Was Vincent van Gogh autistic?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Van Gogh had bipolar disorder. He had many symptoms related to bipolar disorder: manic episodes, depressive episodes, hallucinations, sleep disturbance, substance abuse, memory problems, nightmares, and anxiety, to name a few from his asylum files.

Yet, additional diagnostic labels could help to clarify his overall presentation. One diagnosis that has been put forward is BPD. It does seem to explain some of the events of his life, for example, his heated interpersonal conflicts and fears of abandonment related to Paul Gauguin. However, a diagnosis of autism has not been seriously considered. This is interesting in light of the heightened prevalence of bipolar disorder in autism — an autistic person is as much as 8.5 times more likely to have bipolar disorder than a non-autistic person (this number assumes no intellectual disability and a diagnosis before age 28).1 Another study found that 7% of autistic people also had bipolar disorder.2

As a child Van Gogh was described by his younger sister as “intensely serious and uncommunicative, and walked around clumsily as if in a daze, with his head hung low”, and went on to say that he was like a stranger both to his siblings and to himself. A servant said he was “an odd, aloof child who had queer manners and seemed more like an old man” than a child.3 These are characteristics often ascribed to some autistic children, even poor motor coordination (dyspraxia).

Vincent was deeply intelligent, thoughtful, and demonstrated what seemed like the capacity to be successful, but as a young man he struggled to find a vocation that could accommodate him. He drifted from an art dealership (where he was fired for arguing with buyers), to a teaching job, to a minister’s assistant for a Methodist church, to a bookshop where he reportedly doodled and translated parts of the Bible into English, French, and German, to religious studies. He failed his entrance exam in theology and his missionary course. Religion was a special interest for Van Gogh. He was endlessly devoted and passionate about the subject, but his odd behavior made him an ineffective preacher, and he was not a good student.

Van Gogh had severe social problems which seem to have started early in his life. People repeatedly thought that he was odd, and they didn’t want to be around him. His peculiarities were off-putting. Children were scared of him. Scholars suggest that he did not understand the concepts of diplomacy or salesmanship, that he lacked insight into the thought processes of others, and lacked the ability to cognitively understand their emotions and motivations.3 He was emotionally dysregulated and prone to agitated or impulsive meltdown behaviors. As his interest in painting became more intense and all-consuming, he neglected maintenance of his body or appearance, appearing even more eccentric.

One of the highlights of Van Gogh’s medical files that has yet to be parsimoniously explained is his chronic stomach issues. In particular, gastrointestinal problems seem to be an important feature of autism4 although bipolar disorder may also be related to stomach problems.

Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853 – 1890 ), Green Wheat Fields, Auvers, 1890, oil on canvas, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Finally, there’s the most obvious trait of Van Gogh’s: his artistic ability. Many people have suggested that Vincent might have had some form of synesthesia. Further, I hypothesize that hue discrimination may, like pitch discrimination, be enhanced in some autistic people.5

A diagnosis of autism didn’t exist in Van Gogh’s time — in fact, wouldn’t exist for over 50 years after his death. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that the autism connection has been overlooked. Vincent van Gogh’s wild, reckless nature combined with intellectual and artistic sensibilities (and lack of mathematical talent) defies narrow stereotypes of autism, yet embodies a certain reality of it: he was thoughtful yet lacked insight, seen as a stranger by the world around him while experiencing the world as fundamentally strange, and possessed incredible gifts yet was understood as deficient. Maybe it’s time to look beyond famous scientists and mathematicians for autistic historical figures.

References

1. Selten J-P, Lundberg M, Rai D, Magnusson C. Risks for nonaffective psychotic disorder and bipolar disorder in young people with autism spectrum disorder: A population-based study. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(5):483-489. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.3059

2. Skokauskas N, Frodl T. Overlap between autism spectrum disorder and bipolar affective disorder. Psychopathology. 2015;48(4):209-216. doi:10.1159/000435787

3. Butterfield, B. The Troubled Life of Vincent Van Gogh. Vincent van Gogh website. September 21, 2002. Accessed May 24, 2020.
http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Louvre/9633/VincentVanGogh.htm

4. Adams JB, Johansen LJ, Powell LD, Quig D, Rubin RA. Gastrointestinal flora and gastrointestinal status in children with autism – comparisons to typical children and correlation with autism severity. BMC Gastroenterol. 2011;11. doi:10.1186/1471-230X-11-22

5. Heaton P, Williams K, Cummins O, Happé F. Autism and pitch processing splinter skills: A group and subgroup analysis. Autism. 2008;12(2):203-219. doi:10.1177/1362361307085270


Best books for people diagnosed with bipolar disorder

When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, my therapist gave me a book that changed my life. Books can influence how you understand your own bipolar disorder, and yourself in relation to it. I haven’t read every single book out there, but here are a few that I have read.

Welcome to the Jungle by Hilary Smith

Technically, this is a self-help book. It contains a lot of good information, tips, and recommendations. The thing I like about this book in particular is its humorous and lighthearted style. I read the original edition of this book, and I no longer have it because I gave it to someone else, but I still remember some of the bipolar jokes! I recommend this book to anyone who has just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder but doesn’t know much about it, and needs a source of information.

Manic by Terri Cheney

Manic is a memoir. Memoir can be so helpful, in my opinion, because it allows us to have insight into the lives of people who have faced similar struggles as us. This book describes itself as “visceral” — focused on the experience of mania and depression from a very subjective viewpoint. Cheney herself said the focus is “on what bipolar disorder felt like inside my own body”. Paradoxically, it becomes very relatable by just how idiosyncratic it is. I recommend this book to anyone who feels alone in their struggles with bipolar disorder.

An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

This is the book that changed my life. As a freshman in college, it single-handedly inspired me to pursue a career in research, and specifically bipolar disorder — which is now my career. Jamison is an authority on bipolar disorder, but this book is not a textbook — it’s a memoir. In a display of great vulnerability (at the time, nobody could know if this book would end her career) Jamison tells the story of her life, from childhood to a breakdown shortly after completing graduate school, mania, psychosis, depression, and a serious suicide attempt. Throughout it all, Jamison interjects wisdom and knowledge. This book simultaneously provides both deep information about bipolar disorder and a revealing look into the life of somebody who lives with it. I would recommend it to anyone who with a curious mindset, who wants to know more about the science of bipolar disorder and the culture of academic psychiatry, as well as the personal experience of living with bipolar disorder from the perspective of an expert.

Have you read any good books about bipolar disorder? Feel free to leave a comment!


How I explain bipolar disorder to people

I’m quite open about my bipolar disorder diagnosis (partly out of necessity) and so, I often get asked questions like, “What is bipolar disorder really like?” I’ve come up with a few good answers to explain to curious friends, family, and coworkers the reality of bipolar disorder in a way they might understand.

1. It’s kind of like epilepsy

Although bipolar mood episodes occur on a longer timescale, a mood episode has a lot in common with a seizure. It can be triggered by something or it can come on for seemingly no reason, and the person has little control over it (although to some extent we control our actions in response). It can end spontaneously or with medical intervention.

Recently, overlap in the neurobiology of bipolar disorder and epilepsy has been discovered. In fact, some medications that are effective treatments for epilepsy are also very effective treatments for bipolar disorder — prominently including Lamictal and Depakote, but also others.

2. Technically, mood episodes last 1-2 weeks or more

At least, according to the DSM (a manual of diagnostic criteria for mental disorders), they do. But that isn’t always the case and many experts dispute these requirements as being too restrictive in real life. My own bipolar disorder is rapid cycling, and I can have episodes that last for only a couple of days.

3. Mania isn’t happiness

Most people understand that depression encompasses sadness, although it also encompasses feelings of emptiness, numbness, profound lethargy, and irritation. They assume, then, that mania (being the “opposite” of depression) is a state of happiness or euphoria. This can be the case, but it often isn’t; mania can be angry, agitated, restless, irritable, confused, and it may include hallucinations and/or delusions which can be very scary or troubling. Further, mood episodes can be of a mixed type, including both manic and depressive symptoms. These can occur at the same time or in a rapidly alternating fashion. Mixed episodes are actually quite common.

4. There’s one symptom that is practically universal

And that’s changes in sleep. During mania, people sleep less — they may not even sleep at all. Research has shown that sleep changes actually precede manic symptoms; they may be the very first sign of a manic episode.

Meanwhile, people with bipolar depression usually sleep too much. Some experts (including my psychiatrist) believe that when people with depression severely oversleep, it’s a sign that they have latent bipolar disorder (which is to say, they just haven’t had a manic episode — yet).

5. There’s a pattern

One of the differences between bipolar moods and “normal” moods is that, in the majority of cases, there’s a distinct pattern to bipolar mood episodes. They don’t occur in a random order. Most people have either mania then depression, or depression then mania. It’s rare for people to flip between them. So, somebody that starts with depression will typically always start with depression.


So, that’s what I explain! Have you ever been in this situation? What did you say? Leave a comment!