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Do it Your Own Way, Einstein

- how some people on the Autistic spectrum process life.

How does anyone make sense of the world around them? The clue is in the word 'sense'. Our senses provide the link between the phenomena of our environment and our perception of reality. Understanding that there is a great variety of response to a given stimulus may help us understand and be more tolerant of people who process life in a way that is different from our own.

The following extract is from Thinking in Pictures, by Temple Grandin.

Einstein's dress and hair were typical of an adult with autistic tendencies, most of whom have little regard for social niceties and rank. When he worked at the Swiss patent office, he sometimes wore green slippers with flowers on them. He refused to wear suits and ties in the days when professors dressed for teaching. I wouldn't be surprised if his dislike for dress clothes was sensory. The clothes he preferred were all soft, comfortable clothes such as sweatshirts and leather jackets. Nor did Einstein's hair meet the norm for men's hair fashions. ... He just did not care.

Vincent van Gogh's artwork reveals great emotion and brilliance, but as a child and a young man he had some autistic traits. ... Biographers describe him as an aloof, odd child. He threw many tantrums and liked to go in the fields alone. He did not discover his artistic talents until he was twenty-seven years old. Prior to establishing a career in art, he had many of the characteristics of an adult with Asperger's syndrome. He was ill groomed and blunt. In his book Great Abnormals, Vernon W. Grant describes his voice and mannerisms, which also resemble those of an adult with autistic tendencies: 'He talked with tension and a nervous rasp in his voice. He talked with complete self-absorption and little thought for the comfort or interest in his listeners.' .... According to Grant, van Gogh was forever a child and had a very limited ability to respond to the needs and feelings of others. He could love mankind in the abstract, but when forced to deal with a real person, he was 'too self-enclosed to be tolerant'.

Van Gogh's art became bright and brilliant after he was admitted to an asylum. The onset of epilepsy may explain his switch from dull to extremely bright colours. Seizures changed his perception. The swirls in the sky in his painting Starry Night are similar to the sensory distortions that some people with autism have. Autistics with severe sensory processing problems see the edges of objects vibrate and get jumbled sensory input. These are not hallucinations but perceptual distortions.

Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft and the inventor of Windows, is another person who has some autistic traits. ... Gates rocks during business meetings and on airplanes; autistic children and adults rock when they are nervous. Other autistic traits he exhibits are lack of eye contact and poor social skills. John Seabrook wrote, 'Social niceties are not what Bill Gates is about. Good spelling is not what Bill Gates is about.' As a child, Gates had remarkable savant skills. He could recite long passages from the Bible without making a single mistake. His voice lacks tone, and he looks young and boyish for his age. Clothes and hygiene are low on his list of important things.

Mild autistic traits can provide the singlemindedness that gets things done. Hans Asperger stresses the value of people with Asperger's syndrome, recognizing that they often achieve success in highly specialized academic professions. Individuals with Asperger's syndrome who are not retarded or afflicted with extreme rigidity of thinking can excel. Asperger concludes that narrowmindedness can be very valuable and can lead to outstanding achievement.