When we hear the word autism, some could picture a mentally disabled person, others might think of the main character from the Rain Man movie. Not many of us actually realize that autism is a spectrum of medical conditions, a person could be severely autistic or just fall within the autistic spectrum. Autistic people have difficulty in forming relationships but it doesn't need to be easily visible. Very often such individual could form strong narrow interests, obsessions. They like to do things in a very repetitive way. It's a mix of ability and disability. If their speech is at the acceptable level, you might not even recognize that the person is autistic in any way. You probably know someone autistic without even knowing it.
The term "autism" has been in use for about 100 years and comes from the Greek word "autos", meaning "self". Hans Asperger, a German scientist, wrote over 300 publications about autism. Due to his work on autism spectrum disorders, Asperger syndrome (AS), one of the disorders within autistic spectrum, was named after him. Only in the last 20 years, the research has progressed and we now have a better understanding of what autism is and what it's not.
Autism is not an illness or disease. Often people feel that being autistic is a fundamental aspect of their identity. Being autistic is seeing the world in a different way. Some of these views might be overwhelming and difficult to deal with, while others could show the hidden talents and genius. Severely autistic people require constant help, while others might successfully use their talents and be remembered as one of the smartest people in our history.
Autistic people might have great skills in maths, physics, astronomy, music or art, but every autistic person has an incredible memory. Imagine if everything you saw you could remember and use that information to come up with new ideas. As if your brain was wired in a completely different way.
As autism has been only used in diagnosis for about 20 years, I was 7 years old when it started being diagnosed anywhere in the world. It's not like autism wasn't there before, many autistic people were just never diagnosed as such. There are multiple geniuses with autism and there were much more that already passed away but will be remembered forever. What qualities can we learn from them?
1. Be obsessedAs autistic people get deeper and deeper in their interest, they form strong obsession about the subject they are interested in. It is very common for them to spend day and night working on their favorite subject.
Newton was so engaged in his work, that he hardly spoke to anyone or ate. He could work non-stop for three days without recognizing day or night. Einstein showed similar persistence while working out his equations.
Think about Nicola Tesla, he could lock himself up at his laboratory and run crazy experiments. He studied both mechanical and electrical versions. In the process, he created an artificial earthquake, numerous artificial lightning storms, knocked an entire power plant off-line in Colorado, and nearly caused the steel frame of a skyscraper under construction in Manhattan to collapse.
Elon Musk was a lonely kid, his brother and sister never wanted to take him to their friends. Not that Elon wanted to see their friends, but their mom was just worried about him. Young Kimbal, Elon's brother, even called Elon a weirdo. From early childhood, he was obsessed with comics and space. He would approach every subject scientifically and remember every detail about it. As a few year old, he knew how far from the Earth the moon is. He stopped being afraid of darkness when he realized that darkness is just an empty space without light particles.
Musk is known for his work ethic, he could work day and night on his projects as well as would expect this from his colleagues and vendors. He once drove at night to one of SpaceX's vendors to ensure they work overnight to deliver the required parts. When things were not going well for SpaceX and Tesla in 2007-2008, his obsession drove him pass difficulties. As he said in the 60 minutes interview, he would never give up, he would need to be dead or incapacitated.
This is not just hard work, it's an obsession.
2. Care about what you doVery often autistic people are obsessed with something because they really care about it, it's just something that's close to their heart.
Musk often repeats how important it is for us to be self-sustainable and multi-planetary. Musk invested all his fortune into two companies that were destined to die. Sane people wouldn't do it. He believes that if something is important it should be tried even if it's likely to fail. He doesn't do it just for the money but because he truly cares.
Jacob Barnett was 2-3 years old when he was diagnosed with severe autism. His parents were told he would be retarded, not able to talk, learn, read or write anything. How wrong the doctors were.
Barnett is actually very proud of his autism, he believes it is the reason why he is so successful and why he cares so much about math, physics, and astronomy, and wouldn't have gotten this far without it.
Autistic people do care about their obsessions and that's how they are willing to persevere to achieve their goals.
3. Let your work speak for itselfGreat communication skills are very useful, but if it's not your strength, let your work speak for itself. Albert Einstein, the big scientists of the 20th century, started saying his first words at the age of 4, but he wasn't able to talk properly until he was 7 years old. Until 7 years old, he was often obsessively repeating sentences to himself. Usually, kids start creating first sentences around 2 years old, so Einstein was significantly delayed.
Both Einstein and Newton weren't good at small talk, although Einstein was able to learn with time a good sense of humour. Both of them achieved incredible achievements without much talking.
Having the best outfit is also not what autistic people really care about. There is so much going on in their brains that the less they need to worry about the better. Mark Zuckerberg wears flip flops and the same clothes all the time and seeing Zuckerberg in action, he falls on the autistic spectrum, just like a lot of geeks that work in Silicon Valley. Jacob Barnett is also a big fan of flip flops.
Feel comfortable in your skin and produce the best work you can, it will sell itself.
4. Don't waste your timeWhen you are truly passionate about something, you will be impatient and hungry for more.
Jacob Barnett's beginnings weren't easy, as time was passing by, Jacob was becoming more and more isolated in his world. However, his parents noticed that the more he focused on a subject he loved, the more he began to communicate. Up to 5-6 years old, he was still behind with social skills, but light years ahead in maths and physics.
Since early days Jacob was asking parents when he finally learns algebra at school. He learned high school math in just two weeks and was accepted to a university at age of 10. He began his Ph.D. studies at the age of 14. Barnett has already been tipped as a future Nobel Prize winner.
5. Have a routineThe autistic world might be so overwhelming that people with autism tend to have repetitive routines. It helps them out to decrease confusion and frustration.
Newton displayed classic signs of autism. As a lecturer, if no students arrived at his lesson, he would still give a lecture to an empty room, nothing could distract his routine.
Michelangelo's genius might have been a result of his autism. Apart from being obsessed with his work, having a fiery temper and the propensity to be a loner, Michelangelo followed repetitive routines. If he couldn't follow it, he would get frustrated.
Having a routine is common in very successful people, not only the ones with autism. If you are interested in finding out more about daily routines of some of the biggest brains our world has seen check Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work.
6. Read booksThis is no brainer, books carry a tremendous amount of knowledge, if you want to develop yourself as a person or a professional, books must be your friends.
Kim Peek, the real Rain Man, had become a living google. Kim was born with missing corpus callosum, a part of the brain that is responsible for connecting both hemispheres of the brain. It quickly became apparent that Kim was obsessed with books. He could read a page in 8 seconds, one page with the left eye, another one with the right one and he would remember 98% of what he read, forever. Any questions you would ask him, he just knew the answer. It's not that Kim was great in a single subject, he was soaking in literally everything he read. This is what made him so unique. Such abilities came to Kim at a high price, especially around social skills and creativity.
Even Hans Asperger, a scientist who was one of the first to research autism, had difficulty finding friends himself, he was a lonely and remote child. He liked to quote himself and referred to himself from a third-person perspective. Asperger was great in language, he loved reading poetry which he could quote to his uninterested classmates for hours.
How did Musk learn about the rocket science? He says he read a lot of books. Musk is like a sponge who soaks in everything rapidly. You might talk with him about space rockets, electric motors, batteries, complex system designs, life in the matrix and more. He doesn't just know the high-level details but gets to the nitty gritty of the researched subject. I personally admire him for that a lot.
Nearly every question you might ask had been already answered in detail in the books. Put your mind to work and educate yourself.
7. Challenge yourselfBy pushing your boundaries you will be able to become a master in your field.
Although Kim Peek had a great memory, he wasn't that good with math. However, Daniel Tammet, England born autistic, since the age of 4 was able to do huge calculations in his head without actually calculating anything consciously. He knows 9 languages and learned Icelandic in just one week as a test for a live interview on Icelandic national TV. During one of his most famous performances, he needed to recall a Pi number to 22 500 decimal places and recite it to invigilators who would be checking and making sure that the recitation was correct from start to finish. It took him over 5 hours and his recall was flawless.
Daniel as a few year old kid could count the numbers on his own during a school break time. This was his interest and nothing else would matter. Since early days he would look at objects through numbers, different shapes would remind him of different digits. He felt much more comfortable around the world of numbers than people.
Although Daniel was diagnosed autistic, he also managed to adapt to our world and his social disabilities blended in with his passion. You can find out more about Daniel's skills in the Brainman movie.
SummaryAs Lena Horne said:
It's not the load that breaks you down, it's the way you carry it.It's OK to not have many friends if that meant that you would spend more time finding your obsession. The history shows that people within autistic spectrum can excel if they find the right niche in life. We all can take some of these qualities and use them to our advantage.
Sometimes I wonder if there is a little rain man in each of us.