Dr Roger Henderson

Is there a link between Asperger’s and genius?

Is there a link between Asperger's and genius?
Image: Getty
Text settings

The world's richest man – who, beyond Tesla and Space X, is known for naming his first child X AEA-12 – generated more headlines this week, when he announced on the American television show Saturday Night Live that he has Asperger syndrome. ‘I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works,' he explained.

Asperger syndrome, first described in 1944 by the Austrian paediatrician Hans Asperger, is a lifelong condition that is part of the autistic spectrum. As a child, Hans Asperger appears to have exhibited some features of the very condition named after him, such as remoteness and talent in language. 

However, there has also been considerable discussion recently amongst researchers and people with Asperger’s as to whether the name should be dropped. An eight-year study into his relationship with the Nazi regime published in 2018 concluded that Asperger assisted in their euthanasia programme. This has led – correctly in my view – to a greater awareness as to how the language used to describe autism should reflect the preferences of autistic people and their families. In 2013, the diagnosis of Asperger's was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), with the symptoms now included within the autism spectrum disorder.

Autism is believed to affect around one per cent of the UK population. Those with Asperger’s can have difficulty interpreting verbal and non-verbal language. They may struggle to articulate how they feel in conventional ways and may need more time than normal to assess information given to them.

Asperger’s traits are present for life, there is no cure, and it is not an illness or a disease. The key traits shared by people with autism are repetitive and restricted behaviour patterns – usually present from early childhood. Making a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome can be difficult since behaviour traits vary so widely from person to person, and a diagnosis may not occur until adulthood as a result. 

In his Saturday Night Live performance, Musk recognised that he often communicates differently to others; people on the autism spectrum can sometimes misinterpret jokes and sarcasm (someone with Asperger syndrome may be sarcastic but not pick up on sarcasm in other people), facial expressions and vague concepts.

There is a common perception that people on the autistic spectrum have a higher IQ than those who are not; stereotypes of the mad professor or the eccentric genius are centuries old. The general consensus is that this is untrue; standard IQ tests don't reveal any systematic link. Although some psychologists believe that people such as Isaac Newton, Blaise Pascal and Albert Einstein may have been autistic. In 2015, Cambridge University undertook a study of almost half a million people that suggested autistic traits were more common among people involved in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Another study at the same time reported a possible genetic link between autism and genius, with parents who have autistic children also being more likely to produce geniuses. Researchers have also noted a substantial genetic overlap in the alleles that characterise high intelligence and those that determine autism.  

Indeed, Dr Leo Kanner who first identified the traits of autism in the 1940s observed that children with the condition often had exceptional memory recall with 'precise recollection of complex patterns and sequences'. Memory is a trait that researchers identify as a key attribute in elevated general intelligence. Interestingly, contemporary research suggests that whilst factual memory can be strong in those diagnosed as autistic, the ability to recall personal or autobiographical memories appears to be weaker in autistic men.

The fact that people with Asperger’s can be highly dedicated to their interests may be one of the reasons why Elon Musk has been able to remain so focused on his goals and achieve so much. He highlighted this during his Saturday Night Live appearance, saying: 'To anyone who’s been offended, I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?’ With a self-made worth of some $185 billion, he’s certainly one of a kind.