Though autism is said to affect 1 in every 59 people in the United States, for those who have been diagnosed with autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, or another developmental disorder on the Autism Spectrum, the world can sometimes feel like a lonely place. While autism remains relatively misunderstood, one thing is for certain: those with autism are just as capable as anyone else of achieving incredible success. The proof? The people on this list: 20 incredibly successful people on the Autism Spectrum.
Though it has never been explicitly stated that three-time Oscar winner Woody Allen is on the Autism Spectrum, both Allen himself and various experts seem to agree that that’s likely the case. The writer, director, actor, and musician is well known for his quirky ways. As Allen has stated, “I am a neurotic in a more benign way. I mean, I have a lot of neurotic habits. I don’t like to go into elevators, I don’t go through tunnels, I like the drain in the shower to be in the corner and not in the middle.”
As a child, comedy legend Dan Aykroyd was expelled from two different schools before anyone realized that he had mild Asperger’s Syndrome. Since his diagnosis, Aykroyd has been vocal and honest about his experiences on the Autism Spectrum. According to the Oscar-nominated actor and writer, Asperger’s even helped Aykroyd develop his famous Ghostbusters character.
Marty Balin is best known as the founder of Jefferson Airplane, a psychedelic rock band that was popular in the 1960s. After struggling as a child, Balin was diagnosed with mild autism. Though he is mostly out of the spotlight now, Balin remains an advocate for those on the Autism Spectrum. He even recorded a song for a short film about children on the Autism Spectrum.
You may recognize Susan Boyle as the shy, but charming Scottish woman who wowed on Britain’s Got Talent. After all, she went on to sell 14 million albums! But perhaps you didn’t realize that Boyle has been officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome — a diagnosis that came as a “relief,” according to Boyle. Though Boyle is still learning about her Asperger’s and how being on the Autism Spectrum affects her life, she knows she is happiest when she is singing.
Is Tim Burton — the beloved director behind such films as Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, Edward Scissorhands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to name but a few — autistic? Though Burton has neither confirmed nor denied his place on the Autism Spectrum, his long-time partner, Helena Bonham Carter, seems to think autism makes perfect sense. According to Carter, she experienced an “a-ha moment” while researching an autistic character for a film. “Autistic people have application and dedication. You can say something to Tim when he’s working and he doesn’t hear you. But that quality also makes him a fantastic father, he has an amazing sense of humor and imagination. He sees things other people won’t see.”
In addition to being on the Autism Spectrum, Tony DeBlois is blind — the result of receiving too much oxygen after being born premature. DeBlois began playing the piano at age two, and it quickly became apparent that he was not an average toddler. He excels at music, and as an adult, plays 20 different musical instruments. He is also capable of performing more than 8,000 pieces by memory! Today, BeBlois travels the world performing in concerts and sharing his gifts with people of all nationalities.
Though it hasn’t been confirmed, autism experts seem to agree that there is a real possibility that Bill Gates is on the Autism Spectrum. They cite things like Gates’s habit of rocking while he concentrates, his short and monotone speech patterns, and the way in which he tends to avoid eye contact. Because these are all common characteristics of those on the Autism Spectrum, it seems very likely that the tech billionaire is in fact autistic.
Those who have taken the time to learn about autism are sure to know the name Temple Grandin. Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University and a prolific author, did not begin speaking until she was nearly four years old. When she was diagnosed with Autism as a child, it was recommended she be institutionalized. Fortunately, her parents thought otherwise. Since her diagnosis, Grandin has become a leading force in the animal sciences, has produced an award-winning biopic about her life, and was even named as one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.”
Daryl Hannah was a massive star during the the late 1980s, starring in such Hollywood films as Blade Runner, Wall Street, Splash, and Steel Magnolias, to name but a few. Still, according to Hannah, her successful career practically ended when she was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Said Hannah, “I never went on talk shows, never went to premieres. Going to the Academy Awards was so painful for me. I’d almost faint just walking down the red carpet. I was so socially awkward and uncomfortable that I eventually got blacklisted.”
Comedy fans will recognize Dan Harmon as the writer and creator of the hit show Community. While researching Asperger’s Syndrome for a character he was creating, Harmon realized that much of what he was learning described him to a T. As he told Wired Magazine, “I started looking up these symptoms, just to know what they are. And the more I looked them up, the more familiar they started to seem. Then I started taking these internet tests.”
Sir Anthony Hopkins
On a list of the greatest living actors, Sir Anthony Hopkins would almost certainly be included. The actor, who won an Oscar for portraying Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs, has been diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome (though Hopkins hasn’t said at what point in his life he received the diagnosis). When talking about the way being on the Autism Spectrum affects him, Hopkins says, “I don’t go to parties, I don’t have many friends, but I do like people.”
Heather Kuzmich was a contestant on Cycle 9 of America’s Next Top Model, and remains one of the biggest fan favorites of all time. At age 15, Kuzmich was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and spent much of her teenage years struggling to communicate and form friendships. Though she finished 5th on the show, Kuzmich has found great success since as a model and, currently, a student of video game design.
Whether as the wife of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain or the lead singer of the punk band Hole, Courtney Love has enjoyed a long career in the spotlight. In a popular biography about Love, it was revealed that the grunge singer has a mild form of autism. According to Love, she struggles with social skills, and would practice social cues and conversation by visiting gay clubs with close friends.
Hawaii native Clay Marzo was diagnosed with autism as a child. This apparently made little difference to either Clay or his parents. Said Clay’s mother, “I will not give my son a label: watch him, and you will see his raw intelligence.” Marzo’s natural ability soon became apparent. Shortly after winning the Hawaii State 200m Freestyle in swimming at age 10, Marzo decided to focus solely on his main passion: surfing. Marzo won so many surfing competitions as a teenager, the documentary Just Add Water was produced about him. At age 15, he received two Perfect 10s during a National Scholastic Surfing Association — an unprecedented accomplishment. Now an adult, Marzo continues his career as a successful competitive surfer.
John Elder Robison
When bestselling author John Elder Robison was a child few had ever heard of Asperger’s Syndrome. As a kid, Robison was often punished for “misbehaving” and “laziness.” It wasn’t until adulthood that a doctor suggested to him that he might have Asperger’s. “The knowledge,” said Robison, “changed my life forever. It took some time, and a lot of hard work, but the knowledge of how and why I am different transformed my life.” In 2007, Robison published his heartfelt memoir, Look My in the Eye, and the book instantly became a massive bestseller. Today, Robison continues to write about his experiences with Asperger’s Syndrome, while remaining a tireless advocate for those on the Autism Spectrum.
Jerry Seinfeld has stated on more than one occasion that he believes himself to be autistic. Though no medical professional has ever officially diagnosed him, Seinfeld has defended his theory by citing various childhood challenges and his tendency to think literally. While Seinfeld may consider himself to have Asperger’s Syndrome, others disagree. Indeed, the comedian’s revelation has been extremely controversial, with many feeling that his self-diagnosis has served to make light of an actual issue.
Dr. Vernon Smith
Dr. Vernon Smith, a professor of economics at Chapman University, practically invented the field of experimental economics — an achievement for which he won the Nobel Prize in 2002. Dr. Smith is incredibly open and honest about having Asperger’s Syndrome, but actually credits his autism for his professional success. As he told MSNBC, “I don’t feel any social pressure to do things the way other people are doing them, professionally. And so I have been more open to different ways of looking at a lot of the problems in economics.”
You may not know the name Satoshi Tajiri, but we’re willing to bet you would recognize Pokémon, Tajiri’s most famous creation. Satoshi Tajiri has stated that he is on the high-functioning end of the Autism Spectrum. He has confirmed on more than one occasion that he has Asperger’s Syndrome. But, as a general rule Tajiri chooses not to talk about his diagnosis in public. Rather, he prefers that his many accomplishments speak for themselves.
Alexis Wineman made history as the first Miss America contestant with autism. The former Miss Montana as diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, a less common disorder that can be found on the Autism Spectrum, as a child. Despite the social pressures that come with competing in pageantry, Wineman held her own, and was voted the America’s Choice Award.
Adam Young (Owl City)
Adam Young, the singer and songwriter behind Owl City, is a successful musician with Asperger’s Syndrome. According to Young, he struggles greatly with insomnia. In fact, insomnia happens to be the topic of “Fireflies,” one of his most famous songs. He is also an extreme introvert, and admits to having spent most of his high school years alone and without friends.