By Nic Fleming, Science Correspondent
Many leading figures in the fields of science, politics and the arts have achieved success because they had autism, a leading psychiatrist has claimed.
Michael Fitzgerald, Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin, argued the characteristics linked to autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) were the same as those associated with creative genius.
Prof Fitzgerald cited Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, H G Wells and Ludwig Wittgenstein as examples of famous and brilliant individuals who showed signs of ASDs including Asperger syndrome.
Beethoven, Mozart, Hans Christian Andersen and Immanuel Kant have also received post mortem diagnoses of Asperger's.
Speaking at a Royal College of Psychiatrists' Academic Psychiatry conference in London, Prof Fitzgerald said argued the link between ASD's, creativity and genius were caused by common genetic causes.
"Psychiatric disorders can also have positive dimensions. I'm arguing the genes for autism/Asperger's, and creativity are essentially the same.
"We don't know which genes they are yet or how many there are, but we are talking about multiple genes of small effect. Every case is unique because people have varying numbers of the genes involved.
"These produce people who are highly focused, don't fit into the school system, and who often have poor social relationships and eye contact. They can be quite paranoid and oppositional, and usually highly moral and ethical.
"They can persist with a topic for 20-30 years without being distracted by what other people think. And they can produce in one lifetime the work of three or four other people."
Prof Fitzgerald said traits such as a need to be dominant and in control and autistic repetitiveness were critical to the success of politicians such as Charles de Gaulle, who famously said "I am France", US president Thomas Jefferson and Enoch Powell.
Another example he said was science fiction writer H G Wells, whom he described as socially insecure, controlling, lonely, cruel and emotionally immature.
Prof Fitzgerald reached his conclusion after comparing the characteristics of around 1,600 people he has diagnosed with ASDs and the known biographical details of famous people.
He said Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated how many with Asperger's traits could work for long periods on topics without taking note of others' views.
Isaac Newton, he said, was known to work non-stop for three days without recognising day or night, often forgetting to eat, and Einstein worked in a patent office because he was too disruptive to get a university job.
Prof Fitzgerald's book "Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World" was published at the end of last year,
Estimates of the prevalence of ASDs in the general population vary widely from 60-120 cases per 10,000 people.
Amanda Batten, of the National Autistic Society said: "It is important to avoid stereotypes of people with autism as geniuses or otherwise, as everyone has individual character traits, strengths and needs.
"These might include attention to detail and the ability to pursue something for long periods of time, however apparent ability in some areas may lead people to underestimate the challenges individuals face in other parts of their lives."
Glaring gaps exist in autism services
- The Guardian,
- Wednesday February 6 2008
It says a lot about the status, or lack of status, of people with autism that two-thirds of local authorities don't know how many adults with autism there are in their area or how many adults with autism they actually support.
I Exist, a report by the National Autistic Society (NAS), calls on the government to fund a major study into the prevalence of autism so that health and social care providers can get a realistic handle on the extent of the problem and so plan and deliver appropriate services.
The survey, to which 1,412 adults with autism and their families or carers responded, revealed glaring gaps. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of adults with autism said they do not have enough support to meet their needs, with 61% relying on their family financially and 33% saying they are experiencing severe mental health difficulties due to lack of support. Ninety-two percent of parents worried about their children's future when they are no longer able to care for them.
Amanda Batten, NAS head of policy and campaigns, who is calling on the government to lead the way in assessing the extent of the problem, says government needs to provide better autism training for health and social care support services to meet the needs of adults and their carers. "For too long, adults with autism have found themselves isolated and ignored," she says. "We are calling on the government to think, act and transform lives."