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Feb 18

Abraham Lincoln as a Candidate for the Autism Hall of Fame

Today is a federal holiday. Officially, it is Washington’s Birthday. As the federal Office of Personnel Management states:

This holiday is designated as “Washington’s Birthday” in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.

When I was a schoolboy, we had two holidays in February, Lincoln’s Birthday on the 12th, and Washington’s Birthday on the 22nd. February was such a dreary month it was nice to get a couple of days off to play in the snow during daylight hours. The two holidays were combined in 1968, and the name “Washington’s Birthday” was retained, although the popular name for the day became “President’s Day.”

From what I can gather, George Washington is hardly being mentioned today; the holiday seems to be all about Abraham Lincoln. Which is fine with me. Lincoln has always been one of my favorite historical characters. I guess by the time I found out the the story of him chopping down a cherry tree is a myth, I was old enough to be okay with that. Oh, wait! That was George Washington. Never mind.

Years ago, I read Gore Vidal’s historical novel, Lincoln, and was fascinated by it. More recently, I read (or, more accurately, listened to the audio version of) Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and a few weeks ago I saw the Spielberg movie Lincoln, based on part of the book.

In the years between Vidal’s Lincoln and Spielberg’s Lincoln, I learned that I am autistic. As I have learned more about what that means, and what sets me apart, I have watched, listened to, befriended, and corresponded with many autistic people. I am familiar with the diagnostic criteria, of course, but to me, those do not capture the essence of what it is like to be autistic. I have developed my own set of markers, based on what I have observed among all the autistic people I have met, witnessed, or read about. Generalizations are always dangerous, and intuition is sometimes a poor substitute for a rigorous evaluation. Still, when I see someone (even historical figures like Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln — who were, incidentally, born on the same day in 1809) whose manner, habits, skills, and interests form parallels with my own and with autistic people I know, I can’t help but wonder. As I study them, perhaps I am looking for the evidence I want to see, but it is wonderful fun to speculate about this anyway.

In Lincoln’s case, my suspicions were only reinforced by the Spielberg movie, but of course it’s hard to know how much was based on historical reality and how much was simply speculation. Today, thanks to the miracle of Twitter, I encountered an excerpt from a long-ago account by a writer who had known Lincoln fairly well. The observations are first-hand and contemporary, and they validate many of Lincoln’s essential qualities that have lived on in myth and history books.

In addition, I heard a radio program in which Lincoln’s second inaugural address was read and analyzed. There were many snippets of the conversation that reinforced my prior belief that Lincoln was autistic. The most striking one, to me, was the mention of Lincoln as being “melancholic” or depressive. Harold Holzer, the scholar who was discussing Lincoln, held out that Lincoln could not have possibly been severely depressed or he could not have accomplished all that he did. He said that he had written as much in the Washington Post in a short piece he was asked to pen on what were the five most untrue myths about Lincoln. Holzer said the response amazed him. He received many long, thoughtful letters from people who said they suffered from severe depression but managed to have a career, raise a family, and otherwise carry on a seemingly normal life. This is a common story that many autistic people, including me, can tell. All of that, of course, doesn’t prove that Lincoln was autistic, but it is consistent with being autistic. Almost every autistic person I know (if we have discussed this topic) has suffered at least one major period of depression.

If that’s all there were, I would not have bothered to write this post, but there is much, much more. In the article I mentioned, from the archives of The Atlantic, many of the descriptions of Lincoln sound like many of the autistic people I know; so much so that he is almost a parody of the stereotype. Here are a few tidbits, lifted from the first-person accounts of journalist Henry Villard. I offer them without further commentary, though I will undoubtedly circle back to this theme in some of my future blog posts, and I have already explored some of this in posts about me, Steve Jobs, and others.

As far as all external conditions were concerned, there was nothing in favor of Lincoln. He had a lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face. He used singularly awkward, almost absurd, up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments. His voice was naturally good, but he frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch.

 

I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man, owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career. He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories. He loved to hear them, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy. There would have been no harm in this but for the fact that, the coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them, especially when they were of his own invention.

 

I was present almost daily for more or less time during his morning receptions. I generally remained a silent listener, as I could get at him at other hours when I was in need of information … The most remarkable and attractive feature of those daily “levees,” however, was his constant indulgence of his story-telling propensity. Of course, all the visitors had heard of it and were eager for the privilege of listening to a practical illustration of his preëminence in that line. He knew this, and took special delight in meeting their wishes …

 

No one who heard him talk upon the [secession] question could fail to discover his “other side,” and to be impressed with his deep earnestness, his anxious contemplation of public affairs, and his thorough sense of the extraordinary responsibilities that were coming upon him.

2 comments

  1. Michael Forbes Wilcox

    Interestingly, the names of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, linked by me to their common birthday and to autism, appeared together in The New Yorker in a different context.

    In a letter in “The Mail” on March 16, the letter-writer referred to a piece by Adam Gopnik in the January 29 issue. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/28/130128fa_fact_gopnik

    You need to be a subscriber to see his reference to Darwin, but the letter tells all that you really need to know.
    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/letters/2013/03/18/130318mama_mail3

    Adam Gopnik discusses the difference between highly intelligent people with sharp minds and those with soft minds, indicating that soft smart minds are the rarer of the two (“Music to Your Ears,” January 28th). He offers Darwin as an example from the world of science. Gopnik describes people who absorb “great quantities of data and opinion, often silently, even sluggishly, and turn them around slowly until a solution appears.” One such brilliant, seemingly sluggish mind existed in the world of politics as well—that of Abraham Lincoln, who once told his friend Joshua Speed, “I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel; very hard to scratch anything on it and almost impossible after you get it there to rub it out.” How the world has benefitted from the wondrous contributions of this rare breed of thinker.

    Becky Huertas
    Lincoln, Mass.

    This description by Lincoln of his learning process is exactly how one would describe the attributes of the (very plastic) autistic brain. It can be frustrating because old habits die hard, and new things take long to learn. But once we’ve “got it” things are equally hard to unlearn!

  2. Nathan Wilson

    Fascinating, Michael. In my experience as a musician I have known a few wonderfully perplexing, autistic individuals. And I am quite sure, after the fact, I have hired some. Thanks for sending me this link!

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