’s official diagnosis is Asperger’s Syndrome—a type of highly evolved autism. Nintendo co-workers and officials describe Tajiri as remarkably creative, and his media franchise, Pokémon, is loved worldwide.
Andy Warhol was a groundbreaking artist, musician and filmmaker who used everyday objects—soup cans, soda bottles and cookie jars—as his muse. His art was obsessive and repetitive, featuring the same items over and over again. Warhol, who made movies and art with friends at a place dubbed The Factory, once said, “In the future everyone will be famous for at least 15 minutes.” Warhol himself will be famous much longer than that.
Jason McElwain was made manager of his high school basketball team because of his passion for the sport. He practiced hours on end by himself. During the last four minutes of the last game of the season, the team’s coach gave McElwain a chance to play. He ended up bringing down the house by scoring 20 points, more than most players score in an entire game! McElwain went on to write a book The Game of My Life, and appeared on Oprah, Larry King Live, and The Today Show to talk about his experience with autism and his surprise basketball victory.
Susan Boyle is the breakout superstar from Britain’s Got Talent. Who can ever forget her beautiful rendition of I Dreamed a Dream from the musical Les Miserables, in 2009? As a child in Scotland, Susan was misdiagnosed as having a learning disability from oxygen deprivation at birth, but she was later recognized to have Asperger’s and a higher-than-average IQ. Boyle, once shy and overlooked, has now released five albums and tours all over the world, even performing for the Queen of England.
Autism experts believe that many creative geniuses, including Socrates, Mozart, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were likely on the autism spectrum. This makes perfect sense given the view of Hans Asperger, the Austrian pediatrician who first observed and defined Asperger’s Syndrome in 1944. He once stated, “It is hard to have science or art without a touch of autism.”
It is my hope that these examples of outstanding people with autism have given you a fresh look at the spectrum. The next time you see a child or an adult with autism, know that there is light at the end of the autism tunnel—and it shines through their eyes every day. When one of these children draws something for you, hang onto it. It could be priceless in more ways than one.
Donna Richards works with The Autism Alternative: Counseling and coaching for the families and teachers of autistic children. She is co-author of My Brothers Keeper: A Kindergartners View of Autism.
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