Jane Austen was autistic?

Jane AustenI was reading an interesting New Yorker article that was reviewing a new book on the history of autism.

In the article, they spoke about how much has changed even in recent years about our understanding of autism.

There was also a short section on famous artists, musicians and authors we now believe may have been autistic. The list provided included Beethoven and Mozart, Isaac Newton, Emily Dickensen, Virginia Woolf, and, one of my all-time favorites, Jane Austen.

I’m not sure how much I believe in posthumous diagnosis on conditions they hadn’t even known existed at the time. We do understand that Jane Austen had an older brother, George Austen, who was believed to have been either mentally or physically disabled, and he was cared for by the family. One researcher claims that the classic, Pride & Prejudice, has many characters who are autistic – including the haughty romantic lead Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Although any diagnosis of people who lived centuries ago should be taken with a grain of salt, I suppose I’m most surprised by the inclusion of Austen on that list included in the New Yorker article. That’s because  Austen’s strength as an author was her acute observation of society and social interactions between all the different levels of her contemporary society. I suppose her feat would be even more impressive if she were able to do achieve such accuracy despite a condition that created difficulties for her in reading the subtle clues of societal interactions and emotions.

An interesting parlor game, at best. Still, it’s nice to see one of my favorite authors still making headlines…

19 Comments

  1. Ishita on February 19, 2016 at 10:32 am

    I would rather not believe it.

    • kimberlysullivan on February 20, 2016 at 10:45 am

      Jane fan, too, Ishita? We’ll have lots to discuss when we meet up in Rome one day. : )

      • Ishita on February 20, 2016 at 3:37 pm

        Yes I know it’s exciting to imagine a meetup with you. Hope I can meet you very soon. Even if for a short while. Any email I can get in touch with you?

  2. susancarey on February 19, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    Interesting article but I too find it hard to believe. She was the first author to use ‘free indirect discourse’ which means showing so much empathy that the author is actually inside the character’s head, thinking his/her thoughts. I don’t know enough about autism but I have read that that was something most autistic people find very difficult/impossible.

    • kimberlysullivan on February 20, 2016 at 10:51 am

      Excellent points, Susan. I find it hard to believe,too … but still nice to see Austen is being brought into contemporary discussions 200 years after she wrote!

    • Mercury Sanda on November 14, 2020 at 12:24 am

      actually many autistic people (I’d say about half if I were to guess) experience hyper empathy and can empathize with those in different situations much more than an allistic individual, so Austen’s method of writing would actually support this theory.

    • Amaeliss on February 24, 2021 at 3:59 am

      Darling, I am autistic and one of the interesting features of how my (and many autistic people’s) empathy works is that it’s purely emotional. I struggle relating to other people if I don’t have enough information on them, especially on their emotions, because I lack cognitive empathy.

      That, and the fact that I don’t understand social rules, to observe. Many, nay, MOST autistic people have a very acute notion of the rules of communication because we don’t spontaneously learn them. We are good at observing people because we need to be good at it or we won’t understand them at all. It is very, very common.

      The idea that Austen observes her society accurately – almost like an outsider would – is not a point against the possibility of her being autistic at all. It’s actually one of the things that makes it believable to me.

  3. evelyneholingue on February 19, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    Interesting but like you I find Austen’s observations of people and life in general so precise that it tends to oppose the definition of autism. But there are many levels of autism. We are only uncovering the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mental health. What’s normality anyway? One thing is sure is that many creative people don’t respond to the established criteria of ‘normality.’ And it’s probably good. If the list of names you provide us in your post is exact, aren’t we glad these people had some form of autism? I will look for the article. Thanks, Kimberly.

    • kimberlysullivan on February 20, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Agree, Evelyne. Thank goodness Michelangelo, VanGogh and Beethoven weren’t ‘normal’ – by the strict interpretation of the word – yet bring us such joy centuries later.But I still can’t believe that Austen, such an astute observer of emotion, could possibly have been autistic. I didn’t bat an eye about the other artists on the list, however. But it’s true we still have much to learn.

  4. suzanlauder on February 20, 2016 at 6:27 am

    It’s far more likely she knew autistic people and that’s why some of her characters have traits that could put them on the spectrum.

    • kimberlysullivan on February 20, 2016 at 11:01 am

      True, Suzan, Austen does portray a wide range of characters in a very sympathetic way. But I’ll be hard-pressed to admit that one of our most beloved romantic heroes, Fitzwilliam Darcy, wasn’t simply arrogant and proud … and in need of a good lesson from Lizzie. Claiming he was autistic seems to me simply a good way for a researcher to grab headlines. : ) Happy reading!

  5. Janis Barau on February 20, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    Name-dropping to gain credibility.

    • kimberlysullivan on February 21, 2016 at 12:14 am

      Haha. To be fair, it’s a pretty well-known name to drop…

  6. KP on May 19, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    The posted comments seem to reflect an understanding of only the stereotypical male presentation of autism. When a woman is autistic, particularly if it is not severe and her intelligence is great enough, symptoms are frequently hidden and her years of acting help her to better integrate into society as an adult. As an autistic female, I continuously observe the interactions of others around me and, when alone, ruminate over said interactions and their outcomes. Hopefully I can incorporate what I learn into my own dealings with people so that I am less likely to offend or confuse, but I am not always successful. Therefore I personally consider it to be no quandary when someone postulates that Jane Austen might have been autistic, and yet wrote such keen, insightful commentary on the gentry of her day through the relationships of her characters.

    • MAS on August 27, 2019 at 3:01 am

      As a fellow female autistic, I very much identify with what you’re saying about masking autistic symptoms and observing others keenly. People are so quick to say that autistics have no empathy when in fact many are so full of empathy that they have to shut down their feelings if they hope to function. I have an extraordinary amount of empathy (to the point where one ignorant therapist refused to believe my diagnosis, even though I was diagnosed by one of the country’s top professionals). My request to professionals and laypersons alike would be to ask real autistics about the condition rather than relying on the propaganda and fear tactics of organizations like Autism Speaks. This very lucrative “non-profit” refuses to allow any autistics to become part of its board, though we’re perfectly capable of being lawyers, doctors, professors, factory workers, engineers, nurses, students, heads of multi-national corporations, cashiers, lobbyists, wait staff, teachers, authors, musicians, artists, mothers, fathers, friends, etc… Furthermore, Speaks returns only 3-4% of its donations back to the community in the form of programs for autistics or respite care for caretakers.

      I feel an extremely strong connection to Jane Austen and many of her characters. I’ve been misunderstood and socially awkward like the Fitzwilliam Darcys, deeply depressed like the Jane Fairfaxes, mocked by the Caroline Bingleys, manipulated by the Isabella Thorpes, ignored and cast aside like the Anne Elliots. The scene at one of the Musgroves’ parties when Anne plays the pianoforte on the fringes and cries, invisible and irrelevant, is particularly poignant. I haven’t had my happy ending, but her characters give me hope, though I believe most of them to be neurotypical. I just think Austen understands pain and isolation in a special way that, if not unique to autistics, is very marked of our experience. I would be honored to count her among the many great people in history who were autistic, but if Austen wasn’t, she’s still an inspiration to the atypical among us. Her brain is spectacular no matter what type it most resembles.

      P.S. To Janis, who snarkily claims we are “name-dropping” to gain credibility, don’t you think it’s tragic that the autistic community has to work to gain credibility? We are good people who should already have as much credibility as anyone else, based on nothing more than the humanity that people who make ignorant comments like yours have stripped us of. Some people who are neurotypical have such great empathy in their hearts, so much more empathy than we do (sarcasm-which I understand), that they’ve made us less than human, less than deserving. They’ve caged us and decided that since some of our brothers and sisters bang their heads, they must be devoid of feelings. Well, Janis, I’ve never caged anyone in my life, physically or metaphorically. I learned some very hard lessons at a very young age that taught me that everyone deserves credibility. Full stop.

      • kimberlysullivan on August 27, 2019 at 7:48 pm

        Thank you, MAS, for your excellent comment and much appreciated insight into how much we still have to learn about autism. I truly appreciated your reading of characters and scenes you found particularly poignant. Anne Elliott’s stoic suffering at the hand of all the shallow, self-centered people around her – with her family as perhaps the worst offenders – strikes a chord in many readers, and I appreciate learning that you feel even more of an affinity with some of these powerful scenes as a woman with autism, who may have struggled with similar emotions. My reading of Janis’ name-dropping comment was to the specific claim that was made by the young academic researcher. Obviously, a young researcher stating Jane Austen was autistic was certain to garner instant headlines, but I believe it is correct to be wary about diagnoses delivered two centuries later. Thank you for taking the time to share your much appreciated views. I love how (great) literature speaks to us all, and how we each bring our own unique experiences and perspectives into its interpretation. And it’s always a great pleasure to hear from fellow Austen admirers!

  7. […] l’instar de… Jane Austen, vous l’avez compris, qui siège parmi les « autistes célèbres confirmés« . L’autrice britannique du XIXe siècle est de fait considérablement en avance : […]

  8. Mercury Sanda on November 14, 2020 at 12:36 am

    A lot of people are saying her precise observation and empathy regarding society as a whole as well as her own characters makes her less likely to be autistic, but as an autistic person who is very active in the community, I beg to differ. Part of being autistic is being detail-oriented, and many people on the spectrum experience hyper empathy and can actually empathize more intensely than non-autistic people. It’s also important to acknowledge that as a woman Austen’s experience would be different than her male counterparts. A huge component of female autism is “masking” where the individual carefully and intensely observes those around her so she can mimic their social behaviour and seem less autistic. Many women and girls in modern-day are purposefully not doing this as it can be damaging to their well being but at the time Austen would have to in order to function in a time that was even less tolerant than today. This may have contributed to how precise and groundbreaking her method of characterization was. I’m not saying she is %100 for sure autistic, but I think the possibility shouldn’t be dismissed entirely.

  9. LNE on April 20, 2021 at 8:20 pm

    Autistic people can be highly observant about their societies, because it is an essential part of surviving in those. And because it is not innate, we may have better ways to articulate our observations instead of just acting on instict. And being able to observe and act appropriately, does not mean you are to be accepted by neurotypical people anyway. You still are out of their tune, no matter how hard you try, u may still look “awkward” and be rejected by neurotypicals, unless you “mask”, unless you learn not only to respond, but also to look like a neurotypical.

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