Albert Einstein and Asperger’s Disorder

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The subject of analysis for this paper is Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was a world renowned physicist known for his theory of relativity and the equation E=MC2, which was the basis for atomic power. He was born in Germany to non-practicing Jewish German parents on March 14, 1879, the oldest of two children. He was born in Ulm, Germany, but when he was one year old, his family moved to Munich, ""the political and intellectual center of southern Germany."" (Frank, 1947) Einstein's father, Hermann, ran an electrochemical company with his brother, and his mother was a homemaker. Hermann's brother lived with him and his family, and was the first to introduce Albert to mathematics as he was a trained engineer. (Frank, 1947) Two items in particular had a great impact on Albert's thirst for knowledge: a compass given to him by his father, and a geometry book.

Many people have claimed that Albert Einstein really struggled socially and academically. Indeed, as a child, Albert ""was always taciturn and never inclined to enter into the games that nursemaids play with children in order to keep both the children and themselves in good humor....from the very beginning he was inclined to separate himself from children of his own age and to engage in daydreaming and meditative musing."" (Frank, 1947) Despite this and the fact that he did not speak before the age of three, when Einstein started school he excelled and was mathematically brilliant, although it often took him longer to come to an answer because he would consider each question thoroughly. However, he struggled with the rigid discipline expected by teachers, and with foreign languages. Einstein developed a passion for music (in part because of his mother, who played the piano) and reading (due partly to his father). He also enjoyed philosophy.

When Albert Einstein was 15, his father and uncle began to experience business problems and so they moved to Milan, Italy, but left Einstein behind in a boarding house to finish school. Einstein was unhappy there and wished to rejoin his family in Italy and leave the regimented societal expectations of German life behind. He left school when he was 16 and reunited with his family. He loved Italy, but pretty soon had to put aside his escapades and return to school as his father's business did not meet with success in Italy either. Albert applied to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich and took the exams. ""His knowledge of mathematics was far ahead of that of most of the other candidates, but his knowledge of modern languages and the descriptive natural sciences was inadequate, and he was not admitted."" (Frank, 1947) He instead attended a Swiss school in Aarau, which he enjoyed much more than the schools in Germany, and after one year earned his diploma and entered school at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich. During this time, he became more social and excited about school, but his father's business was still not doing well, so Einstein lived a frugal life, subsisting on a monthly allowance from a wealthy relative. (Frank, 1947) After his graduation in 1900 with a degree in physics, his plan was to teach, but no one would hire him as an assistant, and he ended up getting a job at a patent office.

In 1903, Einstein married an old schoolmate of his, Mileva Maric, with whom he had three children: Lieserl, Hans Albert, and Eduard. It is unclear what happened to Lieserl, born a year before Albert and Mileva married, but she may have died from scarlet fever, or she may have been given up for adoption. (Einstein, 1903) Albert seemed to be a doting and loving father, but at some point, he and Mileva had a falling out and Einstein wished to separate, but not divorce, from her. While still married to Mileva, he began a relationship with his cousin, Elsa, and they later married in 1919. In one letter, Einstein tells Elsa ""I used to suffer tremendously because of my inability to love really love her [Mileva]. When I think of the bad relationship between my wife and Maja or my mother, then I must admit to myself, sadly, that I find all three of them quite unlikable, unfortunately! But I have to have someone to love, otherwise life is miserable."" (Einstein, 1903) Some of the letters from The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein suggest that Einstein was unfaithful on more than one occasion, and that his youngest son, Eduard, was quite ill for some time as a child.

In the early 1900s, Albert Einstein worked as a professor in Prague, Zurich, and then in Berlin. During this time, he traveled a lot and participated in many intellectual gatherings and discussions. In 1914, World War I broke out and Einstein signed a manifesto against the war. In 1921, he won the Nobel Prize for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. In 1930, his son Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia and became institutionalized, where he would remain for the rest of his life. (Kaku, 2018) In 1933, Einstein left Germany, both for a job he had received in the US and due to fear of the increasing power of the Nazis. In 1936, his wife Elsa died. In 1939, at the start of World War II, he advised President Roosevelt, via letter, that the US should create its own nuclear weapons for fear of the possibility that the Nazi's already had one. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein said ""Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb."" (The Einstein Letter, 1964) As a Pacifist, even from early childhood, Einstein abhorred the mechanization of people. He became a proponent of nuclear disarmament and signed a manifesto just before his death which outlined the risks of nuclear war and beseeched leaders to seek peaceful reconciliation for their issues. Einstein died in April of 1955, at the age of 76, from an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

The behavior of Albert Einstein as a child, quiet, withdrawn, and slow to develop linguistically, could be indicative of Asperger's Disorder. In the DSM-IV, Asperger's Disorder is listed as a pervasive development disorder - one of four disorders on the Autism Spectrum. (Pelphrey, 2015) Some of the symptoms of Asperger's that Einstein exhibited include: difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts, lack of interest in peers and in making or maintaining friends, fixated interests, and echolalia. He was also, as a child, sensitive to loud noises and prone to violent tantrums. In addition, he did not have or develop many close relationships, he did not enjoy small-talk, he was intensely focused on his research and ideas, he did not adhere to societal expectations, and as a child ""every sentence he uttered, no matter how routine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips."" (Winteler-Einstein, 1879-1902) People with Asperger's tend to struggle with some things, but excel at others. Grandin (1967-2018) ""observed that there are three basic types of specialized minds on the Autism/Asperger Spectrum. Some people are combinations of these three types. A photo realistic visual thinker is good at drawing and poor at algebra. Some visual thinkers are good at geometry and trigonometry. A music and math mind thinks in patterns instead of photo realistic pictures. They often excel in engineering and computer programming. English may be their weak subject."" While Einstein struggled socially and linguistically, he definitely excelled at music and mathematics. Indeed, Einstein even said of himself in 1930:

""My passionate interest in social justice and social responsibility has always stood in curious contrast to a marked lack of desire for direct association with men and women. I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork. I have never belonged wholeheartedly to any country or state, to my circle of friends, or even to my own family. These ties have always been accompanied by a vague aloofness, and the wish to withdraw into myself increases with the years. Such isolation is sometimes bitter, but I do not regret being rendered independent of the customs, opinions, and prejudices of others, and am not tempted to rest my peace of mind upon such shifting foundations."" (Frank, 1947)

Etiologically, there was some concern when Albert was born about the shape of his head. ""At his birth, his mother was shocked at the sight of the back of his head, which was extremely large and angular, and she feared she had given birth to a deformed child."" (Winteler-Einstein, 1879-1902) It is possible, while the shape of Albert's head did return to normal, that some form of trauma during the birth contributed to Einstein's impaired social development and possible diagnosis of Asperger's Disorder.

Over time, there has been much speculation and discussion about whether Albert Einstein and other well-known historical persons who exhibited some heightened specific talent but odd development and/or behaviors might have had a psychological disorder. One such claimant, Simon Baron-Cohen stated, ""In the case of Einstein, we can conclude that he did have Asperger's syndrome. There is evidence for the triad of impairments of social relationships, communication, and obsessional and routine-based behaviour across development,"" citing examples from Einstein's childhood including a family history of autism. (James, 2006) Additionally, a study also supporting the assumption that Einstein had Asperger's, provides evidence that certain aspects of Einstein's brain showed similarities to features specific to the brain of someone with autism. ""Einstein's brain, though no bigger than that of an ordinary person, showed enlargement of the inferior parietal lobe that has been found with volumetric increases in patients of autism disorders. Einstein's brain also lacks part of the sylvian fissure, the dysfunction of which often causes autism syndromes;"" in addition, there were an increased number of glial cells in Einstein's brain that may also mean that he was on the autism spectrum (Yuan, 2009) While both of these sources agree that Albert Einstein had autism, one presents physical evidence and the other presents inferential evidence.

It is always important, yet difficult, to scrutinize any kind of information without bias and view it as simply hearsay until it can be validated. For example, the evidence presented by Simon Baron-Cohen, who was born after the death of Einstein, comes solely from things he has read and not from empirical research or personal knowledge. Despite being a clinical psychologist, which offers him credibility, the fact that he did not witness these behaviors firsthand and made a diagnosis solely on the tales of other does not necessarily make his diagnosis true. The report by Yuan was much shorter than that of Baron-Cohen, but was based on information about the study of and findings regarding Einstein's brain. This type of evidence is evidence that was collected firsthand and is therefore, in my opinion, more reliable. Also, Yuan offered evidence from physical examination of Einstein's brain and was still cautious in his statements, saying that a diagnosis of autism is difficult to ascertain and required further investigations. Contrastingly, Baron-Cohen, based on secondhand information, made a bold comment, insinuating that there was no doubt whether Einstein had Asperger's or not. ""At present, behavioral observation is the only means to detect symptoms of ASD and to confirm a diagnosis."" (Pelphrey, 2015) Therefore, a conclusive diagnosis cannot be achieved simply through secondhand information.

In conclusion, while we cannot say for sure whether Einstein had Asperger's Disorder or any other psychological disorder based on the information from biographies of his life, it is clear that he exhibited unusual behaviors that are typical of a person who has Asperger's Disorder. Further scrutiny of his brain, as well as a better understanding of what causes autism and how autistic brains function, may eventually be able to verify or disprove that diagnosis. Regardless of whether or not Albert Einstein had a psychological disorder, his contributions to the scientific community and to the world were undeniably important and impactful.

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Albert Einstein and Asperger's Disorder. (2019, Jul 24). Retrieved July 12, 2024 , from

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