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And now for something completely different: biblical autism

Posted Nov 23 2010 1:51pm

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

  1. Kev:
    Thats just...bad...maybe the authors thought they were having a little joke?

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