Celebrating Neurodiversity; 9 Notable Autistic People
Some of the most influential and internationally-recognized names today include outstanding autistic people. From actors and activists to athletes and entrepreneurs, these nine people have made and are continuing to make an everlasting impact felt around the world. Their incredible successes and achievements are an important representation of the fact that neurodiverse and autistic people can lead independent, fulfilling and exceptional lives without limitations.
As we celebrate Autism Acceptance Month throughout April, we’re highlighting nine notable autistic people who have shared their neurodiversity stories with the world. By sharing their diagnoses, these well-known individuals are helping to promote inclusion, acceptance and ultimately changing lives.
Greta Thunberg (b. 2003) is a global leader in the fight for action against climate change. In August 2018, at the age of 15, she led the Skolstrejk för Klimatet: “School Strike for Climate” protest outside of the Swedish Parliament. Now known as Fridays for Future, the movement has grown to include over 14 million people in 7,500 cities on all seven continents. In 2019, she was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. When speaking about her autism diagnosis, Greta said “The diagnosis was almost only positive for me. It helped me get the support I needed and made me understand why I was like this.” Given her enormity of her platform, she is, unfortunately, no stranger to negative comments from people. When addressing her critics in 2019 she said “I have Asperger’s syndrome and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower.” Her autism “superpower” has fueled her to find her purpose and focus tirelessly in her fight for climate action.
Dan Aykroyd (b.1952) is an Emmy-winning actor, writer, comedian and musician who has starred in dozens of films and television shows. He’s best known for his four-year run on Saturday Night Live and his roles in The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters. As a child, he saw a behavior analyst and was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. In an interview, he said that he was able to “overcome it and channel it creatively.” It wasn’t until the 80’s when his wife encouraged him to see a doctor that he was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s. Thinking back to his younger years, he says that he would get “absorbed in a look, a face, a voice when I was a kid in the mirror.” One symptom of his Asperger’s was his “obsession with ghosts and law enforcement — I carry around a police badge with me, for example. I became obsessed with Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever.” It was with that focus that his idea for Ghostbusters was born. The movie went on to gross $295 million and inspired sequels, spin-offs, video games and more, thanks to his creativity and fearlessness.
Sir Anthony Hopkins
Sir Anthony Hopkins (b. 1937) is a two time Academy Award- and Primetime Emmy Award-winning actor whose career has spanned decades. He is best known for his roles in The Silence of the Lambs, Legends of the Fall, Westworld and The Father. He shared that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s in 2014 at the age of 77. When speaking about his diagnosis, he said “It doesn’t affect me—I am obsessive. It’s a great gift, actually. I was a bit slow as a school kid, and so I made up for it by working hard, and I became, you know, a successful actor. Obsessiveness about the details. I will work and work and work on the script and I learn every single line.” He’s also credited his autism to being able to deconstruct characters and see them in a different way than anyone else. He has used his uniqueness to share his talents with fans of the arts worldwide.
Temple Grandin (b. 1947) is an animal behaviorist, academic, and author of dozens of scientific papers on animal behavior in addition to several books. At the age of two, Temple was incorrectly diagnosed with brain damage and was recommended to be institutionalized. Shortly thereafter, her mother sought out world-leading special needs researchers who began speech therapy, making a huge difference in what was to become the rest of her life. Despite difficulty in school, she was fascinated by and became an expert in livestock handling and an advocate for the treatment of livestock for slaughter. She went on to pursue a higher education and received her doctorate in 1989. She has used her platform to bring awareness to autism and neurodiversity and is an enormous proponent of early intervention, sharing how therapy made all the difference to her growth as a child and throughout her life. In 2010, a semi-biographical film entitled Temple Grandin, based on her life’s work, was released. Starring Claire Danes, the film won both Golden Globe and Emmy wins, the latter of which Temple was on stage to participate in the acceptance of the award. The same year, she was fittingly named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the “Heroes” category.
Daryl Hannah (b. 1960) is an actress best known for her roles in the movies Splash and Steel Magnolias. More recently, she has dedicated her life to environmental activism and supporting sustainable solutions to fight climate change. Daryl was diagnosed with autism at the age of five by a doctor who advised she be put in an institution. Despite Daryl sharing that she felt shy and isolated in school, her mother refused. She fell in love with movies around the same time and started her successful career as an actor at the age of 17. As an adult, she still has symptoms that she’s able to manage, such as rocking. Despite her shyness, she uses her voice to speak out for the causes she’s passionate about.
Susan Boyle (b. 1961) is a Scottish singer who catapulted to fame on the television show Britain’s Got Talent. At her audition, she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical Les Miserables and shocked the judges and audience with her immense talent. Susan was misdiagnosed as having slight brain damage as a newborn due to complications during birth. It wasn’t until she was 51-years-old that she was correctly diagnosed with autism. When she voluntarily went to see a specialist, she also found out that she has an above average IQ. When speaking about her diagnosis, she said “I think people will treat me better because they will have a much greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do.” Susan’s career has been immensely successful, with her first studio album released in November 2009 becoming the fastest-selling album in the UK that year.
Elon Musk (b. 1971) is known as the second-richest person in the world, a businessman and an entrepreneur, having played major roles in companies including Tesla, SpaceX, the Boring Company, and most recently, Twitter. In 2021, Elon hosted Saturday Night Live and in his opening monologue shared: “I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL, or at least, the first to admit it.” Shortly after his announcement, he opened up about his diagnosis during a TED Talk. He shared that his childhood was difficult; he had difficulty picking up on social cues and was bullied. He mentioned that he “read a lot of books. I read lots and lots of books. Gradually, I understood more [social cues] from the books I was reading.” His ability to be hyper-focused lent him to quickly learn how to program computers which ultimately set him on the beginning of his career path with Zip2, an online city guide. After decades in business, he is arguably one of the most successful and influential people in the world and has given a well-recognized face and voice to the autism community.
Armani Williams (b. 2000) is a professional stock car racing driver. He is also the first known NASCAR driver to be open about sharing and discussing his autism diagnosis. Armani was nonverbal during the first three years of his life and was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. In thinking about his future and development, his parents sent him to a two-week course designed to teach children with autism how to ride a bike. On the very first day, he was able to master riding a bike without any training or balance support. It was at that moment that they knew Armani had a gift. Not long after, the family visited a local amusement park where he fell in love with the go-kars, riding them over and over again. At the age of just eight years old, he was racing go-karts competitively. He quickly progressed to racing different types of race cars. Armani shares that his autism is a strength when he races, stating “Every driver has focus, but because I have autism, I have a laser-like focus; you have to almost like, be the car.” He has also used his platform to be a champion for autism awareness, stating “I wanted to take that role in providing a lot of hope and inspiration for people in the autism community – to inspire people to keep pushing forward and understand that you can do anything in this world that you set your mind to.”
Clay Marzo (b. 1989) is a professional surfer who lives in Hawaii and has appeared in several documentaries and films. He began both swimming and surfing competitively at a young age. At the age of ten, he won Hawaii’s 200-meter freestyle event, and at eleven, he won third place at the National Scholastic Surfing Association Nationals competition. It was there that he signed a professional surfer contract with the Quiksilver team. Clay struggled socially throughout his childhood and was hyper-focused on swimming and surfing, finding calm in the water. He was diagnosed with autism at the age of 18. He later wrote a book which was also followed by a documentary of the same name, Clay Marzo: Just Add Water, that chronicles his journey as a professional surfer and finding solace and success in the water while managing his autism.
*Asperger’s Syndrome is a now-outdated term. The symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome are included in what is known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
**Many self-advocates from the autism community have indicated a preference for the phrase “autistic person” rather than “person with autism,” as they consider autism to be a core component of their identity; as part of ALP’s commitment to providing neurodiversity-affirming care that uplifts the lived experiences and preferences of those we serve, we have used the phrase “autistic person” throughout this blog post.