Henry David Thoreau and Two Other Autistic Lives

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. This book 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.

An excerpt from the section on Algernon Charles Swinburne:


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Algernon (or “Hadji,” as his family called him) was unusually lucky throughout his long life.  He was born into minor nobility.  His father rose to the rank of admiral in the British navy.  The extended family had sufficient wealth to live together in adjoining seaside estates during his childhood.  He and his sisters and numerous cousins were showered with love and roamed with all the freedom that a safe place and safer time provided.   These are among the factors that made his idyllic childhood possible.
One of the many expressions that love took, in his case, was a ready patience with his personal idiosyncrasies.  That Hadji became obsessed with the spinning toys so popular before the advent of electronic games surely was dismissed as a harmless passing phase at first.  It was, however, definitely noticeable and became a commonplace of the family history, along with another related habit.  Years later, his sister would recall;
The habit of drawing down and shaking his arms and hands when animated began in very early days — one who could remember it said it originated in his watching a spinning toy when quite an infant.  Certainly it clung to him for life in a greater or less degree.
At a very early age, he had begun habitually flapping his hands whenever he became the least bit excited or agitated.



An Excerpt from the section on Henry David Thoreau:


Ralph Waldo Emerson’s growing fame and unusual openness served Thoreau as much as it does we who search for the man behind Walden and the seminal essay “Civil Disobedience”.   While a student, at Harvard, in 1837, Henry read Emerson’s book Nature.  He was so struck by it that he presented a copy as a gift to one of his few friends there.  According to Joseph Wood Krutch, who had read Henry’s college compositions, the tone of his own prose immediately began to resemble that of the book.
We are fortunate to have a firsthand account of Henry, as he appeared to an observant classmate, John Weiss, during their time together at Harvard:
He was cold and unimpressible. The touch of his hand was moist and indifferent;… He did not care for people; his classmates seemed very remote…. [H]is eyes were sometimes searching as if he had dropped, or expected to find, something. In fact his eyes seldom left the ground, even in his most earnest conversations with you.
Thoreau himself mentions offhand, later in life, that he rarely made eye-contact with others.








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