The formal diagnosis of Autism was not established until about 1940. The idea of a spectrum of autistic experiences came still later. But surely High Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome existed before their diagnoses were formulated.
Henry David Thoreau and Two Other Autistic Lives offers three names from history that can verifiably be shown to have exhibited unmistakable, detailed, high functioning autistic personal behaviors. Henry David Thoreau, the highly eccentric poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, and the renowned chemist Henry Cavendish: their stories, and the adjustments that they and their family and friends made in order to empower them to be highly successful, are fascinating and victorious. Their biographies are also interesting and entertaining in their own right.
Each of these men had distinctly different personalities, however. Their autistic traits were only part of their personalities, however much they were a very big part. Thoreau and Cavendish were taciturn. Swinburne was voluble (often comically so) when among trusted company. But then Swinburne trusted much too easily. It is unclear whether Cavendish ever fully trusted anyone but his father and an impoverished gentleman-retainer named Charles Blagden. Thoreau fell between the two on matters of trust and social interaction.
Swinburne and Cavendish lived in or near London, with its powerful social expectations, and dense population, for which reason their autistic traits contrasted enormously with the social world among which they traveled. Henry David Thoreau lived in small town America with its much smaller and less cultivated populations. His taciturnity did not contrast so starkly with the natural reticence of most of the farmers that formed the majority of his neighbors. His marked preference for solitude was not so jarring to those who lived out of sight of their next door neighbors' houses and were forced into solitude by their occupations.
The most immediately obvious thing these three men have in common has nothing in particular to do with their autism. Each was among the highest achievers in their chosen fields. It is due to this trait that they leave behind enough information (in letters, diaries, biographies, etc.) to assemble the small details of their behaviors into a more or less coherent portrait. It is almost impossible to assemble the requisite amount of information on women before comparatively recent times. And, of course, most autistic persons, regardless of gender, are sure to have struggled through humble, difficult, obscure lives.
What the three have in common by virtue of their autistic traits is more to the point. Their relationships with women were problematical. None of them experienced romantic relationships during their lives (much less did they marry). The early struggles of each in this way clearly caused them to abandon the idea of such relationships altogether. The details provide considerable insight into the special difficulties experienced by high functioning autistic persons in this and in many other regards.
Delightful and insightful details relating to these and many other aspects of their lives make Henry David Thoreau and Two Other Autistic Lives a fascinating read.
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