Yeats, de Valera, Einstein, Newton - were all these people autistic?


Under the Microscope: Autism covers a spectrum of disorders that leave young children with a range of mental, language, behavioural and social problems. It is reported that the condition is sharply on the increase. There have been several recent suggestions that many historical male scientific, philosophical and creative figures suffered from autism, including Socrates, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, and on the Irish scene, WB Yeats and Eamon de Valera, writes William Reville

Autism results from a neurological disorder affecting normal brain development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. It knows no racial, economic or social boundaries and incidence is relatively consistent around the world. It affects four times as many boys as girls and there is no defined cause or cure.

The symptoms of autism can present in various combinations, varying from mild to severe. The term "autism spectrum disorders" (ASD) is a broad definition of autism including pervasive development disorder, Rett's syndrome, Asperger syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder. Common traits include resistance to change, repetitive motions, preference for being alone, aversion to cuddling, avoiding eye contact, over- or under-activity, odd attachments to objects, uneven motor skills, repeating words or monologues, showing distress for no apparent reason, unresponsiveness to verbal cues, tantrums and possibly aggressive behaviour.

Leo Kanner at Johns Hopkins University in the US first described autism in children in 1943. The children he studied had little communication or language, performed repetitive tasks and disliked change. In 1944 Hans Asperger, a Viennese paediatrician, described children who seemed detached from the world. These children had language and sometimes showed high intelligence, but didn't participate in peer-group activities.

It was widely thought that children with Kanner's autism were the products of a deprived social and emotional climate and that appropriate therapy would coax them back to a healthy, well-adjusted state. It wasn't until the 1960s that autism was seen to have a neurological basis.

About 75 per cent of those with Kanner's autism have learning disability. However Kanner syndrome is much rarer than Asperger syndrome and the vast majority of people on the autistic spectrum are of normal or high intelligence.

People with autism have unique autistic characteristics. Many have, or develop, the ability to make eye contact, show affection, laugh, smile and develop verbal or non-verbal language skills, but usually in different ways than the non-autistic individual. It isn't possible to "outgrow" or be "cured" of autism, but the severity of symptoms can be ameliorated and skills acquired with treatment and support.

It is claimed that ASD affects one in every 165 people. Canadian statistics record an increase in ASD of more than 600 per cent in the last 10 years. Some of this increase is explained by more extensive reporting of autism's many shadings but this does not fully explain the dramatic rise in autism worldwide.

Much painstaking research is ongoing into the basic causes of autism. It seems clear that the roots of autism lie in malfunctioning genes. Autism runs in families and studies show that when one identical twin is profoundly autistic, there is a greater than 70 per cent chance that the other will be also.

Asperger syndrome (AS) is a type of high functioning autism and many people with the condition have quite high IQs. Many people have been struck by the similarity between the traits and habits of some historical males of exceptional ability and the symptoms of AS. Prof Michael Fitzgerald of Trinity College Dublin's department of child and adolescent psychiatry recently published a book, Autism and Creativity: Is there a Link between Autism in Men and Exceptional Ability? (Bruner-Routledge, 2004).

According to Prof Fitzgerald, the advantage offered by AS is its tendency towards obsession: "The adult person with AS has tremendous persistence and focus. He will stick at a problem all his life if necessary."

Several authors claim that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein displayed symptoms of AS. Newton was a very quiet, serious boy who spent a lot of time alone. Newton spoke very little as an adult and was so absorbed in his work he often forgot to eat. He was cold or ill-tempered to his few friends. When no students turned up to his lectures, as frequently happened, he delivered the lectures to an empty room.

Einstein was a loner as a child and obsessively repeated sentences until he was seven years old. He was socially awkward as an adult, needed daily solitude, and was incapable of forming deep emotional ties with others.

Prof Fitzgerald suggests that WB Yeats and Eamon de Valera were autistic. Yeats had reading and writing problems, did poorly at school where he was bullied and failed to get into Trinity College Dublin. Nevertheless he had a great, vivid imagination while remaining socially aloof - all classic signs of AS.

Prof Fitzgerald diagnoses Yeats's preoccupation with Maud Gonne as autistic. Yeats remained obsessed for many years but she had no personal relationship with him. Fitzgerald suggests that Yeats was basically having an affair with himself.

Prof Fitzgerald describes Eamon de Valera as a gifted mathematician and a loner who had almost no personal relationships. He was very good in crowds, but couldn't relate one-to-one. He was obsessed with mathematics and with power and control and he couldn't relate to Michael Collins, who was a much more "human individual".

Prof Fitzgerald goes on to speculate on the relationship between de Valera's mentality and the Civil War and also Irish neutrality. However, I think the underlying evidence here is far too flimsy to underpin and firm up conclusions.

William Reville is Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Public Awareness of Science Officer at UCC -