Read more on
The fact that autism is indispensible for science and the arts is already well established. Even when Hans Asperger conducted the first study on the condition that would later be named after him he concluded that 'for success in science or the arts a dash of autism is essential,' and the biographies of the greatest minds in both fields support this statement.
But there is another area in which autism is a very helpful companion: human rights activism. In this essay I try to demonstrate that Mahatma Gandhi, undoubtedly the most revered human rights activist, was autistic; it is most likely that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, but since the only technical difference between Asperger’s and so-called ‘High-Functioning Autism’ is that the former is characterised by normal (or even premature) speech development I shall refrain from pinpointing his particular type of autism.
There is a good reason why autistic individuals will find it easier to become human rights defenders than others. They have more difficulties than others to keep their opinions to themselves, even if voicing them will get them into trouble, and therefore have a well deserved reputation of being stubborn and inflexible when it comes to their moral values. They tend to oppose scenarios which others perceive as normal, justified or at least inalterable, and their sense of fairness motivates them to stand up and speak out when they feel that an injustice is being committed against themselves or others.
On top of this, be it that the autistic person fails to perceive a thinly veiled threat, or that they do feel intimidated or threatened but do not display that emotion in a way that can be sensed by others, they may give the impression that they are determined before they actually are. Subsequently they might be treated as a serious antagonist by their opponents which can help strengthen their resolve and encourage them to continue their fight.
For an autism diagnosis an individual has to satisfy what is called the ‘Triad of Impairments’, i.e. impairments of social interaction, social communication and social imagination. Besides these criteria there are many other indicators which by themselves don’t necessarily qualify a person as autistic but support a diagnosis in context with the triad, such as repetitive, ritualistic and stereotyped behaviours, sensory issues, the strict observance of routines, the absence of joint attention behaviours or a very narrow spectrum of interests which are often pursued obsessively and which can become areas of exceptional expertise.
On their website the National Autistic Society of the UK describes the Triad of Impairments as follows:
Impairment of social interaction
This refers to an impaired ability to engage in reciprocal social interactions. The most severely affected individuals seem aloof and uninterested in people. Others desire contact, but fail to understand the reciprocal nature of normal social interaction. In consequence their attempts at social interaction are clumsy, awkward and one-sided. Some passively accept the attentions of others but do not reciprocate.
Impairment of social communication
The whole range of communicative skills may be affected. A significant proportion of individuals with classical autism fail to develop useful speech. Even when the mechanics of language are mastered, the person with autism has difficulty using it for the purpose of communicating with others. Intonation is inclined to be abnormal and the non-verbal aspects of communication such as eye-to-eye gaze, use of gesture and facial expression can be impaired.
Impairment of social imagination
People with autism have great difficulty thinking imaginatively. This is demonstrated by pretend play, which will be absent or repetitive in children with autism spectrum disorders. Whether this is directly related to the development of rigid and repetitive behaviours has not been established.
‘My independent spirit was a constant source of trial.’ – Mahatma Gandhi
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known by his honorary title Mahatma (‘Great Soul’), is undoubtedly the most famous and popular human rights activist in history, known for the development and implementation of Satyagraha, his philosophy of non-violent non-cooperation and resistance. His autobiography, written in 1925, gives us a valuable insight into his childhood and youth as well as his first years of activism.
The first indication of his problems in interacting with others, as well as of his unwillingness to tell a lie or even bend the truth (which is also very common amongst autistic individuals), is the recollection of his early school days: ‘I do not remember having ever told a lie, during this short period, either to my teachers or to my schoolmates. I used to be very shy and avoided all company. My books and my lessons were my sole companions. To be at school at that stroke of the hour and to run back home as soon as school closed--that was my daily habit. I literally ran back, because I could not bear to talk to anybody. I was even afraid lest anyone should poke fun at me.’
In high school he remembers having few friends, two of whom he considered ‘intimate friends’; however, bonding with the second one cost him the friendship of the first because of his reputation.
While autistic persons have a tendency to resist pressure their assumption that others are as frank and well-meaning as they are themselves makes them an easy target for seemingly friendly manipulation, at least until they cop on.
His new friend, together with Gandhi’s brother, led him into eating meat (which their religion forbade), visiting a brothel (where he just sat on the bed, unable to talk, until he was kicked out) and being violent towards his wife after his friend alleged her infidelity (as was custom in the area, Gandhi had been married to a girl at the age of thirteen).
Autistic people tend to be very rational thinkers. Gandhi writes, ‘When, however, with much effort I reached the thirteenth proposition of Euclid, the utter simplicity of the subject was suddenly revealed to me. A subject which only required a pure and simple use of one's reasoning powers could not be difficult. Ever since that time geometry has been both easy and interesting for me.’
After Gandhi solemnly vowed to his widowed mother that he would not touch meat, alcohol or women she allowed him to study in England to become a barrister. However, other relatives and caste members insisted that travelling to another country was against their religion. When the Sheth (headman of the community) tried to persuade him to reconsider Gandhi lacked the art of diplomacy in his argument and answered in a candid manner, as is typical for autistic persons, ‘I think the caste should not interfere in the matter.’ As a result the Sheth ordered Gandhi henceforth to be treated as an outcaste. (He was, however, readmitted on his return.)
There are further examples of Gandhi’s lack of tact in which he unwittingly offends others. On one occasion he visited Christian friends for dinner and talked to their son: ‘I spoke derisively of the piece of meat on his plate and in high praise of the apple on mine.’ Needless to say that this was his last visit to that family.
While his limited knowledge of English may account for his withdrawal from others to a certain degree the extent of it which he describes about his journey seems quite disproportionate: ‘I did not feel at all sea-sick. But as the days passed, I became fidgety. I felt shy even in speaking to the steward. I was quite unaccustomed to talking English, and except for Sjt. Mazmudar all the other passengers in the second saloon were English. I could not speak to them. For I could rarely follow their remarks when they came up to speak to me, and even when I understood I could not reply. I had to frame every sentence in my mind, before I could bring it out. I was innocent of the use of knives and forks, and had not the boldness to inquire what dishes on the menu were free of meat. I therefore never took meals at table but always had them in my cabin, and they consisted principally of sweets and fruits which I had brought with me. Sjt. Mazmudar had no difficulty, and he mixed with everybody. He would move about freely on deck, while I hid myself in the cabin the whole day, only venturing up on deck when there were but few people. Sjt. Mazmudar kept pleading with me to associate with the passengers and to talk with them freely. He told me that lawyers should have a long tongue, and related to me his legal experiences. He advised me to take every possible opportunity of talking English, and not to mind making mistakes which were obviously unavoidable with a foreign tongue. But nothing could make me conquer my shyness.’
After having rented a room Gandhi’s doctor suggested that he live with a family to get accustomed to English culture and habits. He followed the advice for some time but later decided to live on his own again, citing economical reasons, especially that the vegetarian food cooked for him was leaving him hungry so that he had to go to vegetarian restaurants.
Throughout his memoirs it appears that Gandhi was interested in very few subjects, but that he pursued these obsessively, namely vegetarianism and religions, and that he read everything about them that he could get hold of. Later in life he also developed an interest in subjects relating to his political and humanitarian objectives and his principles of truth, non-violence, temperance and chastity as well as anything that enhanced the self-sufficiency of his family and his ashrams, such as weaving and spinning.
While in London he gave some other things a whirl, such as taking dancing and violin lessons, but he cancelled those after just a few sessions.
During his time in England Gandhi mentions only a few acquaintances, all of whom he met through his interest in vegetarianism or religions.
He was also elected onto the Executive Committee of the Vegetarian Society but never participated in the discussions: ‘Not that I never felt tempted to speak. But I was at a loss to know how to express myself. All the rest of the members appeared to me to be better informed than I. Then it often happened that just when I had mustered up courage to speak, a fresh subject would be started. This went on for a long time.’
On another occasion he defended a member who was about to be expelled for teaching birth control to the working classes which others, including Gandhi himself, perceived as deeply immoral. However, he felt that this had nothing to do with the society’s objective of promoting vegetarianism. Unable to speak in front of the others he wrote his views down and had the paper read out by someone else. ‘Thus in the very first battle of the kind, I found myself siding with the losing party. But I had comfort in the thought that the cause was right. […] This shyness I retained throughout my stay in England. Even when I paid a social call, the presence of half a dozen or more people would strike me dumb.’
In the following years Gandhi repeatedly had his speeches read by others.
Appropriate behaviour does not come naturally to autistic individuals. Once again Gandhi provides us with several examples. Once he was playing bridge with a family during which the men and even the hostess told a number of jokes that he considered indecent. He finally joined in, but it seemed he overdid it: God* through the good companion uttered the blessed warning: “Whence this devil in you, my boy? Be off, quick!” - I was ashamed. I took the warning, and expressed within myself gratefulness to my friend. Remembering the vow I had taken before my mother, I fled from the scene. To my room I went quaking, trembling, and with beating heart, like a quarry escaped from its pursuer.’
On another occasion he mentions how he discussed birth control and his planned vow of brahmacharya (chastity) with fellow volunteers during the Boer War; I would imagine that they felt quite uncomfortable talking about (or just listening to) such topics. (He finally took the vow in 1906 and coerced his helpers into doing the same.)
(*When Gandhi is mentioning God he refers to Rama.)
After 3 years in London he passed his exams yet couldn’t help the feeling of incompetence: ‘But notwithstanding my study, there was no end to my helplessness and fear. I did not feel myself qualified to practise law.’
It is quite common for autistic individuals to shy away from asking for advice or assistance for fear of troubling the other party or being considered ignorant. There are several examples of this in Gandhi’s autobiography, such as the occasion of meeting Dadabhai Naoroji who later became the first Asian MP in Westminster. ‘He said: “You can come and have my advice whenever you like.” But I never availed myself of his offer. I thought it wrong to trouble him without the most pressing necessity.’
On returning home he got the news that his mother had passed away. While autistic individuals have emotions like everybody else they find it difficult, or have no desire, to express these emotions in the way others do: ‘My grief was even greater than over my father's death. Most of my cherished hopes were shattered. But I remember that I did not give myself up to any wild expression of grief. I could even check the tears, and took to life just as though nothing had happened.’
As he set up his business as a barrister in Bombay Gandhi decided to charge very small fees, but firmly refused to pay any commission to the tout as every other lawyer did. He describes his only case such: ‘I appeared for the defendant and had thus to cross-examine the plaintiff's witnesses. I stood up, but my heart sank into my boots. My head was reeling, and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise. I could think of no question to ask. The judge must have laughed, and the vakils no doubt enjoyed the spectacle. But I was past seeing anything. I sat down and told the agent that I could not conduct the case, that he had better engage Patel and have the fee back from me. Mr Patel was duly engaged for Rs. 51. To him, of course, the case was child's play.’
The exploitation of connections for dodgy purposes, i.e. the old boy network, is quite an alien concept for most autistic persons, and being pressured into it can cause severe discomfort. Gandhi’s brother, after having been accused of giving wrong advice, once urged him to intervene on his behalf: ‘I did not at all like this idea. I should not, I thought, try to take advantage of a trifling acquaintance in England. If my brother was really at fault, what use was my recommendation? If he was innocent, he should submit a petition in the proper course and, confident of his innocence, face the result. My brother did not relish this advice. “You do not know Kathiawad,” he said, “and you have yet to know the world. Only influence counts here. It is not proper for you, a brother, to shirk your duty, when you can clearly put in a good word about me to an officer you know.” I could not refuse him…’
The official in question did not take kindly to Gandhi’s attempt and finally had him thrown out. ‘”Never again shall I place myself in such a false position, never again shall I try to exploit friendship in this way,” said I to myself, and since then I have never been guilty of a breach of that determination. This shock changed the course of my life.’
In 1893 he was sent to South Africa for the first time. One episode from his journey perfectly describes how naïve autistic individuals can be when it comes to social interaction: ‘The Captain liked me much, but the liking took an undesirable turn. He invited an English friend and me to accompany him on an outing, and we all went ashore in his boat. I had not the least notion of what the outing meant. And little did the Captain know what an ignoramus I was in such matters. We were taken to some Negro* women's quarters by a tout. We were each shown into a room. I simply stood there dumb with shame. Heaven only knows what the poor woman must have thought of me. When the Captain called me I came out just as I had gone in. He saw my innocence.’
(*When Gandhi wrote his autobiography that term wasn’t considered offensive.)
In South Africa, where he witnessed plenty of humiliations of Indians (including himself) and black people, the foundations for his fight against racial discrimination were laid. In a meeting he called in Pretoria he finally overcame his difficulty with speaking in front of an audience: ‘My speech at this meeting may be said to have been the first public speech in my life.’ However, throughout his life his speaking voice remained very faint and monotonous and almost free of intonation.
The perceived stubbornness of autistic individuals, which is a result of their unwillingness to be flexible with their principles, is legendary. Gandhi was no different; for example, when he was asked to remove his turban in a South African court he rather left the court than giving in. However, on a later occasion he grudgingly complied in order not to endanger his main objective: ‘I saw my limitations. The turban that I had insisted on wearing in the District Magistrate's court I took off in obedience to the order of the Supreme Court. Not that if I had resisted the order, the resistance could not have been justified. But I wanted to reserve my strength for fighting bigger battles. I should not exhaust my skill as a fighter insisting on retaining my turban. It was worthy of a better cause.’
Despite being a devout Hindu Gandhi never accepted the parts that were essential to his religion but went against his convictions: ‘Hindu defects were pressingly visible to me. If untouchability could be a part of Hinduism, it could but be a rotten part or an excrescence. I could not understand the raison d'etre of a multitude of sects and castes. What was the meaning of saying that the Vedas were the inspired Word of God?’
Throughout his life he kept campaigning against the caste system, especially against untouchability, and even went as far as cleaning the chamber pots of untouchables, regardless of what others – including his wife – thought of him. (‘It is likely that many of my doings have not her approval even today. We never discuss them, I see no good in discussing them.’)
Gandhi’s refusal to eat meat was founded in his vow, his religion and his personal convictions, and he clung to it with autistic stubbornness. There were several instances of himself, his wife and one of his children being seriously ill, and the doctor prescribing them to take beef tea, chicken or meat broth to build up their strength, which Gandhi refused in all cases.
The older he got the more he restricted himself from comforts he deemed unnecessary, and he developed a rigid daily routine he hardly ever deviated from, such as getting up at 4am, having his meals at certain times and going for walks at 7am and 6.30pm. It is said that he got quite upset if he had to make any changes to this routine.
‘Inhibitions imposed from without rarely succeed, but when they are self-imposed, they have a decidedly salutary effect.’
In one chapter he tells us, ‘My life is based on disciplinary resolutions. I thought of the unnecessary trouble I had caused to my hosts at Calcutta and Rangoon, who had so lavishly entertained me. I therefore decided to limit the articles of my daily diet, and to have my final meal before sunset. I was convinced that if I did not impose these restrictions on myself, I should put my future hosts to considerable inconvenience, and should engage them in serving me rather than engage myself in service. So I pledged myself never whilst in India to take more than five articles in twenty-four hours, and never to eat after dark. I gave the fullest thought to the difficulties I might have to face. But I wanted to leave no loophole. I rehearsed to myself what would happen during an illness, if I counted medicine among the five articles, and made no exception in favour of special articles of diet. I finally decided that there should be no exception on any account whatsoever.’
He also came to distrust conventional medicine and started developing his own treatments, such as talking his wife who had suffered from a haemorrhage into a salt- and pulseless diet: ‘But she rallied quickly, haemorrhage completely stopped, and I added somewhat to my reputation as a quack.’
Several events in his autobiography demonstrate that he was too trusting and has been repeatedly taken advantage of. In one case, for example, he helped a woman who wanted to open a large vegetarian restaurant: ‘My clients used to keep large sums as deposits with me. Having received the consent of one of these clients, I lent about a thousand pounds from the amount to his credit. This client was most large-hearted and trusting. He had originally come to South Africa as an indentured labourer. He said: 'Give away the money, if you like. I know nothing in these matters. I only know you.' His name was Badri. He afterwards took a prominent part in Satyagraha, and suffered imprisonment as well. So I advanced the loan assuming that this consent was enough. In two or three months' time I came to know that the amount would not be recovered. I could ill afford to sustain such a loss. There were many other purposes to which I could have applied this amount. The loan was never repaid. But how could trusting Badri be allowed to suffer? He had known me only. I made good the loss.’
Gandhi also recalls the following conversation with an army comrade: ‘”You are too trusting. These people will deceive you with wretched words, and when at last you see through them, you will ask us to resort to Satyagraha, and so come to grief, and bring us all to grief along with you,” said he with a smile. “What else but grief can you hope to come to after having cast in your lot with me?” said I. “A Satyagrahi is born to be deceived. Let the Commanding Officer deceive us. Have I not told you times without number that ultimately a deceiver only deceives himself?” Sorabji gave a loud laugh. “Well, then,” said he, “continue to be deceived. You will some day meet your death in Satyagraha and drag poor mortals like me behind you.”’.
In another chapter he describes how a cook had left him in the wake of a situation that Gandhi hadn’t grasped: '”I cannot stay in your house,” he said, “You are so easily misled. This is no place for me.”'
Throughout his autobiography Gandhi hardly describes any intimate emotions. He had spent extended periods of time separated from his family, such as his three years of study in England, yet during these periods he never mentions them at all – not a word about missing them, or wishing they were with him. He doesn’t even mention whether they had remained in contact. To the reader it sounds like his family and friends only existed as long as they were physically present.
Stimming is a self-stimulating repetitive behaviour that helps many autistic people to deal with stress and social anxiety or to focus on a conversation, amongst other possible reasons. A stim can be as subtle as toe crunching or lip biting, or as obvious as rocking or hand flapping. On the film footage we have of Gandhi we can see that his hands were busy most of the time; be it gesticulating while speaking, fidgeting with a handkerchief, adjusting his loincloth or spinning (he even invented a foldable spinning wheel to bring along on his travels). During one interview he seemingly sat still but kept clenching and unclenching his left fist.
Even though Gandhi achieved most of his goals in the end his lack of social imagination repeatedly presented him with obstacles he hadn’t anticipated at all.
During the first non-cooperation movement in India he didn’t foresee the possibility that the oppressed crowds who came out to protest and were attacked by police might retaliate despite his call for abstention from violence even in the face of violence. He was shocked when he was informed of the Chauri Chaura Incident which had claimed the lives of three civilians and 23 British policemen.
Throughout his life Gandhi had campaigned for the rights of Indians of both Hindu and Muslim denomination and promoted mutual understanding and respect. But while his efforts were successful in his immediate surroundings he didn’t realise that the majority of Muslims didn’t want to live in a state that was dominated by Hindus. On his release from gaol in 1944 he was stunned to be confronted with the Muslims’ claim for an independent state. A biographer writes, ‘Gandhi’s reaction to the two-nation theory and the demand for Pakistan was one of bewilderment, almost of incredulity.’
In the last years of his life Gandhi often slept in the presence of naked young girls, including his grandniece, in order to test his celibacy vow. While he couldn’t see anything objectionable about it himself his friends had to point out the implications his actions might have and finally got him to abandon his experiment in 1947.
In many ways autistic individuals seem to be full of contradictions, such as Gandhi who remained a devout Hindu while spending his life fighting against untouchability and the caste system, who didn’t care what others thought of his appearance while trying to convince them of his objectives and who rigidly stuck to his daily routines while changing the world. E. Stanley Jones, an American missionary who was active in India, points out several of Gandhi’s ‘pairs of opposites’: ‘When I asked Devadas Gandhi what he considered his father’s outstanding characteristic and contribution, he replied; "His candor and his courtesy." This is a combination rarely seen; the candid are not courteous, and the courteous are not candid. But Mahatma Gandhi was both, and he was both at one and the same time. He spoke exactly what he thought, and yet did it so gently and courteously that you loved it even when it was cutting across your own views. He was a most amazing blend of the candid and the courteous.[…]
Another pair of opposites came to a combination and blend in the Mahatma: he was a combination of stubbornness and yieldingness. He was a man underneath whose gentle ways was as iron will. When once he had made up his mind, nothing could deflect him from the course mapped out. […] And yet he was disconcertingly yielding when he saw reason to yield. He took the breath out of his followers when he called off the Non-co-operation Movement when twenty-one policemen were killed by a mob at Chauri Chaura, saying that his was "a Himalayan blunder."[…]
There was another pair of opposites meeting in the Mahatma: humility and self-assertiveness. He took himself very seriously, so much so that a great many thought him pontifical. He was. For he had a detached sense of mission. He looked on himself as an instrument of God. One of Gandhiji's companions in jail, a revered teacher, begged of him to eat more food and be careful about his health, and the Mahatma replied: "I am taking good care of my body. I feel as responsible as a pregnant woman. God in his infinite mercy has chosen, it seems to me, that I be instrumental in bringing forth India’s freedom. I, therefore, cannot afford to die as yet."
A Congressman told me that, when the crowds were pressing him, he said to those around him: "You are coming and going. If something happens to this body of mine, it will be the country’s loss, not mine. So if you want to help the country, give me fifteen minutes rest." […] His humility was born of a sense of consciousness of greatness of mission. There was a dignity in his humility. He spoke humbly and yet with an amazing sense of self-assurance.’