75% of survey respondents say it is ethical to label deceased people as having autistic traits (eg Albert Einstein and George Orwell).
Overall The Nine Degrees of Autism team of collaborators believes that it is helpful to identify famous autistic people who have passed away without a formal diagnosis or prior public disclosure of their neurotype.
It helps to understand that all autism diagnoses are (subjective) opinions, so many formal diagnoses are incorrect and subsequently revised. Also, the subjects are not alive to be victims of subsequent prejudice or other abuse, though there may be implications for their living family members, if any.
Professor Stephen Shore says, It’s OK to discuss and examine autistic traits in people who are deceased as long as we realize that we may not know the whole story. It can even be an interesting thing to do. However, retroactively diagnosing someone as on the spectrum such as the named people and others goes on very shaky ground because we don’t have all the needed information. Genius Genes: How Asperger Talents Changed the World (Fitzgerald, M. & O’Brien, B, 2007) by AAPC Publishing handled this issue well. The authors examined the characteristics of various figures but didn’t claim to have the authority to diagnose them. The furthest they went would be to explain that if they had been alive today, possibly they might get diagnosed with X.
Dr Altazar Rossiter, supports Shore’s view that such assessments are just opinions which should not be considered absolutes, and says “From a certain perspective many people have demonstrated autistic traits, and as long as that’s owned as a personal interpretation of what is known about them I can’t see any problem. Where I run into difficulty is when someone sticks a label on and says categorically that this is/was the case about someone ~ whether alive or deceased. There are very few absolutes in the Universe, and trying to pin things down in absolute terms can create a lot of tension, anxiety and trauma – just the things that trying to pin stuff down is about avoiding.”
Louise Page comments, “Highlighting their gifts as being relatable to current knowledge of autistic traits is acceptable and actually a good thing. This helps people see that autism has more than likely been in existence from the dawn of time (which I believe is so) and how many folks on the spectrum have created so many wonderful aspects of life that many take for granted. “
Page continues, “Because we cannot get definitive proof they were actually autistic, I imagine that the only people who could be ‘offended’ by anyone claiming that George Orwell or Einstein, for example, could be those who don’t accept the possibility of autism as being a part of their existence.” So, by associating famous people with autism we are balancing society’s negative perception of the developmental condition because the medical profession focuses only on autistic impairments.
Prof. Manuel Casanova, on the other hand, does not believe that historical examples judged retrospectively are of any value. However, Casanova says, “You can probably make a case for a majority of people.”
Rod Morris says, “It can help a diagnosed individual with empowerment and identity, but with ethical boundaries of stating that the famous person is not diagnosed, but may have reached this particular criteria (insert criteria to back-up assertions) if diagnosis was available at the time. Another ethical aspect would be to state that diagnosis is not scientific, but is based on opinion anyway, and this can only be done with the person being directly assessed while alive.”
So, to conclude, the overriding majority of The Nine Degrees of Autism team believes that it is ethical to identify to deceased people as having autistic traits as long as it is understood that it’s just an opinion and there may be other unknown factors which contradict the opinion. Also, there is much to be learnt by studying famous people who were probably on the autism spectrum, and it’s empowering for autistic people to know about them.