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Oct 12

Was Steve Jobs Autistic?

This has gotten a lot of play since Steve Jobs died. You can also hear the text read in Steve’s own voice in this very moving tribute ceremony. His reading happens about 12 minutes into the video.

I’ve not seen anyone say they think Jobs was autistic, so I’ll say it. He did “think different” and he was often described as “mercurial” and he was creative. He was clearly a genius. Now, that doesn’t add up to a diagnosis, but it sure fits the profile! I’d love to hear what others think!

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

On The Financial Page of The New Yorker, October 17, 2011,  added fuel for my fire!  He points out, among other things:

  • As seemingly everyone on the planet knows, Steve Jobs’s defining quality was perfectionism.
  • …  Jobs’s obsession with detail.
  • … he got personally involved with things like how many screws there were in a laptop case.
Obsession with detail and perfectionism are also defining traits of autism.Then, Surowiecki notes, as Jobs matured, “… his obsession with control had been tempered: he was better, you might say, at playing with others …” That last phrase (in the negative) is one that is often used to describe autistic people. As is the attribute of being “controlling.” And, to be sure, there is an element of truth in both of these accusations, but the explanation for them is, I think, not often given correctly. We autistics, in my view, try to make our world orderly so that it is more predictable and comfortable for us. We do this not for the sake of control per se, but to calm our always jangled nerves. We “don’t play well with others” not because we don’t want to, but because we don’t comprehend the world that the other 97% of the people (who are not autistic) live in. So, try as we might, we just don’t seem to be able to do what is expected of us. And, the rest of the world doesn’t seem to be too good (yet) at modifying their expectations to take our autism into account.
———-
Update on 30 October:
Judith Ursitti drew my attention (via Facebook) to this wonderful tribute by his sister. Perfectionism and humility shine through.
———-
Update, 3 November:
I saw another NYT article that adds fuel to my fire, without doing so explicitly. The author compares Jobs to Eintein, Gates, and Franklin, and mentions Jefferson in passing. All of these other people are candidates, in the minds of many, as potential examples of autistic people. There is also a very telling quote, “Both Einstein and Mr. Jobs were very visual thinkers.” This made me think of Temple Grandin’s book, Thinking In Pictures, and reminds me also of descriptions of our way of thinking by both John Elder Robison and me; in his case, in electronics, in my case, finance.
———-
Additional comments, November 4:
I have shared the link to this post on Facebook, and there had the following exchange:

No, I don’t get autism…I get bipolar…but you are entitled to your opinion…
Have you read Kay Redfield Jamieson’s Touched with Fire?


Thank you — I got a brief summary and background online.

I will add that to my (rather lengthy) reading list. Since I was diagnosed (about 5 years ago), I have developed a huge appetite for learning about not just autism, but about neurology in general. The more I study this field, the more I become convinced that autism, bi-polar, schizophrenia, ADHD, and other conditions are pretty much the same thing.

This belief was strengthened last week when I attended the annual Research Symposium of the Autism Consortium in Boston. One of the papers presented suggested that all of these conditions (and some others) are genetically indistinguishable. It’s possible that these labels, and differing diagnoses, are simply wrong — an artifice — or, it’s possible that they all spring from the same neurology but develop into different conditions for whatever reason during each person’s development.

As Pierre-Simon Laplace said, “Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose, ce que nous ignorons est immense.” (That which we know is tiny, that of which we are ignorant is vast.)

———-

And, in a wonderfully written blog post by Steve Silberman, entitled “What Kind of Buddhist was Steve Jobs, Really?” I found much to reflect on. He describes Jobs’s spiritual journey, and much of what I read sounds very familiar. Obviously, you don’t need to be autistic to “rewire your motherboard” but if you are autistic, that is especially important (and easy to do, if you put your mind to it).

Here are a couple of relevant quotes from this rather long and worthwhile post:

“To indulge in a little Buddhist jargon, the best Apple products seem like they suddenly appeared in emptiness (Śūnyatā), unencumbered by previous notions of what a “computer” or “phone” or “MP3 player” or “tablet device” should be. They were cosmically clean; avatars of the new.”

“Indeed, Jobs’ commitment to mindfully-crafted excellence extended even to aspects of his products that were invisible.  In Jony Ive’s smart and pointed eulogy for his best friend last week, the design chief reminisced about spending “months and months” with Jobs perfecting parts of Apple’s machines that most users would never see (“…with their eyes,” Ive then tellingly added.) “Steve believed that there was a gravity, almost a civic responsibility, to care way beyond any sense of functional imperative.” “

The first quote relates to the autistic tendency to do what neurotypicals call “think outside the box” (autistics tend not to be able to see any box, or boundaries), or to create things without regard to how things “have always been done” but instead to see a problem and to imagine a solution that does not rely on what has gone before.

The downside (perhaps) to this creativity is the compulsion to seek perfection, as alluded to in the second quotation. In this regard “autistic” and “artistic” become one. Years ago, when I toured Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the tour guide explained that there were works of art that we would never see because they were put in place even though the artists knew they would be hidden from view by later structural work. The reason given was that the artists believed that “God would see them.” At the time, I was amazed at the strength of religious faith that would inspire such devotion. Now, I am more inclined to believe that the artists were simply autistic!

23 comments

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  1. Hilda

    I think he was autistic (asperger).

  2. William

    Steve Jobs was clearly on the autism spectrum. It could not be clearer: his difficult social interactions, his quirky obsessiveness, his stubborness, his single-minded focus, his different way of seeing virtually everything. His genius.

    1. Tony Rocco

      People who knew Jobs on a personal level rather than a business one would not agree that interactions with him were “difficult.” People who knew him personally found him a loyal friend and gracious human being in most instances. The fact that he was obsessive and strong-willed should not be used by armchair diagnosticians to label him autistic. That is a facile judgment, particularly when based on nothing more than Internet hear-say and media hype.

      Tony

      1. Lalla

        By your definition, then, Autistic individuals are incapable do not have the capacity to be loyal friend or gracious.

        So, in short fuck you.

        ASD individuals are perfectly able to maintain relationships and tend to be the most loyal and the most gracious to those they become close to. However, getting close to someone is always difficult because cues are not picked up and they do not see the world the way those around them see it and so finding common ground makes social interaction even more troublesome. They’re opinionated, often lacking a verbal filter and extremely particular about how something is done.

        Personally, I see many Asperger’s traits but he could also have some issues stemming from a feeling of abandonment from being given up despite having been adopted by good people.

  3. Kathy

    You are not wrong!

  4. Mike

    If “don’t play well with others” is a defining trait of autism, then everyone in prison and jail, and quite a few on the outside, are autistic.

    You have defined autism as mannerisms. If a person can be said to have shown 6 autistic mannerisms over the time period of their life, that person can be said to be AUTISTIC. Dr.Phil would be pleased with such insight.

  5. Cabby

    Steve Jobs wasn’t autistic, I don’t see it. He seems a bit mental though.

    1. Edgar

      no he was loooool i know that although i hate steve jobs and apple most apple

  6. karla vazz

    Wrong. They are not the same thing. They appear similar, they are not. Bipolar people get extreme ups and downs. Autistic people get really distress if you do some things. Their rituals. Asperger’s get less distress. They may become OCD to control it. No Asperger’s are not full blown Autistics. It’s a milder form. Yes he was. I hear Schizophrenics are bipolar. 50% use drugs. Aspeger’s and Atuistics don’t. How would you do routine the next day. It’s not like sure, I’ll get up at who knows and do something. It’s all a routine. Schizophrenics unless they are having an episode are sociable. Like Charles Mason. They say Hitler was, both had extreame ideas to get rid of race to cleanse theirs. No one follow Aspeger’s. Steve Jobs was fired from the company he founded. Obviously he had no people’s skills. He offered his services for less, they wanted him out. Asperger’s are not followed for their social skills, rather for their important contributions to science, art, inventions, etc. ADHD yes there is a mild form of it, maybe because the extreme anxiety Autistics can suffer. YES HE WAS.

  7. Lynette Baker

    I’ve just listened to the audio version of the Steve Jobs story and throughout it i was thinking *this is just like Matthew*. Matthew is my elder son and he’s on the autistic spectrum (high functioning) he’s not exactly anti-social but, put it this way, he doesn’t suffer fooles gladly and he thinks everyone is a fool. :) he’s brilliant, inventive, often secretive and can be incredibly generous – and I love him like there’s no tomorrow ;)

  8. James

    I am fed up with hearing about everyone jumping on the autism bandwagon. All you self diagnosed autistics out there should be forced to meet someone like my son who is 12 yo but intellectually is a 3yo. Stop medicalising quirkiness. Quirkiness is not a frickin illness it is a virtue. So what if you have trouble in social situations at least you have the ability to change your behaviours if you desire or find a lifestyle and career choices that reflect your quirkiness

    1. David

      My son is on the spectrum, and he is personable, loyal and a good friend to his circle of friends. When I saw the movie, “Jobs”, I told my wife that the directors obviously saw Jobs as on the spectrum without saying so. Much of what was displayed on-screen was classic Asperger’s behavior, but very high functioning. If he was as portrayed in the movie, there is no doubt that he was undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.

      James, you seem a little naive. The ability to change, as you wrote, is like running a marathon without training. For those who found the diagnosis later in life, they finally found a reason they could research and begin to understand their awkward social behaviors that consistently kept them from moving forward after “first” interviews where social skills are paramount. Those with Asperger’s are truly gifts for mankind, for without them we would not have many systems, products, or thought tanks around the world that make our lives better. Think Temple Grandin, Bill Gates, John Elder Robison, Carl Soderholm.

      I work with highly intelligent specialty neurologists where many of them display quirkiness and a different outlook…but most ARE NOT on the spectrum. But, it is obvious to me, who has been around A/S people for over 30 years, who fits on the spectrum. I know several high functioning people, that to the untrained eye, are quirky individuals who later was diagnosed and became much happier for it. We all are looking for answers about ourselves, aren’t we?

      1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

        Thank you for your comment, David. I unfortunately missed the movie, and will have to get my hands on it one of these days. From your description and others I’ve heard, it does indeed play into my notion.

        I’m curious what you mean by “high functioning” — this label seems to have no scientific meaning, but appears to be linked to intelligence by people who use it. The problem with that is that there are many kinds of intelligence. Autistic people sometimes have very high IQ but very low social intelligence. There are other kinds of functional intelligence. Executive functions, for example, may be compromised. My own view is, given the confusion and uncertainty about what this means, the term should not be used.

        My interest, of course, is motivated by your last question. I offer Jobs and others as examples of autistic people, not because I think that all autistics are brilliant but to try to describe autism in a way that is not all about deficiencies.

  9. JoanieH

    I wonder about Howard Hughes having been autism spectrum also.

    1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

      Joanie, I don’t know enough about Hughes to have an opinion, although he clearly was an exceptional person. Quirky and obsessive to say the least!

  10. JA

    I don’t think Steve Jobs was autistic, I think he was filled with a grand vision that he was completely laser type convinced that he was meant to fulfill. Some sort of destiny vision that often fills those who have achieved greatness. That was what they were meant to do type of thing, so nothing would detour them from that. They simply don’t second guess themselves.
    On the other hand what would be the contribution to find out that Steve was autistic, to confirm that autistic children can do great things? They can!

    1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

      Thanks for your comment, JA. Please see my later post for additional thoughts. I started some ruminations on the recent biography of Jobs, but have not finished recording my reactions. I hope to do that one of these days!

      http://www.mfw.us/blog/2012/03/17/autism-is-a-silver-car-the-story-of-steve-jobs/

      You ask “what would be the contribution to find out that Steve was autistic”? I don’t think I am trying to make a point here, just trying to understand myself better. Along the way, if it helps others gain some insight into what it is like to be autistic, that’s a bonus.

      As to whether “autistic children can do great things” — I guess it depends on what you mean by “great” — Mozart comes to mind, but how many child prodigies are there, and how many of those are autistic? I suspect it’s pretty rare. But perhaps you meant something a little less grandiose. In the case of Jobs, I’m not aware that he accomplished any great feats as a child.

  11. Deb

    No… not aspergers; however the autism spectrum is VERY wide… from studying him, I believe he did for sure have Low Latent Inhibition, but he could read people (which autistics can’t- very well) which made him good at business, knowing what people would find appealing… most if not all of those truly on the autism spectrum are very narrow thinkers, have trouble seeing what others like, don’t like… he was very well adept as a businessman, but was intense, which is an LLI trait, his focus to detail, getting angry with others is a result of being intensely absorbed in the details. The only thin that I could see as uniquely tied to HFA (as aspergers doesn’t exist anymore)- is his lack of emotion at times, callousness, but most of that seemed intentional non the less, whereas autistics wouldn’t feel the need to create a lie about fathering a child- they don’t posses such a filter, they just say it and are more honest…

    1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

      Deb, I take it you are a psychiatrist, or at least subscribe to psychiatry’s psychobabble. A lot of what you say in your comment is insulting to me, and does not describe me or many other autistic people I know. I can read people fine, thank you very much. I am not a narrow thinker, although I can focus on the details in order to come up with the big picture. I can lie to cover my ass. Not that I’m proud of that, but the idea that autistic people don’t lie is a complete myth.

      As for designing products, a lot of what Jobs did was to satisfy his own obsessions and perfectionism. All of that happened to lead to the creation of high-quality software and hardware that appealed to a lot of people. But I think it came from within, not from some “knowing what people would find appealing.” Just my take.

      You say “he … was intense, … his focus to detail, getting angry with others is a result of being intensely absorbed in the details.” What about this does not describe autism?

      I don’t know if Jobs was autistic or not, but I am a big believer in Occam’s Razor and I think positing that he was autistic is the simplest way to account for a lot of his successes and failures.

  12. Debra

    Having just seen Jobs the movies and am now reading the book, yes I think Jobs had Asperger’s. My son has Asperger’s and is this amazing brilliant creative thinker. What I see in Jobs is not an angry adopted person, but a person who had undiagnosed Asperger’s. I used to work with someone similar. Again brilliant but had frequent outbursts. I was young and didn’t understand him or the situation properly. Now that I have a son with Asperger’s I see the symptoms clearly.

  13. Sebastián

    Hi,

    I have high functioning autism , you can not see autism but you can
    Notice symptoms if you know them. In my opinion he has a lot of symtoms
    Like Many computer programmers. Getting lost in to detail is on of the
    Most importand syntoms of autism.

    If you translate this page you read more About it : http://www.intermediair.nl/vakgebieden/techniek/autisten-zeer-gewild-bij-technische-bedrijven.

    But THE differece with others is his determination, it has nothing to do with autism, you have it or you don’t

    1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

      Interesting use of language. I don’t think of autism as something that I “have” but as a way of being in the world. I am autistic.

      I also find the term HFA to be pretty useless. http://www.mfw.us/blog/2014/03/10/why-autism-functioning-labels-are-misleading/

  14. Joseph B

    I think a lot of these terms like autistic and aspergers are just that merely terms used to try and label people. Everyone is a bit different and Jobs was truly different in his own way with good and bad qualities. That is part of being a human being.

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