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Renowned animal behavior expert Temple Grandin does not let her autism define her.
“Autism’s a very important part of who I am. I like the logical way I think, and I wouldn’t want to change that,” she says in her MAKERS interview. “But my primary identity is being a scientist, animal behavior specialist.”
Grandin, who revolutionized the livestock industry with her focus on the humane treatment of animals, was diagnosed with autism as a child. Autism spectrum disorder, which affects one’s ability to communicate and interact with others to varying degrees, can be found in 1 in every 68 births in the U.S. But Grandin went on to earn countless accolades, including a doctoral degree, and her life inspired an Emmy-award winning HBO film starring Claire Danes.
In fact, Grandin is one of many women diagnosed with autism who have gone on to break down barriers across fields ranging from entertainment to anthropology. Even when they were viewed differently or denied opportunities, these women confirm that differences cannot prevent us from doing what we love—or shattering glass ceilings.
In April 2009, Susan Boyle, a middle-aged church volunteer from a small town in Scotland, auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent with her favorite song “I Dreamed a Dream”—and more than 200 million video views later, she had captured the attention of the world for her soaring vocals and humble personality. Though she didn’t win, Boyle went on to release seven albums, including 2009’s I Dreamed A Dream, which became the fastest selling U.K. debut of all time and skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard charts. The rise to fame came as a surprise to Boyle, who was born in 1961 and was often bullied as a child. It wasn’t until she turned 51 that she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is a form of autism. Boyle has gone on to headline her own international singing tour, appear in everything from a musical based on her own life to Zoolander 2, and has even performed for the Queen.
Daryl Hannah is an American actress known for her roles in Splash, Kill Bill, Wall Street, and Steel Magnolias. In 2013, Hannah revealed that she had been struggling with Asperger’s syndrome for years, causing extreme social anxiety. The actress was diagnosed as a child, and recalls doctors prescribing numerous medications and even suggesting institutionalization. Instead, she focused on her passions, such as acting, ballet, and campaigning for the environment.
After being bullied in school, Dawn Prince-Hughes ran away from home at 15 and found herself homeless and making ends meet as an erotic dancer. With one of her very first paychecks, she took the bus to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, and it was there that she found the mammals who she most identified with: Not humans, but gorillas. That a-ha moment launched her career as an anthropologist — she eventually got her master’s and PhD degrees in interdisciplinary anthropology, and went on to work with the Jane Goodall Institute, and published a slew of books, including Songs of the Gorilla Nation: My Journey Through Autism. Prince-Hughes, who was born in 1964, was diagnosed with autism at 38, and argues that her work with gorillas helped her develop coping mechanisms for her Asperger’s syndrome.
Valerie Paradiz is an autism activist who was diagnosed with the disability after the birth and diagnosis of her own son. She has spent her career working at various autism institutes throughout the country, and is currently on the board of directors for Autism Speaks, which works to find solutions for those living with the disorder across the spectrum. Paradiz speaks nationally and internationally about autism, emphasizing the talents of people with autism.
Born in Chicago in 1986, Heather Kuzmich rose to fame as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model in 2007, where she finished as fourth runner-up. During her time on the reality series, Kuzmich discussed her Asperger’s syndrome, which she was diagnosed with at the age of 15, as the reasoning behind her difficulty with some of the challenges within the competition. After the series, Kuzmich signed to Elite Model Management and was featured in People, The New York Times, and was even the cover star for Spectrum Magazine, a publications for those who have autism.
When she was just 15, Applegate became the first British woman with Asperger’s to win a gold medal at the Paralympic Games. She brought home the gold for the Women’s 200m freestyle at the London games and went on to win three more medals the following year at the IPC World Championships in Montreal: gold in the 200m freestyle, silver in the 200m medley, and bronze in the 100m freestyle. Applegate, who was born on August 22, 1996, dipped into a pool for the first time when she was just a few months old when her mother took her to a local swimming club. By age 10, Applegate began competing regularly, and she has gone on to shatter records, all while visiting schools and swim groups across the UK to share her inspiring story.
With the 2001 publication of Lucy’s Story: Autism and Other Adventures, Blackman became the first non-verbal published author in Australia. Born in 1978 in Melbourne, Blackman barely spoke while growing up, but she found solace and inspiration through typed communication as a teenager. She graduated from Deakin University — with honors — with a degree in literary studies, where she expressed herself through typed letters and essays. She still barely speaks to this day, but her voice is still heard.
Phillipa Margaret Brown, aka Ladyhawke
Phillipa Margaret Brown, better known as “Ladyhawke” — a nod to Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in the 1985 film of the same name — is an indie rock musician who has released three solo albums. Born in New Zealand in 1979, Brown attributes her childhood spent engrossed in music to her Asperger’s diagnosis. But her knack for the guitar has paid off: Brown has exploded on the New Zealand music scene and went home with six awards at the 2009 New Zealand Music Awards.
Amanda Baggs is an autism rights activist whose “In My Language” video went viral on YouTube in 2007. In the video, Baggs can be seen making sounds by humming, rapidly waving a sheet of paper and jiggling a doorknob. She later provides a translation to the sounds, which she calls her “native language.” Baggs, who relies on a computer or voice synthesizer to communicate, says, “My language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment.”
Williams, who was born in Australia in 1963, was called “deaf,” “disturbed” and “stupid” as a child, and it was only after she was diagnosed with autism at the age of 25 that she began to truly embrace herself and her experiences. In 1992, Williams published the international bestseller Nobody Nowhere: The Remarkable Autobiography of an Autistic Girl, which tells the story of her rise to independence and creative success. Williams published two additional books focused on autism and went on to be an international public speaker and autism consultant. [Editor’s note: Sadly, Donna Williams passed away in 2017 after a battle with breast cancer.]
British actress Lizzy Clark, who was born in 1994, gained popularity for her role in the 2008 TV movie, Dustbin Baby. In the movie, she plays Poppy, a character who, just like Clark, has Asperger’s syndrome. The role marked the first time an actress with Asperger’s played a character with the condition, causing Clark’s mother to launch a campaign against actors without mental disabilities portraying disabled characters. The campaign, “Don’t Play Me, Pay Me,” is a resource for mentally disabled actors and works with schools to encourage students with disabilities to take up acting.
Henriett Seth F.
Henriett is a world renowned writer, artist and poet. Born on Oct. 27, 1980, she is known as an autistic savant in that her creative skills far surpass the abilities of most. At age 8, she was playing the flute; by age 9, she was writing poetry; and by age 19, she was racking up awards for her surrealist paintings and poetry in her native Hungary. But she hasn’t had it easy: When Henriett was a child, she was denied entrance to all of the primary schools in her town due to her struggles with communication and maintaining eye contact. Today, she is a celebrated author whose paintings have been on display in Hungary.
Liane Holliday Willey
Willey, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome at 35, has written numerous inspiring self-help books for those with autism and has taught at the university level for over 15 years. She holds a doctorate in education, with a specialty in psycholinguists. Born in 1959, as a child Willey found extreme discomfort in unfamiliar places, noise, and people who came too close to her. Today, she is a well-respected motivational speaker and equine therapy advocate who makes it her mission to bring people together despite their differences.