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
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 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
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
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.¹
6. Donna Williams, bestselling author and autistic
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
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
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
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 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
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.
If you found this interesting, you may enjoy this list: Top 10 Amazing Savants