These five incredible achievers are all on the autism spectrum. Learn their stories and see them in action.
Chances are, someone in your life is on the autism spectrum. If you’re a teacher, maybe it’s a little boy in your classroom who knows every imaginable fact about the Tyrannosaurus Rex. If you’re a student, maybe it’s the eccentric Japanese literature professor who wears his house key around his neck. Or if you’re a parent, maybe it’s your daughter, who didn’t speak a word until she was four.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 110 children in the United States is somewhere on the autism spectrum, so if someone you care about is affected by the diagnosis, you’re not alone. And even though the concept of autism can make many people anxious, in many cases, the diagnosis isn’t a handicap at all—it’s simply a different way of viewing the world.
In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we’re sharing stories and videos about five people on the autism spectrum who’ve achieved remarkable things. We hope they inspire you, too.
As a little girl, Temple Grandin communicated only through screaming and humming. Her parents were told that she would never come out of her shell, and were advised to put her in an institution. But instead, her family decided to hire a speech therapist who spent hours a day working on verbal games with Grandin, and eventually, she began to speak, and was able to attend school. She found that the intense focus that is characteristic of autism helped her academically, and since receiving a doctoral degree in animal science, she’s become one of the leading researchers in animal behavior in the livestock industry. In recent years, she’s also become an advocate for autism, and has shared her unique perspective with dozens of media outlets. She’s also written several of her own books, and this year, HBO created a movie based on her life. Learn more about this fascinating woman at her website, or take a look at this clip from a BBC documentary about Grandin, The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow.
Daniel Tammet, a man from Great Britain who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, was the subject of a BBC documentary called The Boy with the Incredible Brain, and he certainly fits the bill: Tammet has recited pi from memory up to 22, 514 digits; and, on a dare, he learned the Icelandic language in a single week. Tammet also experiences synesthesia, in which he associates every number with its own color, shape, and feel. He shares his unique perspective of the world in his bestselling memoir, Born On a Blue Day. Check out the documentary on Tammet below.
Another British man, Stephen Wiltshire, was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. He didn’t speak, and seemed to exist in a world of his own. When he started attending school, though, his teachers soon discovered that Wiltshire was able to communicate by another means: drawing pictures of his surroundings and photos he saw. He was able to create exact replicas of everything he saw, and was so obsessed with drawing that when his teachers took away his art supplies, he learned to say “paper” to get them back. By the age of nine, he was fully capable of speech, and since then, he’s become world-renowned for his incredible ability to replicate his surroundings on paper. Check out this astonishing clip of Wiltshire drawing the skyline of Rome after viewing it through a helicopter window, and see more artwork at his site.
Matt Savage, a 17-year-old musician from Massachusetts, disliked loud noises as a child, and was unable to relate to others. He was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism. To help him stay calm, Savage’s parents started him in a music therapy program to get him used to different noises, and he soon took an interest in the piano. When Savage began playing at the age of six, his mother claims that he finished an entire year’s worth of beginner’s piano books in a half hour before moving on to more advanced material. Since then, he’s recorded numerous albums, toured the world, and performed with dozens of jazz legends like Chaka Khan and Dave Brubeck. Check out this clip of Savage performing at the Million Dollar Round Table.
Dr. Vernon Smith
Dr. Vernon Smith, an economics professor at Chapman University, won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for his invention of the field of experimental economics. He has Asperger’s syndrome, and he credits the supposed disability for his success in the field: “I don’t feel any social pressure to do things the way other people are doing them, professionally,” he told MSNBC. “And so I have been more open to different ways of looking at a lot of the problems in economics.” Check out a news interview of Dr Smith discussing his Asperger’s syndrome and how it affects him.
We’re well aware that autism can be a difficult diagnosis, and that many autistic people aren’t equipped with savant-like abilities. But even though they not always fit into traditional roles, all people with autism can make valuable contributions to society.
As Dr. Smith says, “we don’t all have to think alike to be communal and to live in a productive and satisfying world.”