Top 10 Famous People with Autism

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Since the first diagnosis of autism in 1943 the number of children in the United States thought to have autism was 1 in 10,000. Now the number of children thought to have autism is 1 in 150 with autism considered more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes and AIDS combined. In the last decade we’ve all learned a great deal about autism and what it means to be autistic. Certain autistic celebrities, artists, authors, scientists and musically-gifted prodigies have met our attention in our communities in recent years. Some of these people with autism are known as advocates,  some have been mentioned in the media and some whose stories are on the bookshelves, of those, here are the top 10 famous people with Autism.

10. John Elder Robinson author and autistic

John elder robinson

A New York Times bestseller, Look Me in the Eye, was published in 2007 by Random House. It is John’s life story growing up as an autistic before there was such a diagnosis. John was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but before that time he became known for his talents in mechanics and electronics. His strong abilities in these areas led him to find work in Pink Floyd’s sound company and making special effects and rigging pyrotechnics inside the guitars of the band Kiss. He now owns his own business collecting and restoring old European cars. John Elder reached the public eye when he was introduced by the author, Augusten Burroughs’ in his memoir Running with Scissors. John tells his story with a candid sense of humor and honest account of what made him different from others around him. It wasn’t until Robinson turned 40 that he learned of his diagnosis and became compelled to then write his life’s account.

9. Thomas McKean, advocate & autism community leader

Thomas McKean

Thomas McKean is known to the autistic community for his dedication as a supporter of autistic research and education. He has reached a celebrity status of sorts today drawing from his experiences from when he was first diagnosed with autism in 1979 at the age of 14 years old. At that time he was institutionalized in a psychiatric facility for two years. Being institutionalized led him to become a powerful voice in the autistic community today as an advocate for people with autism and pervasive developmental disorders. His experiences and life story continue to inspire both autistic people and their family and friends.

8.  Jason McElwain, autistic high-school basketball wonder

Jason McElwain

Autism brings with it a cluster of symptoms from repetitive behavior, tics, social blindness, speech impediments to auditory processing and sensory integration issues. Jason McElwain is one of those people on our top ten list that has drawn attention in the news. A high school basketball player from Rochester, New York, Jason became known not technically as a basketball player for his local high school team, but for his involvement in the last game of their basketball season. Jason was known at school because of his autistic fixation for playing basketball. He was known to practice for hours on end all by himself. At the last four minutes of the last game of the season he was asked to play and scored an astonishing 20 points, some from a three point range, a number that often is not even scored through an entire game.

7. Dawn Prince-Hughes and silverback gorillas

Dawn Prince-Hughes

Another autistic that has gained recognition, in this case, not so much for daring feats on the basketball court, but in academia, is a woman by the name of Dawn Prince-Hughes. Considered a high-functioning autistic (also referred to as having Asperger’s syndrome), Hughes went on to receive her PhD in primate anthropology and became a primatologist and ethnologist. Because of her autism she writes of how working with gorillas helped her to escape her feelings of social isolation. She is known for writing a series of books, two of which are Songs for the Gorilla Nation and My Journey Through Autism. Dawn also sits as the executive chair of ApeNet Inc, and has served as the executive director of the Institute for Cognitive Archaeological Research and is associated with the Jane Goodall Institute

6. Donna Williams, bestselling author and autistic

Donna Williams

Donna Williams, the author of the bestselling book Nobody Nowhere is another autistic who has opened up the public’s mind to what means to be autistic. She is an artist who refers to herself as a ‘kinesthetic learner’ who taught herself how to express herself through sculpting, painting, writing songs, screenplays and books. Her book Nobody Nowhere is her autobiography which became an international bestseller. It was said of her in 2006 in The Guardian that “Those who have read any of Donna Williams’ books will know that she is one of the most articulate and perceptive writers on autism today.”

5. Tim Page, writer and editor

Tim Page

There is no telling, despite a diagnosis of autism, what an autistic person may be able to achieve. Such is true with Tim Page, a famous critic and author who won the Pulitzer Prize as a music critic for the Washington Post. He was also chosen by Opera News as one of the 25 most influential people in the world of opera. Tim has produced concerts all over the world and has since been named a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. In 2009 Page published a book called, Parallel Play, his memoir about growing up with Asperger’s syndrome.

4. Satoshi Tajiri, the creator of Pokémon

Satoshi Tajiri

Referred to as a child as ‘Dr. Bug’ by friends because of his autistic fixation with bugs, Satoshi Tajiri later created one of the most popular video game franchises in the world, second only to Super Mario Brothers. based on his childhood fascination with bugs. Video games was another fixation Satoshi had and once when he saw two kids playing with their Game Boys linked –  he imagined a bug crawling across the link cable and thus the idea for Pokémon was born. Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Satoshi Tajiri has been described by Nintendo officials as exceedingly creative but reclusive and eccentric.

3. U.S. autistic jazz prodigy Matt Savage

matt savage

Often times when doctors are not sure where on the spectrum a child or adult falls, but autism is believed to exist, that person will be diagnosed as having a PDD or Pervasive Development Disorder Unspecified. Matt Savage was diagnosed with PDD at the age of three and later became a jazz prodigy. In Savage’s teens he become a professional jazz pianist with his own trio. He plays alongside the best adult musicians of our time and plays all over the world. He has recorded three audio CDs with the proceeds being donated to autism research and support. The legendary Dave Brubeck, known as ‘the jazz legend’ has coined Savage as the “Mozart of jazz.” Savage now attends the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

2. Temple Grandin, animal and autistic advocate

Temple Grandin

Temple Grandin is known as a high-functioning autistic who has educated and inspired the autistic community by not only sharing her life story, but also because of the revolutionary ideas to improve the cattle industry;  making it more humane for animals. HBO recently released a film based on her life and this year Claire Danes who played Temple Grandin won at the SAG awards for best actress in a leading role in a TV series or movie. Temple holds a PhD and is a professor of Animal Science at the University of Northern Colorado. She’s written a book called, Thinking in Pictures along with many other books about her profession as well as about her autism.

1. Daniel Tammet

Daniel Tammet

Writer, linguist, educator and also coined as “1 of the 100 living geniuses in the world today,” Daniel is known as “Brainman.” He claimed national attention in 2006 after writing a New York Times bestselling book called, Born On A Blue Day. It is a chronicle of Daniel’s life as an autistic savant. Over half a million copies have been sold worldwide as well as an award-winning documentary film produced about him called Brainman. Tammet has appeared on countless television shows from Good Morning America to 60 minutes and has set the European record in 2004 for reciting by memory the famous mathematical constant Pi (3.141…) to 22,514 decimal places in 5 hours and 9 minutes. Because of his autistic savant skills in regards to memory, math and linguistics, Daniel he has been studied by many of the worlds leading neuroscientists. His newest book, Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind is an investigative work about the similarities and differences between savant and non-savant minds. He is said to have an uncanny ability to describe how the mind functions in regards to sensory processing, language and social interactions.

Because autism is a condition that is now widely recognized, many people are asking the question – who in the past perhaps fits that diagnosis? Suggestions have been made based on the biographical information of famous scientists and musicians having had autism, but to make such an assumption today is difficult. But, that’s a top ten list for next time.

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49 Comments

  1. these are all ‘high functional autistics”. The media likes to tell good stories and thier achievements. Unfortunately, on the other sideof the spectrum, there are the people that suffer from severe autism or “low functional autism”. These people suffer from the life long dissability. Many can not live independently or even have regular jobs.

      • I think the whole spectrum should be celebrated, and recognized. I have Asperger’s, as well as I have 2 children on the spectrum. One with mild autism and the other severe. They are both beautiful and special to me. Everyone has something to contribute to the world. It’s just that the world isn’t always ready to accept the contribution. Not having a job or living a certain way is not what you want in your life does not mean that people who have more severe forms of autism ‘suffer’. There’s more to life than getting married, paying a mortgage and having children. As an autistic person (yes I prefer to be called autistic not person with) I feel stigmatized every time I hear things like this. I feel that speaking of autism this way doesn’t help society how wonderful and talented that people with severe autism can be.

        With that being said I’d like to have seen Amanda Baggs, who is nonverbal and what many would consider severe, has contributed a TON to the autistic rights movement be listed.

        • I absolutely agree with all you say Serenity. Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say and it certainly doesn’t mean you don’t think. It does mean you may need assistive technology to be able to communicate. I dislike the term Low Functioning…even though I understand why it is used. It may take all your energy just to stay present in the company of someone else… mainly because of sensory over load. i reckon lots of the suffering comes from being mis-understood, not being given access to assistive communication technology and not having folk believe in you.

          Not to push the needs and struggles of the severely disabled under ground or make little of them…. just to echo that we could be more supportive if we all stood together and insisted on the use of technology to help.

    • Deepak Sharma on

      Yes. I agree with you because I am a father of autistic son (age 19). He can’t do so many things independently. I am an Indian and here is a problem here that after our death who will take care of my autistic child. Please do let me know

  2. natalie jaro on

    Yes I agree with you and that’s why I made it about the top ten autistics known today. It is a shame so many autistics don’t have a voice, in fact, many can’t even speak. Believe me, I understand. My son is autistic and he’s 11, I don’t know what the future holds for him either but I try to remain optimistic. At least those high-functioning autistics that reach the public eye give reason for others to ask more questions about autism and to ask what it is. I do know that many autistics do not have the kind of voice that these people have – but at least, they are able to articulate a bit better what it’s like to be autistic . Maybe I’ll write another article about autism. Any suggestions? Thanks.

    • jennie daniels on

      it is not 1 in 150 anymore, it has been 1 in 110 for the last 2 years. it was that ratio when my daughter was diagnosed in sept ’10, it was decided before her diagnosis that it iwas 1 in 110. for people in the military though it is 1 in 88, higher than the national average.

      • Just a quick correction, Ms. Temple Grandin I believe is a professor at Colorado State University, here in lovely Fort Collins CO – go rams!!

    • I agree!!! Having a son with autism, I find the term “Autistics ” to be very offensive. It is the same as referring to someone with mental retardation as a “retard”. Autism does not define who people ARE, rather, people who have this disorder define what autism IS.

      • And I respectfully disagree. My son is autistic. He has been diagnosed with PDD:NOS. He knows he’s autistic and loved reading this list. He knows he is different but that doesn’t mean worse than anyone. He says proudly, “I’m autistic.” Many autistic adults that I am friends with have taught me this — I am following their lead.

        That said, people need to use terms and words that they are comfortable with. Don’t assume that someone calling themselves or someone else autistic is meant to be a put-down. If you are not comfortable with that, you should not use that term. It would be impossible for me to disconnect my son from his autism, but that is fine with us. I love him exactly the way he is; he is perfect to me.

  3. Can’t believe you missed Stephen Wiltshire nicknamed ‘The Human camera’ blessed with the phenomenal ability to draw in almost perfect detail what he has seen this includes a 10 metere panoramic drawing of Tokyo which was accurate down to the most minute of details including the number of windows!

    Check him out!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95L-zmIBGd4

  4. In an interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, Dan Aykroyd spoke about living with Asberger’s .
    He said the psychiatric sessions during his adolescence was quite the positive experience, helping him both with coping strategies and with typical teenage issues.

  5. My son with autism (10 1/2) will be happy to hear that the creator of Pokemon is also someone with autism! It’s good to have heroes to look up to, people who are in some ways just like him!

    Dan Aykroyd has Asperbers? I’ve always loved him! A reason to love him more!

  6. The people on this list are truly inspirational and amazing. I do, however, wish that there were more nonverbal or what are thought of as “severe” autistics. In particular, Tito Mulkopadhyay, Sue Rubin and Carly Fleishcmann, who have been extremely inspirational to many parents and educators in showing that being nonverbal does NOT mean non-intelligence. Their voices, heard through the use of assistive technology paves the way for so many others like themselves who are in desperate need of a voice to pursue their dreams and enjoy being a part of the world we live in. If it were not for them in fact, my 10 year old daughter would not have a voice at all. (http://paperkids.wordpress.com/about/). I look at them like freedom fighters in a way:)

  7. Don’t forget about James Durbin. He was a big inspiration this season on America Idol for kids with Autism and other differences.

    • THANK YOU for mentioning James Durbin. He should be on this list. The man made autism and Tourettes funky-cool, like there is a bigger, better universe that we have to tilt our neuro-typical heads to see.

  8. I think I’ve been blessed with Asperger’s. Though I am not social, I may not be able to hold down a job; there are things I can do, and things I can share with the world.

    So why hesitate to do so?

    I feel that those who made it on this list pushed harder than they ever had before, stuck to great routines, and learned along the way, who to love who they are, and make peace with it.

    We need more people like them Autistic or not, out here in the world today.

  9. It’s great to see you featuring some of the best known individuals on the autism spectrum. We all need to learn from those individuals who have made their own unique way in a world geared toward neurotypical minds. I believe, along with Dr. Temple Grandin, that we all benefit from a diversity of different thinking styles, such as those represented on the autism spectrum.

  10. I have long believed that people’s “disabilities” are actually assets. I work with two children on the spectrum who are not high functioning and who need more assistance than the average child. They simply don’t communicate or learn in the same way as we are accustomed to seeing. I am often blown away at how smart these kids are! In some areas they could run circles around my own very smart, “normal” teens.

  11. Jose Hernandez on

    As a person with autism, I grew up not being much of a social butterfly and even had problems in school and abroad. Yet the disability (and assholes who messed with me) didn’t stop me from some success.

  12. Jose Hernandez on

    Oh and by the way, I heard Mozart, Einstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Jefferson and others had Asperger’s and other autistic disorders.

  13. I can’t help but notice that there is a strong connection between authors and autism. 6 out of the ten people mentioned above are authors.

  14. Why can’t we just celebrate them and be happy!! Why does everything have to turn into negatively!? It gives me hope that some day my son can overcome this and move on to have a normal life. Just be happy for them and celebrate their success, don’t take away their hard work.

  15. Truly inspiring! My son is 3 1/2 and he was just diagnosed with Autism. It can get really difficult to teach him how to socialize, but with my son entering Special Ed next week, I couldn’t be anymore excited! He is very smart – music and reading are his faves. Just like what most of you said here, let’s just be happy and not attach all the negative things about Autism. I became a Mommy because he was born – what else can I ask for?

  16. Most of the people shown here have Asperger’s NOT autism. Though Aspies do share some features and behaviors of autistics (for instance both are prone to self injury behavior) it’s important to remember the older generation that was labeled autistic turned out to be Aspergers, there is a fundamental difference. Tim Page is not autistic. He’s looking at you straight in the eye, as does Tom McKean. As for Donna WIlliams, maybe you didn’t see her video, where she’s admitted that she was diagnosed with Multiple Personality Disorder. She’s not autistic. Never was. Nobody nowhere turns out to be nobody with autism. Unbelievable how duped the public is by people who claim to be autistic, but are really have psychiatric disorders.

  17. I absolutely hate that there is an Autism Speaks ad by all the famous autistic people. Especially since Autism Speaks seeks to prevent, cure and search for cause, rather than empower autistic people to be accepted, loved, supported, and vocal. Other than that, this is great. Hopefully it encourages a more safe and welcoming culture so more adults will come out of the closet.

    PS: autism was first mentioned in books in the 17th century. A bit of challenging research goes a long way.

  18. And to the person whining that these are all “Aspies” we don’t need more division in the autistic community. Many of these people are autistic. Many were nonverbal for a long time before speaking, many had serious challenges to work through and overcome. Now, they appear what the average NT considers “Aspie” but they are autistic.

  19. Eh, JOHN, autistic people can and do make eye contact. It is not easy for some, but it does happen. Your whining sucks. Also, I am not sharing this because I despise the giant Autism Speaks ad. I suspect other advocates are refusing to share because of that too. No one in the actual autistic community wants to help promote hate, ignorance, fear and bigotry. Much less genocide. Which AS does promote with their “preventive” speak.

  20. Holly and TopTenz: Do you want to use language that autistic people prefer or that non autistic people prefer? Autisitc advocates generally prefer “autistic” rather than the god awful “person first” language. Maybe you should listen to autistics rather than what your latest training workshop told you sounds nicer. A good place to start would be to research Jim Sinclair and read his 1993 essay “Don’t Mourn for Us”

    • As an a person with a disability, an autism community advocate, someone who works in the autism community, and whose life has been affected by family with autism; the phrase “autistic” is truly a personal preference. Some individuals prefer to be called “autistic.” As a general note, it is best to use that “god awful” person first language if you don’t know how someone identifies.

      If you have met one person with autism, that’s exactly it: you’ve met ONE person with autism. Because this is a spectrum disorder, it is important to not that no two individuals display exact symptomology.

      It is important to promote treatment and cures for this community as well as empower all those who identify with having autism.

      I am glad this article sheds light on the amazing contributions these individuals have made as well as addressing stereotype about autism.

  21. My name is taryn i have pervasive developmental autism i have been stugleing with mine my whole life and im still stugleing im onley 18.I would love to change the world like these people and help others with there autism i love to write its my thing i want to write a book and enspire others to know nomatter what proublmes you have there is hope.I always feel like a social wildflower i dont do well in big groups and in loud places.And when im upset i have trouble express myself and i blow up.But im a very sweet girl and i touch everyone i meet.I want others to know that just cause your different does not meen you cant make a defference it just takes time.I loved these storys and one day i hope to tell my story as well and teach others my point of view i have autism and alot of other stuff on top of it.Thanks Taryn Mckay

  22. These are just a handful of famous people with autism.

    I love that this article features them but I think the choice of labeling these individuals as “autistics” is a poor choice. Promoting person first language is of great importance in the Autism community and I would have liked to have seen more awareness regarding this topic.

  23. Dorothy Wunderlin on

    If these famous people who got atusim like I do I can do anything I put heart too as well without giving up hope and faith

  24. Michele Newman on

    I was always bullied & a silent outcast trying to follow the rules and serve others because I felt insufficient (in other’s eyes), but always knew there was something wonderfully different & special about me. God chose to wait until I’d lost everythng, including my hope & faith in humanity, to expose me for who & what I really am at age 51 — an autistic savant. I have not been successful (yet) by any means, but have been blessed with experiences, talents & the ability to see the world in such special ways that few others on the spectrum (or even Neuro-typicals) could only dream about. Enough about me, though. In the last 8 year’s as I’ve begun my new life’s journey and familiarization with autism, I feel one person who should clearly hold the #1 position did live before, and died only as Asperger’s Syndrome was being defined. To me, the greatest person who ever lived who was clearly on the spectrum was Mahatma Gandhi.

  25. As a father of a 16 year old son of high functioning autism, what bothers me is what is our government doing? 16 years ago, it was predicted 1 of 150 babies would be diagnosed with autism. What is it today, 1 or 50? There will be more individuals with than without. Severe or high functioning, what is their future? My son sadly knows he’s not like everyone else. He’s worried he will not be able to provide for himself. That is sad for a father or any parent to hear. As like many parents, we too fell into the other sad statistic of divorce. Then the siblings, they are worried too. I’ve tried hard to find what is my son’ potential or gift or maybe he’s a savant of something. I have no resources to seek that. We need to find and provide that answer for that unknown.

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