March is National Women’s History Month, a time when we recognize and honor women’s contributions. I like to think about autistic women who stand out as exceptional role models for our daughters on the spectrum. Some of them are in the news and revered today for their talents and abilities, and others are historical figures whose reported behaviors have been associated with characteristics of autism.
When the poet Emily Dickinson was born in 1830, autism was not a diagnosis. Some of the things we know about her life support the possibility that, were she born today, she might have been labeled with autism spectrum disorder. She was described as reclusive and eccentric, and she was fascinated with scented flowers, i.e., olfactory-seeking. She struggled with depression and had epilepsy, both of which are not uncommon among autistic people today. Dickinson was a very talented poet, and many people on the autism spectrum also have impressive artistic talents.
Marie Curie, Russian-Polish scientist, also lived before autism was being diagnosed. She was described by those who knew her as very systematic, uncomfortable greeting people or being around strangers, reserved, and awkward in her movements. Although she did not care about outward appearances such as reputation, she was awarded two Nobel prizes, one for physics and one for chemistry. Her ability to focus on a scientific problem and stick with it without being distracted is a positive trait that is shared by many autistic individuals.
While we will never know if these historic figures had autism, those who speculate about it typically do so with affection and admiration, rather than using a posthumous diagnostic guess as a put down or to belittle the very obvious talents that these women possess. Many women who are alive today have shared their diagnoses to empower and encourage young women and girls who are learning to understand their own autism.
Dr. Temple Grandin comes to mind first, the accomplished animal scientist, professor, author, autism spokesperson and animal behavior consultant. Her phenomenal success has been well documented in the HBO movie, Temple Grandin, in her many books, and in her YouTube and TED Talks.
Susan Boyle, Scottish singer who came to fame on the television show, Britain’s Got Talent, was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as an adult. She had been misdiagnosed as brain damaged following birth complications and was bullied as a child, but has shared her relief to learn that she actually has an autism spectrum disorder instead. Her incredible singing voice allowed world audiences to see beyond her challenges, and she is now a beloved and talented star.
Daryl Hannah, the actress who found fame in movies such as Splash, Roxanne, Blade Runner, and Steel Magnolias, has publicly acknowledged her own autism diagnosis. Her parents refused to have her institutionalized as recommended by her doctors. She struggled in school, and even as she achieved success in film, she used to be terrified to appear on talk shows or attend movie premieres. However, she hasn’t let autism stop her from pursuing a successful career or from her work as an environmental activist.
Heather Kuzmich was diagnosed with Asperger’s at age 12. She went on to appear as a contestant on the television show, America’s Next Top Model. Heather, described as impulsive, an oddball and a loner, thought that she would end up annoying everyone. Instead she found an outpouring of support and encouragement, and serves as an inspiration to many girls and women who were fans of the show. Although she did not win the top prize, she did win a loyal fanbase who see in her an example of a young woman going for what she wants rather than being stopped by a diagnosis.
There are so many wonderful role models for our daughters on the autism spectrum, and National Women’s History Month is the perfect time to share some of these with your own daughters.