This post is in the Autistic Spectrum Disorders category

The listing of diagnostic criteria and trait manifestations and the like can begin to read like something of a life sentence but there are many positive aspects to the autism spectrum and the ability and willingness to work with the traits rather than against them can result in conspicuous success. For example, among the music-friendly characteristics mentioned elsewhere in this document, there is a link between autism and Absolute Pitch (AP) – that rarified skill of being able to recognise and produce any note in tune without external reference. Many musicians have excellent relative pitch or learned absolute pitch – spend enough time with your instrument and you will remember its pitch – but true absolute pitch is another matter and can occur in non-musicians as well. Research suggests that “…musicians with Absolute Pitch show some of the personality, language, and cognitive features associated with autism” (Brown et al., 2003) and certainly its incidence among autistics is high compared to the general community (Heaton, Davis & Happé, 2008; Heaton, Pring & Hermelin, 2001; Heaton, Williams, Cummins & Happé, 2008).

There is a small stable of high profile musicians who have Asperger’s Syndrome and are prepared to say so. Beyond this, the collection of musicians who have not declared their autistic status but are widely speculated to be on the spectrum is much larger – however many of these are also claimed by the communities championing the causes of bi-polar, schizophrenic, anxiety disorder and so on.

This page might help those who are unfamiliar with the syndrome to see how the traits can be manifested in successful public figures. They can be quite subtle to the observer, indeed ASDs in general have been referred to as hidden disorders because they are not obvious like blindness or cerebral palsy, and those with the condition often expend great energy “pretending to be normal” (Willey, 1999). It may be useful to refer back to this page as you become familiar with the traits through my personal experiences and the associated references.

In the public record there are a number of statements made by “Talking Head” David Byrne “I was a peculiar young man — borderline Asperger’s, I would guess” (Byrne, 2006) – the statement is repeated more clearly in conversation with music producer and neuroscientist, Daniel Levitin  ( 2007) who says “I think that about myself sometimes”. Levitin’s comment is interesting in this context because I have been unable to find any other reference to this in his writings or interviews. One wonders if it was a genuine self assessment or a “me too” expression of interviewer empathy.

Another of my “pop music heroes” from the 1980s Gary Numan spoke about Asperger’s in the April 29, 2001 edition of the Sunday Times Magazine (“Gary Numan,” 2001). He says

Polite conversation has never been one of my strong points. Just recently I actually found out that I’d got a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome which basically means I have trouble interacting with people. For years, I couldn’t understand why people thought I was arrogant, but now it all makes a bit more sense.

In a more recent article he discusses his traits in a little more detail.

I know now that I suffer from a form of Asperger’s syndrome … I find it almost impossible to do social interaction. An interview I’m better with. This has clearly defined parameters as a conversation. I am not expected to come up with things to talk about. You ask a question; I answer. But when I’m in a group I come across as stand-offish and aloof. Gemma’s brother has it and she recognised it in me (Horan, 2008).

Since his diagnosis in 2001 Numan has researched and learned about the Syndrome and the way it impacts him socially and musically. He describes himself as “pretty deeply within the Asperger’s spectrum” (McCaffrey, 2008) and note that along with obsessive qualities and great difficulty in social conversation, it gives him “huge levels of concentration, drive, focus and mental discipline”, traits that are “useful when you’re in the music business” (ibid).

In Australia in 2004 there was a much publicised case of Craig Nicholls, the lead singer of rising rock band, The Vines suffering a “mental breakdown” attributed to Asperger’s Syndrome. Apart from making the papers and TV media, Nicholls spoke to Rolling Stone magazine (Mar, 2004). At the time the band was on the brink of major success, but Nicholls was struggling to cope with managing his condition in the stress inducing spotlight and reacted violently, prompting a period of intense media interest.

New Zealand musician Ladyhawke indicates that she has Asperger’s (Cochrane, 2008; Lester, 2008) and uses her real name Pip Brown when talking about it. She claims that the condition is not a part of her music – that she doesn’t sing about it although I would question this. It may not be explicit in her lyrics, but the manner of production of her album which she wrote, played, engineered and produced with “fastidious attention to detail” (ibid.), control and almost obsessive self-reliance, would certainly imply an expression of traits that I associate with my own AS.

Melbourne band Rudely Interrupted  (“About the Band – Rudely Interrupted,” 2008) is a group who’s members have a variety of disabilities including Down’s Syndrome, schizophrenia and autism. Their lead singer Rory Burnside has Asperger’s and was born with no eyes. I sincerely hope he writes a book one day.

Music critic Tim Page  (Page, 2007) is somewhat more forthcoming on the matter in his autobiography, discussing his social awkwardness, lack of empathy and obsessive attention to detail. Those of us who have had experience of music critics might wonder if social awkwardness and lack of empathy might not be a pre-requisite for the job.

There are many, many individuals out there on the “speculated” lists that have proliferated across the internet – most of them drawing from each other as well as several books (Fitzgerald, 2005; Fitzgerald & O’ Brien, 2007; James, 2005; Ledgin, 2000; Ledgin, 2005; Ortiz, 2008) which have sought to identify and diagnose – often posthumously – high achieving people through fairly careful research into their public and private lives. Most of the websites are maintained by “Aspies” perhaps seeking to identify themselves with successful individuals – so I have left most of the really speculative names off the list below and stuck to those discussed in the sources above.

The list makes for interesting reading.

Albert Einstein

Thomas Jefferson

Bill Gates

Michael Palin

Jane Austen

Hans Christian Anderson

Satoshi Tajiri (creator of Pokemon)

Jim Henson (of Muppet fame)

Wolfgang Mozart

George Orwell

Woody Allen

Gary McKinnon (hacker)

Bela Bartok

Erik Satie

Ludwig van Beethoven

John Denver

Bob Dylan

James Taylor

Keanu Reeves

Al Gore

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