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!

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  1. […] Regular readers of my blog (and I know I have at least 2 or 3 — or so they claim!) will know that I have obsessed lately with my speculation that Steve Jobs was autistic. […]

  2. […] post is a follow-up on my earlier one about Steve Jobs. In that post, I asked the question, “Was Steve Jobs Autistic?” […]

  3. […] 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 […]

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