The Oxford Dictionary defines the term genius as “exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability.” Reports of genius in history denotes people with a natural aptitude for a certain discipline, whether this is science, maths, arts or others. It suggests that this genius ability cannot be taught to others and is completely individual. It can therefore be considered to be at least partially down to the genetic makeup of the person.
There are many examples in history of extraordinary individuals reported to have outstanding creativity and intelligence displaying characteristics that we now associate with disorders such as autism. These include Einstein, Newton, Churchill, Socrates and Andy Warhol, all well known for their achievements. These figures were often deemed geniuses, and were credited with altering the field with which they worked in. However, in modern society, people with these traits are deemed as having a lower than average IQ and cognitive disabilities. This article is going to explore the presentation of high functioning autism and how it may play in role in this reported extraordinary natural talent.
Autism is a spectrum disorder present from birth and is more common in males. It involves social and communication problems; this can involve issues understanding other people’s emotions, not being able to verbalise and also uncontrolled rage. When highly emotional they can present with rhythmic repetitive motions and also throw tantrums (NHS, 2016). High-Functioning Autism or Asperger’s syndrome also have features that show enhanced ingenuity. Sufferers can have intense levels of focus, energy and persistence (Fitzgerald, 2004). They often are highly inquisitive and try to understand the world around them for themselves, not taking anything they are told for granted. This can be what give a child-like personality with an inability to socially interact.
The causes of autism is currently unknown, however there is increasing evidence that there is a strong genetic component. No specific mutations have yet been identified to be responsible for autism and as it is a spectrum disorder it is likely that the genetic cause will be epigenetic with complex environmental interactions. Genes important in the glutamatergic systems in the brain have been implemented. Functional MRIs, EEG and other imaging techniques have shown extensive evidence that autism has atypical connectivity, neuronal organisation and electrophysiology (Freitag and Kondrad, 2014). There is call in current research to combine functional and 3D imaging with genetic studies to find the causes and pathology for autism to better understand and treat the condition. Treatment currently is limited to physical and speech therapy to help autistic patients cope and also improve communication.
In wider society, people with Autism or Asperger’s syndrome are often seen as having severe learning difficulties with a low IQ. However my experience with children suffering from these disorders couldn’t be further from that. While they may struggle to act in what is deemed a ‘normal social manner’ once you have successfully engaged them, their brilliance shines. Often they have a high level of skill in mathematical calculations with an aptitude for dates, mental arithmetic and also ordering (Fitzgerald, 2004). For example, one child would thrive and come to life if you gave him the task of ordering the day and planning, ensuring everything could be done in the time limit given. Another example: you could ask any mental arithmetic problem and he would have the answer within seconds. Once you have experienced this you cannot question whether this is genius. They can perform tasks like these to a higher level than any “normal” individual.
Einstein, whilst incredibly intelligent, was reported to have struggled at school specifically with language. He also failed to acquire a job out of school reportedly due to a lack of social skills. There were also reports that his marriage was troubled and he wouldn’t allow his children to touch him. These are characteristics indicative of autism, and while it is not proven he suffered it, research suggests that he at least had autistic tendencies. Newton suffered similar traits, with periods of such intense focus that he would forget to eat. He also struggled to keep friends and is thought to be on the autism spectrum. It is now widely acknowledged that Newton suffered from classic autism (New Scientist, 2003). Darwin was well known for not liking face to face interaction, and preferred to communicate through letters than speaking. In childhood he was reported to live in solitude, avoiding social contact with anyone. These are not the only cases of autism that appear in history, with Winston Churchill and Andy Warhol being well known autistic sufferers. It is now also common for it to be said that most people are on the spectrum for autism.
From the cases presented above I believe that studying the causes of autism further not only can have clinical relevance, but also unlock information about how we perform cognitive tasks, and what gives high functioning autistic people the ability to be geniuses. It may be the increased focus that autistic suffers tend to present with which causes this aptitude for certain disciplines, but the cause of such are fascinating. If we could understand which systems are enhanced in high functioning autism, we could unlock the secret to intelligence and how and why we socially interact to a superior level to other species.
Author: Rosemary Porter
Editor: Molly Campbell
FITZGERALD, M. (2004) Creativity and Autism: Is there a link between autism in males and exceptional ability? Brunner-Routledge, Sussex.
NHS (2016) Autism Spectrum Disorder. Accessed: 04/04/2016 Retrieved from: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Autistic-spectrum-disorder/Pages/Introduction.aspx
HAZEL MUIR (2003) Einstein and Newton showed signs of Autism. New Scientist. Accessed: 04/04/2016. Retrieved from: https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn3676-einstein-and-newton-showed-signs-of-autism
FREITAG, C.M. KONRAD, K (2014) Autism Spectrum Disorder: underlying neurobiology. Journal of Neural Transmission. 121(9) Pgs 1077-1079