Did Thoreau Have Asperger’s?

While reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, there are of course many different thoughts running through the readers mind, mainly “Thoreau, what is your problem”? Throughout Walden, the voice of Thoreau comes off as pretentious and egotistical as he explores the benefits of experiential learning and living deliberately.  He tends to obsess over the same idea or concept for chapters at a time and has demonstrated the least bit of interest in any sort of social contact.  Most people would write Thoreau off as an odd, prude man whose life’s motto is “my way or the highway”, but perhaps there is another explanation for Thoreau’s blunt and elitist manner.

Asperger’s Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder that differs from other autism disorders in that Asperger’s does not affect linguistic and cognitive development. Characterized mostly by a lack of social skills and fixations on topics or activities, Asperger’s affects 200K to 3M US citizens per year. People with Asperger’s usually have a hard time experiencing empathy and reacting to social cues. They also tend to stick to inflexible schedules or mentalities and tend to excel in academics. One of the biggest problems a person with Asperger’s faces is a sort of “social dyslexia”. In a documentary about Asperger’s, David Jordan, a man who has Asperger’s, describes how difficult it is to connect to people unless he is discussing a topic he is really interested in. However, even then, the conversation is no longer a conversation, but more of him talking and the other person listening.

When looking at the symptoms of Asperger’s and the personality traits seen in Thoreau’s Walden side by side, it becomes apparent that Asperger’s could possibly be a syndrome Thoreau himself lived with. It would explain why Thoreau comes off as an antisocial rude man and why he was so comfortable living in the woods by himself for so long. For example, when meeting the Baker family in the chapter “Baker Farm” in Walden, Thoreau comes off as racist when describing the family, how they live, and what they look like. Another example can be seen in the chapter “Reading” from Walden in which Thoreau discusses at length the benefits of being an adventurous learner and what that means. In “What’s Your Fucking Problem Henry Thoreau?”, an article for The Daily Kros, a woman with Asperger’s explores the similarities between herself and Thoreau, saying she never understood why she connected with the American writer until her diagnosis. She offers an interesting insight into Thoreau and the similarities between Thoreau and Asperger’s.

What’s Your Fucking Problem Henry Thoreau?

While there is a strong possibility that Thoreau could have had Asperger’s, this isn’t an excuse or pass for Thoreau’s behavior. Although there are a lot of personality traits that Thoreau exhibits in Walden that correlate with Asperger’s, many people who have Asperger’s are not as rude as Thoreau seems to be in his novel. When Thoreau wrote Walden, there weren’t as many sources for people with Asperger’s, so Thoreau would not have been able to improve his social skills as he would have been able to do today so that could be an explanation for why he differs in some behavioral aspects. Basically we will never know if Thoreau actually did have Asperger’s, we can only speculate. But in speculating that does not take away from Thoreau’s beliefs, actions, or opinions; it simply gives us a peephole into who Thoreau really was and a possible explanation for his words and actions.



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