Did Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton Have Asperger Syndrome?

Scientist Albert Einstein in Library

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Researchers believe both Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton may have had Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder in the autism spectrum. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, and Ioan James, of Oxford University, studied the behavior of both famous scientists. The researchers felt that both Einstein and Newton displayed personality traits characteristic of Asperger syndrome, a type of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD).

Retrospective Diagnoses for Einstein and Newton

Although the behaviors known as Asperger syndrome were first described in the 1940s, the diagnosis was not officially recognized until 1994. Since Einstein and Newton lived before then, it is difficult to come to a definitive answer, since neither can be questioned or examined now.

What the researchers noted in biographical information about both men were behaviors seen with Asperger syndrome, such as:

  • Limited but intense range of interests, especially specific intellectual areas
  • Difficulty in social relationships, especially responding appropriately to others
  • Problems communicating, such as difficulty making conversation or understanding others

The researchers pointed out that Einstein was a loner as a child and often repeated sentences obsessively until he was seven years old. His career was centered on complex mathematical topics. He gave very confusing lectures.

As for Newton, the researchers noted that he hardly spoke, had few friends and was often bad-tempered around them. He often became so engrossed in his work (the science of physics) that he forgot to eat. He always gave his scheduled lectures, even if no one came.

Asperger syndrome often involves some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty interacting with others (a lack of social skills)
  • Communication issues (such as not speaking in childhood, not making eye contact or trouble using facial expressions)
  • Preoccupation with complex subjects like music, mathematics or spatial reasoning
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Ritual development (such as getting dressed in a particular order)
  • Coordination problems (often seeming clumsy or awkward)

Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton both experienced intense intellectual interests in specific limited areas. Both scientists had trouble reacting appropriately in social situations and had difficulty communicating. Both scientists sometimes became so involved with their work that they did not eat. Newton spoke little and was frequently lukewarm or bad-tempered with the few friends he had. If no one attended his lecture he still lectured to an empty room. When he was 50, Newton suffered a nervous breakdown involving depression and paranoia.

It is not yet known what causes Asperger’s syndrome, however, scientists believe that there is a genetic link on account of the fact that it tends to run in families (passed from parent to child).

Others Not Convinced

Other scientists such as Oliver Sacks feel that the case is weak for the diagnosis of Asperger syndrome for either scientist. “One can imagine geniuses who are socially inept and yet not remotely autistic,” said Dr. Glen Elliott, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, in an interview published by BBC News. Elliott also maintains that since Einstein had a good sense of humor, a trait that is virtually unknown in people with severe Asperger syndrome, he does not fit the Aspergers profile.

Without Einstein or Newton here to examine, it’s difficult to be certain where on the spectrum either physicist fell or they had Asperger’s at all.

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