This is a blog post I’ve been meaning to write for several years, but it’s one that’s fraught with difficulties, because I’m going to attempt here to apply a label to a historical figure, and specifically a label that is often medicalised.
There is a big taboo about applying diagnostic labels to people one hasn’t met, and for good reason — too often this is used as a way of simultaneously reducing the person you’re talking about to a medical label, and it’s also often a way to increase stigma against an innocent group. I’ve seen a lot of people, for example, claim that Donald Trump has dementia and that explains aspects of his Presidency. But there are tens of millions of people in the world with dementia, none of whom are Donald Trump. Unless you’re Trump’s doctor, statements about his health are there to serve a political agenda, not to provide accurate information.
But in the case of neurodivergence, I think there’s an important purpose that is served by highlighting historical figures who one thinks may have been neurodivergent. Almost every month we see a new film or TV series, created by neurotypicals, presenting stereotypes of autism in particular. Those stereotypes lead to many, many people going without diagnosis, because they believe that autism is something very different from their own experiences. The stereotypes also lead to the murder of many autistic people.
To get past those stereotypes, we need to show real autistic people’s lives. But there’s a problem with that — autism is a relatively new diagnosis, and even for the first few decades of its existence it was underdiagnosed in children and not diagnosed at all in adults. I’m autistic, I’ve known I was autistic since I was sixteen, but I couldn’t get a formal diagnosis until this year — I’m forty-two.
Autism is still underdiagnosed, especially in women and people of colour, but that goes even more for anyone born before 1990 or so. Basically, no autistic people born before then have ever been diagnosed. But we have always existed, and it’s important that people understand that.
But there’s a problem with identifying historical autistic people, and that problem is another one that affects people today. The official diagnostic criteria for autism are created by neurotypical people, and speak entirely in terms of deficiencies. While it’s true that autism is disabling, it’s also true that most of the ways that autistic people experience autism, and most of the things we consider important about our lives, are not captured by those diagnostic tests.
And that means I can expect two different reactions to this. I expect most neurotypical people reading this to react in much the same way as historians do when faced with two women writing love letters to each other, living together, referring to each other as their wife, and asking to be buried together — in most cases like that, you end up with the historians saying “what an inspiring example of gals being pals! This purely platonic friendship between two heterosexual women just shows how close friends who happen not to have got married for some reason can become!”
In the same way, I expect most people reading this to say “most of those are things that could apply to anyone! You’ve not presented any evidence that Elvis was actually autistic!”
But I expect any autistic person reading this who has spent time in the wider autistic community to say “My God! That’s the most autistic person to ever have autisticed!” or words very much to that effect.
(A note here, BTW — I think Elvis would most likely get a diagnosis of autism were he to be diagnosed today, but autism overlaps with, and is often co-occurring with, a lot of other neurodivergences, such as dyslexia, dyspraxia, and ADHD. There is some debate as to whether these are the same thing manifesting in different ways, or things that tend to cluster together but can occur separately, so it’s possible that Elvis wasn’t autistic but was dyspraxic and ADHD, or whatever.)
The thing that clued me in to Elvis’ neurodivergence, that unlocked this for me, was Sam Phillips talking about signing Elvis. Phillips is often quoted as having wanted “a white man who can sing like a Black man”, but when you listen to the earliest recordings of Elvis, there’s no sensible way anyone could have thought of him that way. What Phillips *actually* said was that “his insecurity was so markedly like that of a Black person.” In particular, in the South at that point, Black people didn’t look white people in the eye. Nor did Elvis.
Both Phillips and Carl Perkins said that Elvis was the most introverted person ever to enter a recording studio, in more or less those exact words.
As a young man, Elvis had very few real friends. He was extremely close to his parents, especially his mother, with whom he almost had a private language and could communicate in a way he couldn’t with anyone else, but had difficulty making friends his own age. He would often hang out with people like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette, who lived nearby. They would bully him, but they’d let him stand on the edge of the group and sing when they were singing.
Later in life, Elvis would surround himself with the “Memphis Mafia”, a group of people to whom he was intensely loyal, even though they were mostly taking advantage of him.
Elvis was known for being constantly in movement, fingers twitching and legs tapping all the time.
He was extremely poor at emotional regulation, and could swing wildly in mood.
He was a very naturally talented actor, who could lose himself in a role (though he was never given the chance to grow).
Before becoming a singer, he worked for a time as an electrician, but he was very bad at it. He kept giving himself electric shocks, and once said it was a miracle none of the houses he worked on had burned down.
He was very into martial arts, which he liked because it allowed him a sense of control over his body.
Some of his stage costumes in the seventies were patterned on his favourite comic-book character, Captain Marvel Jr.
He was a voracious reader and would bring three trunks filled with books on tour with him.
His famous hip-shaking actually started as nerves — he was trembling the first time he was on stage, and it made his baggy trouser legs shake, which the audience took as intentional.
He watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail thirty-five times, and could quote it from memory. He was also a particular fan of Peter Sellers.
He had a highly restricted diet, and had specific issues with textures — food had to be prepared a particular way, with bacon almost burned and eggs hard, and he would eat particular combinations of food many other people found disgusting. People to this day mock him for his taste for peanut-butter, bacon, and banana sandwiches.
He had real problems with sleeping — he was naturally nocturnal, and often had to rely on medical help to get onto a somewhat-diurnal schedule. Even with pharmaceutical help he rarely slept more than three hours at a time.
He had bad skin — the thing people note most about him as a young man was that he had terrible acne on his neck.
He had a near-photographic memory, and would learn and retain a song after hearing it only once. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of music.
And perhaps most importantly, for much of the last few years of his life he was chronically ill but didn’t present that way. The prescription drug use for which he became notorious after his death was a combination of things to treat his sleep problems, and pain medication. The thing that eventually killed him was not his lifestyle, as reported — he had a variety of genetic, stress-related, inflammatory and autoimmune conditions which made him put on weight, including the hypertension that led to his eventual heart attack. These seem to have been inherited from his mother (who also died in her forties). Again, it’s not a formal diagnostic criterion of autism that one has autoimmune problems, but anecdotally the *vast* majority of autistic people have them (there’s a reason the average life expectancy for an autistic person is fifty-four).
But the pain medication… Elvis told his doctors, for years, that he was in a huge amount of pain. They thought he was faking, because he didn’t “act like” someone in pain — they thought he was after drugs. So sometimes he was prescribed real opiates, but other times he would be given placebos, made to look like the drugs that worked. When those didn’t work, he took more of them, so when he got the real stuff he took more than he should, which made the doctors believe he was just after drugs…
After his death, when those same doctors re-examined X-rays of him, it was obvious he had arthritis, and had really been in unspeakable agony for years. But he’d just not seemed like he was in pain to the doctors. He didn’t act how a person in pain “should” act.
Again, nobody who isn’t neurodivergent will read the above and be convinced. But I think if you’ve any experience of the neurodivergent community, you’re going to read that, and come to the same conclusion as me.