And now for something completely different: biblical autism

23 Nov

A strange abstract showed up in my pubmed search the other day: the paper Newer insights to the neurological diseases among biblical characters of old testament. A friend sent me the paper recently, but it turns out the paper is free on pubmed.

From the abstract you can see that one of the claims is that a biblical character was autistic. The character? Samson. I found the idea amusing (my wife laughed out loud at it). I was going to pass on blogging this until I read the paper. You’ll see why below.

Here is the abstract:

Many people over the years have studied the Bible from a medical point of view offering diagnoses for the symptoms and signs that appear to have afflicted numerous individuals in the Bible. We review the biblical characters in the Old Testament and offer newer insights to their neurological diseases. We first look at the battle between Goliath and David. Interestingly, Goliath probably suffered from acromegaly. We propose autism as a diagnosis for Samson which would precede the first known case of autism by centuries. Isaac was a diabetic, and he probably had autonomic neuropathy. Few verses from the books of I Samuel, Psalms, and Ezekiel reveal symptoms suggestive of stroke. Jacob suffered from sciatica, and the child of the Shunnamite woman in II Kings had a subarachnoid hemorrhage. These instances among others found in the Old Testament of the Bible offer newer insights on the history of current neurological diseases.

How do they go about claiming that Samson was autistic? Here’s a taste:

One of the earliest incidents recorded from Samson’s adult life is the journey to Timnath with his parents where he tears a lion
with his bare hands. On his return, he finds a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion, which he eats, and offers his
parents (Judges 14:8–9). Abnormal eating is one of the atypical behaviors noted among children with autism.

“Abnormal eating”. OK. I accept that eating honey from the carcass of a lion might not be the most common behavior in the world. Then again, I sort of assumed that…it was a story. I didn’t really take it as serious.

There is more. Samson, as you may know, was famed for his great strength (and his idea that his strength was dependent on his hair). This was possibly (according to the authors) due to a lack of the ability to sense pain. Also, they conclude with this gem:

A study of hospitalized individuals carried out in Sweden had reached the conclusion that individuals with autism or autism spectrum disorders are prone to acts of violence.

By that reasoning, a lot of old testament characters had a sign of autism (ever read the old testament? Lots and lots of violence).

That aside, this is a terrible stereotype to put forth. One which is not well supported by the reference they cite. Let’s take a look at the study they reference about autistics being “prone to violence”. Risk Factors for Violent Offending in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A National Study of Hospitalized Individuals

A brief narrative description of the journal article, document, or resource. Little is known about risk factors for violence among individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This study uses data from Swedish longitudinal registers for all 422 individuals hospitalized with autistic disorder or Asperger syndrome during 1988-2000 and compares those committing violent or sexual offenses with those who did not. Thirty-one individuals with ASD (7%) were convicted of violent nonsexual crimes and two of sexual offenses. Violent individuals with ASD are more often male and diagnosed with Asperger syndrome rather than autistic disorder. Furthermore, comorbid psychotic and substance use disorders are associated with violent offending. We conclude that violent offending in ASD is related to similar co-occurring psychopathology as previously found among violent individuals without ASD. Although this study does not answer whether ASDs are associated with increased risk of violent offending compared with the general population, careful risk assessment and management may be indicated for some individuals with Asperger syndrome. (Contains 2 tables.)

The study “does not answer whether ASD’s are associated with increased risk of violent offending” and “We conclude that violent offending in ASD is related to similar co-occurring psychopathology as previously found among violent individuals without ASD”. But this is used as evidence that “…individuals with autism or autism spectrum disorders are prone to acts of violence.”

Wow. Just, wow.

I see that I have been beaten to the punch on blogging this. Neuroskeptic has a post Autism Gives You Biblical Superpowers

25 Responses to “And now for something completely different: biblical autism”

  1. Kev November 23, 2010 at 20:20 #

    Thats just…bad…maybe the authors thought they were having a little joke?

  2. Tam November 23, 2010 at 21:41 #

    Wow. How incredibly ignorant and idiotic. I can think of a few Biblical characters who display autistic traits… and Sampson is not one of them.

    • Melanie April 7, 2017 at 01:19 #

      Yes they are ignorant Samson didn’t have Aspergers or any kind of autism.

      • Lawrence April 7, 2017 at 17:52 #

        Because he didn’t exist?

  3. Joseph November 23, 2010 at 22:37 #

    Yeah, lots of autistics eat swarms of bees and honey from the carcass of a lion. Wait, no, that doesn’t sound right.

    Should we assume Hercules was autistic too? Both are likely fictional, after all. (Not the first time a fictional character is diagnosed with autism, but in modern fiction there’s obviously more to go on.)

    Note that this appears to be the first autism paper by the two authors.

  4. daedalus2u November 23, 2010 at 23:14 #

    This hypothesis does fit with a low nitric oxide hypothesis. A major source of NO is ammonia oxidizing bacteria which live on the skin, especially where there is hair. Removing Samson’s hair would remove that source of NO, and could lead to chronic fatigue, by reducing mitochondrial biogenesis. The timing is off, it would take weeks or months for the weakness to occur.

    I don’t think that Samson fits especially well with a description of autism. I don’t think he is literal enough and is too good at dissembling. More like a personality disorder, I think a combination of antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic and probably a bit of psychosis too (which is at the opposite end of the autism spectrum). Maybe intermittent explosive disorder with a touch of TLE. That would explain the religious zeal. A rage disorder that he could trigger would fit too.

  5. RAJ November 24, 2010 at 16:39 #

    Religion and autism has been often been the focus of idle speculation in child psychiatry.

    Narayan, Moyes and Wolff published a paper on ‘autistic-traits’ they saw in the parents of autistic children:

    In the paper they produced exhaustively detailed descriptions of eight parents they saw as possessing the broad autism phenotype. One of the mothers was found to possess ‘overly extreme religiousity’ having attended Mass seven days a week and lived in a home filled with numerous religious artefacts. This sort of speculation would immediately place the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury under the microscope of child psychiatry.

  6. Barbara November 24, 2010 at 17:08 #

    Hang on – the Bible amongst other things contains collections of oral history folk stories. What shall we do next? Shall we examine the stories of The Brothers Grimm to discover neurological signs and symptoms? Or how about The Iliad? Charles Perrault?

    I’ve never heard anything so stupid since Margaret Thatcher once famously said, ‘No one would have heard of the Good Samaritan if he didn’t have money’. Baroness, sweetie, the Good Samaritan is a parable, get it?, an analogy to combat racism, like IT’S MADE UP.

    In this case, you’d have to believe that the Bible is a provenly accurate historical document before you even set off on a study. You’d have to begin from a false premise. Sheesh!

  7. dr treg November 24, 2010 at 21:14 #

    There is the possibility that Samson was also alcohol-dependent and had to remain a “Nazarite” for life. Nazarites were abstinent from alcohol. Dependency is more common in psychiatric disease.
    8) Judges 13:4, 7, 14 – Samson was to be a Nazarite for life. His mother was told not to drink wine or strong drink.

  8. Callista November 24, 2010 at 22:34 #

    I highly doubt that Samson was autistic, but I am relatively sure that Joseph (the one in Genesis) was autistic.

    Okay, first of all he has dreams that are blatantly obviously prophecies that he’s going to lead the family someday. He is, however, naive enough to tell his brothers–who are known to be rather violent, jealous people already–about his dreams. And then he is naive enough to go out to them, alone, where he’ll be completely at their mercy. Needless to say, he’s sold into slavery. Bully victim who’s too naive to be able to protect himself–what does that remind you of?

    Here’s the interesting thing: This naive, apparently stupid boy seems to have an extreme talent for financial management. He can’t detect his brothers’ obvious jealousy, but he’s evidently smart enough to be promoted–as a slave and a foreigner–to become the manager of a wealthy man’s house. But here his social clumsiness comes in again: His master’s wife starts coming on to him. And he can’t handle the situation. The only reaction he has is to run away from her, leaving “evidence”. Luckily, he’s thrown into prison rather than executed.

    Here we go again. Joseph’s talent comes out and he becomes a trusted prison inmate, and successfully interprets a dream for one of the other prisoners, and news gets to the king. Said king fetches him out of prison, and we all know the rest–Joseph’s talents get Egypt through a famine, his brothers come to stay, he plays a few tricks on them to try to figure out whether they’re honestly remorseful (apparently he’s grown mature enough to realize he has to compensate for his own naivite) and now the whole family’s living in Egypt.

    It’s an odd story of narrow talent combined with social deficits, just like what you’d see in an autistic person. If anybody in the Bible is autistic, it’s Joseph.

  9. dr treg November 24, 2010 at 22:56 #

    Joseph – another alcohol-dependency case?
    “Portions were served to them from Joseph`s table and Benjamin`s portion was five times larger than any of theirs. They drank and they got drunk with Joseph.”
    Genesis 43:34

    • Melanie March 11, 2017 at 00:44 #

      I have Aspergers we are not capable of murder and surely would not eat honey out of a dead lion that would gross us out.

  10. Lindsay November 25, 2010 at 02:38 #

    Thanks for addressing their claim that autistic people are more violent than neurotypical people; when I saw that, I was pretty sure it wasn’t true … at least, I’d never come across any study that would support such an assertion.

    I didn’t go to the trouble of reading the article they cite as evidence for that claim, though — I’m glad you did, and that you set the record straight on what they really found.

    (You’re also totally right that “autistic = violent” is probably the most damaging stereotype, in terms of how it informs how we’re treated. Irresponsible of these two guys to propagate that one).

    • BOMBA 777 October 4, 2015 at 21:31 #

      Does your ignorance know no bounds? It states that those on the autistic spectrum have a higher propensity to violence, which is a proven & indisputable fact. It doesn’t mean they are necessarily violent to people, it can often be self harm & smashing shit up. Before you argue, you’re dealing with an autistic spectrum genius.

      • Chris October 5, 2015 at 00:25 #

        ” which is a proven & indisputable fact. ”

        In the five years since this article was published and the comment you replied to was written, there should be some PubMed indexed studies to show us that it is a “fact.” Surely as a genius you can find them. Please post some of those citations.

  11. Theo November 26, 2010 at 18:41 #

    This is almost as good as some pagans who speculate on whether or not Jesus and Moses were Mages!!

    I once read on the Onion an article about God having multiple personality disorder….

    And someday someone will realize that autism does not equal violence!

    Stupidity on the other hand….. well now that’s an entirely different story!

  12. Melanie October 14, 2016 at 04:19 #

    People with aspergers are not violent. Where did you get that idea. That is ignorant we are not capable of hurting or killing anyone. I have aspergers so I know.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) October 23, 2016 at 03:32 #

      I don’t know who you are talking to.

  13. Melanie October 14, 2016 at 04:23 #

    I am bafled by people’s ignorance. They did not have aspergers we are not capable of killing they just probably said they did to get in less trouble.

    • Sullivan (Matt Carey) October 23, 2016 at 03:33 #

      Some people with Asperger’s are capable of killing. Just as any other person.

  14. Melanie March 11, 2017 at 00:41 #

    I have Aspergers we are not capable of murder and surely would not eat honey out of a dead lion that would gross us out.

  15. Melanie August 10, 2017 at 21:49 #

    Samson did not have any kind of Aspergers or autism. I have Aspergers and we are not violent.

    • Chris August 13, 2017 at 07:10 #

      I am sorry, but you are just one data point. While we do not like folks to be stereotyped, we cannot rely on just your experience.

      There are some on the autistic spectrum that do due to overwhelming sensory import react violently. Fortunately this can be predicted and handled (hopefully) properly.

      Remember, due to the vast variety of genetic variation in the human population: if you have met one autistic person you have met one autistic person.

      Trust me, they are all different.

      If you wish to show how unique you are, please participate in th1s genetic study:


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