Friday, November 19, 2010

Diagnosing Historical Figures : Biblical Autism

Flickr photo by Mary Harrsch 
Did you know that the biblical character of Samson from the Old Testament might have had autism?  Neither did I until it in a study included in an e-mail notification from PubMed today.

No, I am not joking.

I really didn't want to write a third snarky post in the row, but this is too much.  I know researchers sometimes publish things like this as sort of a tongue-in-cheek paper, but really.

But when I opened up my e-mail this morning, there it was" Newer insights to the neurological diseases among biblical characters of old testament", sandwiched between "The Ritvo Autism Asperger Diagnostic Scale-Revised (RAADS-R): A Scale to Assist the Diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder in Adults: An International Validation Study" and "Family-based association testing of glutamate transporter genes in autism".

The paper is available online, so go read it if you want.  But the, uhm, substance of the the reasons for the historical diagnosis can be summed up as follows -

1. Samsom had "violent movements of the body" at various times which might have been seizures.  Seizures are common in some people with autism.

2. Samson is said to have eaten a swarm of bees and honey that he found in the carcass of a lion.  Abnormal eating habits have been seen in children with autism.

3. Samson showed a "failure to understand deception" because he believed his strength lay in his hair and that he would lose his strength if his hair was ever cut.  I think it would have been more plausible if they went with resistance to change instead of the deception angle, but that's just me.

4. Samson performed many physical feats throughout his life, feats he may have only been able to perform because he was insensitive to pain.  Some people with autism have been found to be insensitive to pain.

So there you have it, Samson joins the ranks of those with a post-humorous diagnosis.



Mathew SK, Pandian JD. Newer insights to the neurological diseases among biblical characters of old testament. Ann Indian Acad Neurol [serial online] 2010 [cited 2010 Nov 19];13:164-6. Available from:


  1. What a bunch of nonsense. Is this someone supposed to get people to find autism more acceptable? There is no way to know whether Samson has autism or not... and really, who cares? I hope no autism charity funded this research.

    1. More acceptable? Why does that even mean? The autism sadly doesn’t have to be a thing that people can Accept it or not , i a reality is happening with a lot of kids and the world need information about it churches schools even in the families

  2. I hope no autism charity funded this research.

    Considering that John Robison, a high school dropout, is on the science advisory board of autism speaks along with all these M.D. and Ph.D. scientists and he has seriously suggested studying geek success as a way to mitigate the problems of autism, I would not be surprised if autism speaks or some other charity funded this.

  3. The people who promote this idea of diagnosing autism posthumously, based on limited (and in this case, fictional) information, don't seem to realise they do more harm than good. It really does make autism look like a joke.

    It makes it appear that just about anyone can have autism by analysing their behaviours in a particularly inventive way, undercutting the reality of the condition and how hard it is for those effected and their families.

  4. I don't think that any autism charity (cough, cough autism speaks) funded this particular bit of research. It was not autism specific and was published by some Christian medical college and leprosy organization in India.

    Although, as Jonathan pointed out, AS has board members who seem to be willing to spend money on nonsense.

    Autism & Oughtisms, I think you hit the nail on the head. Posthumous (or as I prefer to call it, post-humorous) diagnosis does do more harm than good.

  5. Failure to understand deception is actually one of the most core neurological traits of Autism. We don't have the neurology to understand deception or to lie.

    Neurotypicals need to deal with it.

  6. John the Baptist ate grasshoppers and honey. My autistic child commented on how disgusting that was . . . LOL

    1. The word can also refer to a kind of tree-bean which grows in the area, maybe like 'carob', which can be used as a substitute for chocolate, and may be available at your local health food store.

  7. EquiisSavant,

    I wasn't saying that people with autism don't have a hard time understanding deception. Clearly, autism involves issues understanding social situations, and deception would fall under that category.

    I was simply trying to say that a more plausible explanation for not wanting to cut his hair was resistance to change - which is another core symptom of autism.

  8. I think the reason they chose the hair-cutting story as indicative of Samson's gullibility isn't because he believed his strength was in his hair, but because he trusted Delilah when he shouldn't have.

    (I'm with you, though, that they could as easily have used that as an indicator of "resistance to change" --- I also think it could be an example of sensory hypersensitivity; some autistic men find shaving to be absolute agony. Of course, it's all just silliness, but with a little more creativity they could've found a few more details in the story to include in their exegesis).

  9. This was published by the Indian Academy of Neurology (IAN)- the authors come from a "leprosy mission" (??? what kind of passe concept is that?!) and a Christian Medical College.

    You gotta check out this cheesecake outfit: (this is where the solicitation for research starts; note the .com). Their annals are "peer-reviewed quarterlies" and may be found at a .org
    Usually I'll say that with ASD the Dx du jour you see money tossed at anything with autism in the title; coupled with publish-or-perish this is what you get! Feh. (let's not knock the genre: Freud's forensic on Leonardo daVinci was the only fun thing he wrote, imo)

  10. You know apart from the lack of humour displayed by the comments to this blog I see surprising ignorance too, especially the assumption that any piece of "research" published is necessarily funded to a large extent. Hey whatever happened to the people who write this stuff for a hobby.

    I have undertaken a lot of what you might call "hobby research" in the past, this isn't proper empirical research at all, it is some guy spending a little time in a library, hey I researched the history of Freemasonry in precisely that fashion years ago, it was "interesting" in more ways than one, particularly in terms of the odd encounters with the funny handshake people themselves. You know spotting the mason is a bit like aspie spotting, they don't all walk about with there trouser leg rolled up you know :)

    Hey the journal editor was just being showing a bit of levity letting that through leviticus notwithstanding, you know Moses rode a triumph mosickle didn't you?

  11. Author,

    How often do you think Neurology journals accept manuscripts written hobbyists? How many of them do you think are indexed by PubMed?

    There is a time and place for levity but a medical journal isn't really the appropriate place. "They had autism" isn't a good punch line either.

  12. Well whatever, in this case somebody was clearly extracting the micturition in classic medical fashion here, whatever the intentions of the authors, you just have to laugh at the absurdity.

    How many Dr's do you know who went on to become famous humourists or satirists, I can give you several.

    If you look at academic literature closely you will find that authors are often having subtle academic in jokes with each other with the citation, never mind the "Sokal affair" It can be a rather ethereal realm because in jokes are not available to anyone but the most esoteric of pedants. I am very fortunate in having the acquired cultural capital (bordieu) to understand a lot that.

    Anyway Dr Jonathan Miller, of beyond the fringe fame is a well known exponent.

    It is indeed all a form of academic freemasonry, but Samson alas was not of that number, considering his propensity to destroy the pillars, which probably were not named Boaz and Jachin :)

    Anyway Bible apart and Lili Marlene notwithstanding, I hereby nominate Thomas Tallis for whom we have the wispiest biographies, solely on the basis of his music, he had to have been autistic cos I reckon his music is cool :)

  13. In defence of "hobbyist" research I have to say pub med is certainly not the sine qua non of research indeed it is just a cul de sac of what goes on out there.

    My initiation into serious research came as a mere youth outwith an understanding of current ossified academic conventions in a freer age. I designed two pieces of demographic research that had a significant effect in the environment of disability politics in Coventry. Back in those days I was known as somebody who knew my stuff, and I did.

    Indeed I was accepted to do a PhD not so much on the basis of my academic track record but also my experience of real world research.

    I once wrote a paper anonymously for the European Ministers of transport, by special request, there is more to life than pubmed, this latter day google believing lazy world fails to realise what else is and was out there in the days when we had to do it the "hard way" amateurs or not.

    This was in a world before the internet.

  14. On another note, quite apart from anything else, we could expect depictions of all kinds of human variance in the literature of the ancient past, simply because that is part of human kind and sometimes prominent figures do have prominent "disorders"

    I can recall this is nothing new. A long time back I read that Saul was supposedly bipolar.

    The Bible for certain does mention and depict a whole range of physical conditions, from leprosy to the falling sickness. It is such a vast book dealing with humanity, I would be surprised if autism isn't in it somewhere, though not necessarily in the story of Sampson, that is told in the way it is, not so much as history but as illustrative anecdote. A didactic text.

    Anyway fill in your favourite Biblical character. Lets here it for OCD. There was Pontius Pilate conspicuosly washing his hands wasn't there, and of course Herod just had to be paranoid?

  15. "Anyway fill in your favourite Biblical character. Lets here it for OCD. There was Pontius Pilate conspicuosly washing his hands wasn't there, and of course Herod just had to be paranoid?"

    Both examples show ignorance of culture and history. In the ancient world, hand-washing was a ritual behavior, and in the context Pontius Pilate was obviously using it as a statement.

    In the case of Herod, rulers in many cultures made a habit of killing off anyone who disturbed them by threatening their rulership. This included close relatives. So Herod was acting just like hundreds of other historical rulers. Paranoia was part of the job description.

    What you are actually demonstrating is that psychiatric diagnoses in a cultural and historical vacuum are silly and pretty sure to be wrong.


  16. OMG Thanks for posting this.

    Is there a disorder for the compulsive need to diagnose dead historical and possibly mythological figures?

  17. Hi, came to your blog from the neuroskeptic. I think it would have been acceptable if religious academics (theologists?) read up on autism, and wrote this article in a religious magazine, instead of scientists considering religious mythology as source of data and then publishing this in a scientific journal. I am from India, and I know for a fact that the taxpayers' money is used for funding such nonsense more often than not.