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[Perspectives] Autism

Does the story of autism begin with early modern holy fools, or brilliant but socially awkward natural philosophers like Isaac Newton, or the “Wild Boys” beloved of late-Enlightenment philosophes, or the travails of an obscure Scottish nobleman? In a thoughtful and meticulous case study, the psychologist Uta Frith and the historian Rab Houston have argued that we can understand the life of Hugh Blair of Borgue within the frame of modern autism. Though he lived with his family and could dress and feed himself, Blair took no interest in conversation and friendship, preferring to live by strict routines—attending every burial in the parish, for instance.