Albert Einstein is a theoretical physicist famous for his relativity theory and shifting human understanding of science to quantum mechanics. He lived a profound existence and is one of the few internationally recognizable scientists, despite the fact that he’s been dead for decades. He was also very likely autistic.
It seems odd how autistic people are described by neurotypicals. Autistic individuals are often exceptional thinkers and wonderful humans. They also have flaws, as every human has. Biographer Walter Isaacson, after explaining his echolalia, “tantrums” and “inability to form a true bond” with his father, noted, “still, he was able to display empathy.”
For much of Einstein’s life, he worked even as World Wars threatened his life, as his first marriage crumbled, as his second son struggled with health issues his entire life and all the other issues that are typical of the human experience.
If an autistic person is on the level of Einstein’s achievements, neurotypicals often seem doubtful that he could be neurodivergent because he is so successful.
But even in his day he was deeply misunderstood by those who looked at him from a distance, and even a few close to him. It’s this misunderstanding that causes so much unnecessary harm. This post seeks to positively clarify how autism presents and uses Einstein as a prime example to celebrate the beauty and power of the autistic mind.
Einstein was so successful BECAUSE of his autistic mind.
Why do people Einstein was autistic? Here are 10 facts:
- From an early age it was noted that he displayed echolalia, which is when a word/sound/or phrase is repeated. Many people do this because it is soothing (like when someone is humming a song just for fun- that’s echolalia). It is especially common for autistic people.
2. Early on he also had many speech difficulties and would “practice” how he would say things with a mental script of sorts. Scripting is also common for autistic people.
3. It was noted in letters from family members that he had “the inability to form a true bond with his father”, which is something that people have long accused autistic people of: not being able to connect with others (which is wrong). It is probably more correct to say that autistic children often bond in ways different compared to a neurotypical child.
4. He had tantrums that caused multiple nannies to quit. These were probably not tantrums, but meltdowns caused by prolonged sensory/emotional overload. Later, as a grown person it was discovered that he had a slight allergy to wool. Several fans gifted him sweatshirts. He wore them often. He also didn’t like socks, which is also common for autistic people with heightened tactile sensory issues. He often appeared disheveled because he didn’t like to comb his hair (another sign of a sensory issue) and needed to wear comfortable clothing.
5. He was forgetful of items all through his life and depended on family and friends to help him get what he needed, especially when travelling. What’s interesting is that Einstein found people who did not chide him for this, but simply helped him when he needed it.
6. He loved sailing on water and could do so independently for hours. He never brought a life jacket or motor, even though he could not swim and lived before cell phone technology. A common autistic trait is finding deep peace looking at or being in/around water, even if it presents danger. Perhaps this is one reason why he is noted as saying, “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.”
7. His grandparents knew he was “quirky” but noted that he was just as beloved as any other child. Einstein’s family was especially devoted to him. There never appears to have been a time when his family members tried to change him despite his “quirkiness”, which I think is a rarely discussed monumental advantage of Einstein’s and why he was able to find supportive people all throughout his life. Many autistic people are taught the way they are is “wrong”.
8. He also had severe gastrointestinal issues as an adult, another common trait of autistic people. He struggled to cook on his own (which is not uncommon for neurodivergent people).
9. His second wife nursed him back to health when he lost significant amounts of weight due to stomach problems. Their love was unusual and unconventional compared to others, (they were cousins, too), but they offered each other what they could; their love was mutual and genuine.
10. He loved music and he played the violin for fun. It helped him express emotions and work through challenging issues. Part of his genius was discovering the order of the universe, and music no doubt is proof of that.
Music is universal in how it helps with these things, but neurodivergent people who struggle to verbalize often use music as a means of communication. He played with his sons as a way of connecting with them.
It was his ability to get lost in deep thought, in music, nature, and science, regardless of deeply worrying circumstances sometimes surrounding him, which led to breakthroughs the world had never previously known.
If these facts don’t sound like an autistic person, then I don’t know what does.
Einstein had incorruptible skepticism and independence from others. Despite dozens of teaching rejections he continued his pursuit of the theory of relativity. He was even denied the job of being a high school math tutor early on in his career. He also was given credit for helping create the atom bomb, even though he tried very much to avoid use of this type of weapon for moral and ethical reasons. He worked diligently to have scientists and policy makers talk before using such a weapon, but to no avail. Political leaders dismissed his quest for international cooperation and peace as “wooly headed and naive” and almost “childlike” in his requests. Some called him a communist.
The irony of being the man responsible for the bomb and also attacked an not intelligent enough to understand the politics of humans is not lost on me. His final years on earth were used to try to right the wrongs of such use of force. This type of impossibility had frustrating, but Einstein didn’t appear to waste time being mad about it. .
This is a similar situation that autistic people face on a regular basis. For example being accused of knowingly breaking some social customs because they’re “too smart” to not know, but then are infantilized and not considered smart enough to make personal choices for themselves.
He continued on despite what others would have likely used as evidence they were not worthy enough. This is another key indicator he was autistic: what social pressure would have broken an neurotypical’s resolve was almost inconsequential to him; it didn’t occur to him to be meaningfully bothered by someone else’s judgement!
In the early days of Einstein’s rise to the stardom, many anti-Semitic scientists accused him of being a disrupter with no respect for the work of Newton and other accepted “truths” in the scientific world. Einstein’s work towards the truth, despite the hatred hurled towards him is precisely what makes Einstein so magnificent. Also, autistic people seem to have a keen advantage in this realm of social dynamics.
Einstein had intense focus and unending interest in thought experiments. He was unaffected by social expectations and his entire life he refused to conform to authority’s expectations merely because they were the authority.
What usually can psychologically crush a neurotypical is a non-issue for an autistic person. Don’t get me wrong: autistic can people notice when others are rude and disrespectful, they just don’t let it affect who they are. It is not their concern. This is a gift to be cherished!
Perhaps Einstein was very aware of things he could possibly change, and things he could not. He was clear on his passions and tended to them. He loved his family, and also accepted there were issues in his family that he had no control over, like other people’s life decisions. Is this a weakness or a strength?
It is time we began to talk about autistic strengths on a global level. This neurotype is the kind that revolutionizes the world, if only we support autistic people at a young age. One way to do so is to learn from #actuallyautstic people. Google it. It’s a thing. Refuse any work that attempt to stifle or eradicate autism.
Einstein’s behaviors and unique processing are reasons why he was not only one of the world’s greatest scientists, but also why he was a formidable social justice advocate in a time where people like him were being hunted by Nazis.
Einstein understood his gifts and limitations. He said of himself, “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Foster passionate curiosity in your children, especially your autistic ones!
Follow this blog or @sensationalstims, or read my book The Case of Sensational Stims to get tips about autism support and empowerment.