Nine Successful People who are Autistic Role Models

Some people focus on the difficulties that autistic people have. Even in recent history, autism was defined by the ‘Triad of Impairment’, three areas that needed to be ‘impaired’ for a diagnosis to be given. Nowadays, it is more often thought of as a difference or neuro-diversity.

This article shines light onto the lives of autistic role models who use their strengths to fly high. For parents, carers and teachers, it reminds us that the strengths of the autistic mind can often be an asset. It reminds us to have high aspirations, regardless of the diagnosis. Of course, not everyone can be famous, even if they aren’t autistic. But let’s aim big – whatever the autistic child’s strengths are.

A second reason for this article is that there is lots of false information online about who is are (or is not) autistic. So, this article has links to reputable websites that have high editorial standards – mainly respected news websites. You’ll find the links at the end of the article.

Teachers are welcome to use this content in displays, PSHE or assembly. Autism Awareness month is every April, although you don’t have to wait to change perceptions of autism… You can start today.

1. James McLean: Pro Footballer

James McLean has played for his country, Republic of Ireland, over 100 times. He first became captain of the team in 2022. During his club career, James has played for at Sunderland, Stoke City, Wigan and West Brom.

James McLean, Footballer for Republic of Ireland and one of the nine autistic role models.

James has a daughter who is autistic. He noticed ways that he was similar to her and went for a diagnosis. After being diagnosed, he went public because he wanted to show his daughter that being autistic should “never hold her back from reaching her goals and dreams.”

2. Greta Thunberg: Climate Activist

Greta inspires people around the world to care more about our dying planet. She says her autism is a super power and answered haters by saying “When haters go after your looks and differences … you know you’re winning.”

Profile picture of Greta Thunberg, Climate Activist and perhaps the most famous autistic person on the planet.

Greta has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize. That is an incredible for anyone, but even more impressive because Greta is only in her early 20s.

3. Guy Martin: TT Rider & Record Breaker

Guy Martin is a motorbike rider, who has also written books and presented TV shows. One of them was the Channel 4 programme, Worlds Fastest Tractor, where he broke the World Record for driving a Tractor at 153 mph. Guy Martin is autistic. Unfortunately, he’s quoted as describing his diagnosis as ‘a load of tripe.’ The problem with these words are that, in news stories about him, we don’t always get told what he said next:

“The way I look at it is that maybe having that is why I am the way I am. Maybe that is all down to the autistic side. I don’t know.

“If there are any benefits to having it, it’s that you just get your head down and get on with things. I apply that to the way I work.”

Guy Martin, motorbike rider and an autistic role model.

It sounds like Guy is someone who accepts his diagnosis but prefers it to be just part of him, rather than let it define or limit him.

4. Jessica-Jane Applegate: Champion Swimmer

As a British Paralympic swimmer, Jessica-Jane won gold and silver medals in the Tokyo Olympics. She’s also collected gold, silver and bronze medals in the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Games.

Jessica-Jane was diagnosed with autism at nursery and found swimming was a great way of relaxing at the end of the school day.

Jessica-Jane Applegate, paralympic swimmer and one of the nine autistic role models.

She also has a popular TikTok account that is full of videos about swimming, fitness and cats.

5. Chris Packham: TV Presenter

As both a presenter and wildlife lover, Chris has educated and entertained audiences for 40 years. Chris was diagnosed with Aspergers, a form of autism back in his 20s (so between 1981 and 1991) and believes that, since getting his diagnosis his life has been wonderful.

Chris Packham, wildlife presenter and one of the nine autistic role models.

6. Susan Boyle: Singer

Singing sensation Susan Boyle first won fans on Britain’s Got Talent and was a runner up in the final. She’s since released chart topping hits, sung with some of the top names in showbiz including Madonna, Micheal Ball and even Peter Kaye.

Susan was diagnosed with Asperger’s as an adult, her journey reminds us to never give up on what we love.

Susan Boyle, singer and one of the nine autistic role models.

7 & 8. Elliott Garcia and Bruno: A Voice Actor and a Cartoon Character

Voiced by Elliott, a nine year old autistic boy, Bruno the Brake Car is an autistic character in Thomas the Tank Engine TV stories. Bruno loves schedules and routines and even has his own cloudy ear defenders.

Bruno the Brake Car - a character from Thomas the Tank Engine who is autistic. Also shown is Elliot, a young autistic boy who voices the character.

On the show, Bruno’s job is to slow trains down if they hit danger. But, more generally, he introduces young kids to autism and helps them to learn acceptance.

Elliott, on the other hand, is one of the few 9 year olds to have his own IMDB page listing his acting credits. He auditioned and was chosen from all the hopefuls to lend his voice to Bruno.

9. Mel Sykes: TV & Radio Presenter

Mel Sykes says that getting her diagnosis was “fantastic really because it does make sense of a lot of things. I’m a very sensitive person, I care about the truth and facts.” She also challenges the view that autistic people don’t have empathy “That’s not all autistic people… I have great empathy for other people, I’m so sensitive to other people’s needs (and sometimes more than myself).”

Mel was diagnosed as autistic in 2021.

Mel Sykes, TV and Radio presenter and one of the nine autistic role models.

Update: Pro-Footballers

There’s a stream of pro-footballers who are being more open about their autism. This includes Greg Halford (versatile player who’s played for Cardiff City, Sheffield United, Notts Forest, and Brighton player) who talked about his autism in November 2023.

John O’Kane, who is now retired from the game, has spoken and written about his autism. John played alongside the likes of David Beckham and Gary Neville at Man Utd.

The stream of pro-footballers also includes footballers who have spoken about autism in their family, including:

Others who are Claimed to be Autistic Role Models

There are other people who a Google search suggests are autistic. However, there is often no proof. For example, with a quick search, you’ll find many articles that suggest that Bill Gates, boss of Microsoft, is autistic. However, he’s never said that he is autistic and it’s not the internet’s job to diagnose him.

A second example is the inventor of Pokemon, Satoshi Tajiri. I found no evidence that he is autistic, only people saying they think he is. There’s no interview, nor is there proof from any trustworthy sources.

We can raise awareness of autism without trying to guess the medical history of the rich and famous. That’s one reason why this article was written – so that you have an accurate list. This is not an article that points at anyone and decides they seem socially awkward and so must be autistic. Perhaps it’s ok to speculate about autism when chatting to friends, but it’s not ok to then publish your guesses.

Perhaps these rules are more relaxed if people are long dead (e.g. Charles Darwin or Albert Einstein), but if people are living or recently departed, we should not speculate.

Which brings us to Tim Burton… Is he an autistic role model?

Filmmaker Tim Burton is included on some lists of successful autistic people. His former wife, actress Helena Bonham Carter, said she thinks he’s autistic, but there’s no confirmation of that he is. It’s not on is website timburton.com and we couldn’t find any reliable source to back up the claim that he identifies as autistic. So, let’s not speculate on the medical history of people just because they’re famous.

Tim Burton, with posters of some of hs films in the background. Tim is not confirmed to be autistic.

Autistic Role Models of the Future?

These characters are great role models for autistic youngsters – including those who are just discovering their diagnosis. Maybe they can inspire our autistic youngsters to go onto great things and become role models themselves in future.

In the meantime, let’s all try harder to embrace diversity and celebrate the incredible potential within every one of us.

And, let’s also try to avoid guessing which famous people have autism.

Where you can check our claims about these Autistic Role Models:

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  • Aaron King, Director

    With over 20 years experience of working with children & young people in both mainstream and SEND settings, Aaron King is the driving force behind 9000lives.

    Aaron has written for the TES, including in the Leadership & Governance sections. He has also been a school governor for around 15 years.

  • Aaron King

    Aaron King Director

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