Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) is arguably one of the most important scientists in history. A natural philosopher, chemist, and physicist, Cavendish is most famous for discovering hydrogen, Earth’s density, and the molecular composition of water. Although scientifically brilliant, he did all he could to avoid social interaction. He was so reclusive that he only communicated with his servants in writing and even added a private staircase to the back of his house in order to evade his housekeeper. He also avoided eye contact and was described by someone who knew him as the “coldest and most indifferent of mortals.” Cavendish ate leg of mutton at every meal and wore the same clothes daily. Every evening he went out for a walk, taking the exact same route each time.
It’s difficult to accurately diagnose autism posthumously. However, given what we now know about autism, some experts have speculated that several important historical figures would now qualify for a diagnosis of autism, including Cavendish. Isaac Newton, Nikola Tesla, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, Michelangelo, and Mozart are all believed to have been on the autism spectrum. My son came home from school the other day shouting, “Mom, guess what I learned today – Abraham Lincoln had autism, and so did George Washington!”
Although the rapid rise in the number of cases of autism in recent years would seem to indicate this is a new phenomenon, autism has been around as long as there have been humans. We just didn’t know what it was or have a name for it.
Dr. Leo Kanner is the psychiatrist credited with clinically documenting autism in the U.S. for the first time in 1943. He said years later, “I never discovered autism. It was there before.”
Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician after whom a mild version of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome was named, stated, “Once one has learnt to pay attention to the characteristic manifestations of autism, one realizes that they are not at all rare.”
Throughout human history, the autistics have been the eccentrics, the oddities, the peculiar people on the fringes of society, those who never quite fit in with everyone else. Many people on the spectrum have made important contributions to science, technology, and the arts. Some of the greatest minds in history were likely on the spectrum. They are blessed, as is the world by their presence in it.