5 Famous People with Autism
In 2016, the CDC reported that autism affects 1 in 54 children. They, of course, grow up, pursue their passions, take on new challenges, and go after their goals. While autism can certainly present complications — socially, mentally, and physically — many people go on to lead healthy, successful lives. In fact, there are a number of famous people with autism that might surprise you — some created blockbuster hits, others shared their voice with the world and made history. But all of them, in one way or another, pulled from their disability to better their craft, their approach, and their unique relationship with their audience. In other words, they are using their voices and talents for good, shedding light on the prevalence of autism in adults and making those in a similar position feel less alone.
Here, we’ve highlighted five famous people with autism — all of their stories, while different, share a common thread that’ll leave you inspired.
If you’re a long-time Saturday Night Live fan, then you know Dan Aykroyd. Otherwise, you may know the 68-year-old actor from his work in The Blues Brothers, Driving Miss Daisy, and Ghostbusters. Ghostbusters, the supernatural comedy released in 1984 that Aykroyd wrote and starred in, is the result of Aykroyd’s autism: “One of my symptoms included my 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. That’s when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born,” he said during an interview with Daily Mail. In that same interview, he mentioned that he also has Asperger’s, which is common among adults with autism. He wasn’t diagnosed with either autism or Asperger’s until the 1980s — well into his adulthood — “when my wife persuaded me to see a doctor.”
David Byrne wears many hats. In the last few years alone, he’s appeared on Broadway, released a concert film (American Utopia), and even scored a Grammy nomination. The award-winning filmmaker, writer, and all-around musical genius uses his experience with autism to his advantage. Early on, Byrne felt uncomfortable with himself and in social settings. Then he realized that the very thing that makes him different — his need to ask questions, his intensity, and his desire to read the room —is his strength. “At an earlier point in my life, not so much now, I felt very uncomfortable socially. The idea of observing and asking, like, “Am I supposed to do that? Is that what people do?” probably goes along with it a little bit. Or it’s the intense focus on songwriting or artwork I was doing at the time. As other people have said, a little bit isn’t the worst thing in the world,” he said during an interview with wbur.
But since he’s one of the select famous people with autism who speaks so openly about what it’s like to live with this disability, he’s become a symbol of strength in some ways. In that same interview, he explained how he copes with his own reality — as hard as it may be. “However we are, we don’t know how to be another way. That’s the way we are, and you change over the years … but at that earlier point, that’s who you are. You can’t say, “Oh, I’m unhappy, I wish I was more like this happy, gregarious person who is more socially adept.” I just figured I’m not. I’ll make friends with the socially adept person, and they’ll be the one who brings everyone in,” he continued.
The moment actress Daryl Hannah was diagnosed with autism; everything made sense. As a child, the Kill Bill and Steel Magnolias star was “a little odd and incredibly introverted (her own words in an interview with Australia’s Women’s Weekly).” As she’s aged, she realized that her symptoms are just a part of who she is: “But it’s the way I am; the way I have always been. I’m still not great in crowds. I’m fine one on one , but in larger groups, I lose my sense of self. Big events are always uncomfortable for me and I don’t know if I will ever grow out of it. I try to keep those feelings under control but it takes a lot of focus, and concentration, and energy. It’s not always easy,” she says.
But her own shyness and discomfort brought on by autism are what ultimately led her to be an actress. “Acting for me was about going to the Land of Oz and meeting the Tin Man. It still it,” she told People via Today.
Hannah Gadsby is a force in the comedy world, especially because she’s not afraid to address the realities of autism in adults. A staple in the Australian entertainment scene, Gadsby hit it big when her stand-up show, Nanette, was released on Netflix internationally. Shortly after, she toured with another stand-up show called Douglas, which touched on her experience living with autism — albeit, being one of the few famous people with autism. “People on the spectrum … sort of feel like an alien being dropped in from outer space, and you can’t quite connect properly. Being on stage and making a room full of people laugh, felt like a connection I hadn’t been able to establish in any other environment,” she said during her 2019 show.
Her diagnosis, actually, gave her a sense of understanding she had never felt before, as outlined in an interview with NPR. “So when I was diagnosed, it just gave me permission to be kinder to myself, to not always take responsibility for being a bit clumsy around other people, and allow me to start to tell people, ‘I’m clumsy, but I [don’t] mean to be.’ And being more open about, ‘I need you to tell me what I did wrong, and then we can move on from there.’ Whereas, I would just get in a lot of trouble with my friends and whatnot for being insensitive. And it was kind of a double bind because I’m very sensitive and I’m very thoughtful, but I miss things that other people sort of go, ‘You should just know that.’”
She, like many other adults with autism, has learned ways to lean into the discomfort of common social situations. “I’ve spent my whole life really trying to study the room — that is one of my special subjects. So in many ways, I appear very good at being social. But it’s an incredibly exhausting process for me,” she continued.
Everyone remembers the moment the world heard Susan Boyle’s singing voice for the first time. Back in 2009, she wowed the Britains Got Talent judges panel during her audition and placed second in the entire competition. Still, she has gone on to achieve international success as an opera singer in the years following. A few years into her career, she opened up about her Asperger’s diagnosis (note: Asperger’s and autism are not the same disorder, but have similar symptoms). “I have Aspergers. That made me more determined to be where I want to be. You don’t fight without some resentment,” she told The Guardian. “Asperger’s doesn’t define me. It’s a condition that I have to live with and work through, but I feel more relaxed about myself. People will have a greater understanding of who I am and why I do the things I do.”