Saturday, May 05, 2007

Why do I think Wilson Alwyn “Snowflake” Bentley, the first photographer of snowflakes, was autistic?

Why do I think Wilson Alwyn “Snowflake” Bentley, the first photographer of snowflakes, was autistic?

This article is mostly but not wholly based on information in the junior biography book Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and Mary Azarian. I am not the first person to notice that Bentley may have been autistic, blogger Club 166 was the source of this idea.

Bentley was home-schooled by his mother till the age of 14. He read all of his mother’s set of encyclopaedias. “He attended school for only a few years.” This unusual educational history strikes me as being somewhat similar to the schooling of eminent Australian poet Les Murray, who has claimed a number of times to be mildly autistic. Intellectually gifted children and autistic children appear to be especially likely to be home-schooled. I believe both Bentley and Murray would have fitted into both categories. However, Bentley’s home-schooling is perhaps not so unusual when one considers that his brother was also home-schooled and his mother was a teacher.

Bentley had a major autistic special interest which was his “claim to fame”. This interest was the study of snowflakes, which lasted from his teenage years through to the end of his life (around 50 years). This was a visual special interest, focusing on small things. Autistics are thought to be generally “visual thinkers” who are cognitively talented at studying the world from the micro, rather than macro level. As a child Bentley loved to look at things through his old microscope, things such as raindrops, flowers, and blades of grass. An autistic special interest could be defined as a very intense and sustained focused interest in a very specific or unusual subject. Bentley’s fascination with snowflakes was certainly intense, deep, sustained, specific and unique to fully meet this definition of an autistic special interest.

Autistic special interests are often regarded as odd, ridiculous, crazy or bizarre by non-autistic people. Bentley’s father believed that “Fussing with snow is just foolishness,” and his “Neighbours laughed at the idea of photographing snow.” The picture book about Bentley implies that his behaviour must have looked odd or eccentric – standing out in the snow catching snowflakes. According to one web site Bentley “was considered odd, and was known to many of them as the "Snowflake Man" because of his quiet nature and unusual preoccupation with his snow photography.” When you think about it, when a person is described as “quiet” that does imply that they used verbal communication less than most people, and verbal communication is a weak skill in people who are on the autistic spectrum.

Autistic children often love to collect small and similar items. Some examples include collecting ladybugs, insects, bird feathers, sticks, sand grains, sea shells and “conkers”. Autistic children can sometimes be wonderfully independent and resourceful by finding mental stimulation and amusement in whatever they find in their local environment, be it urban, coastal or a snowfield. The collecting obsessions of aspie children may initially be motivated by an enjoyment of the sensory characteristics of the collected items (the feel of rough bark, the colour of feathers, the different shapes of shells) but these collecting habits can evolve into special interests. One could say that Bentley was a collector of snowflakes, or photos of snowflakes. I believe there is research showing that autistic people can have special abilities in visually searching for items. I believe this may be an element contributing to the enjoyment of autistic collecting obsessions. Bentley might have had some special ability to detect visual patterns, as he was fascinated with snowflakes and spider webs, which both have similar star-like shapes.

Autistic people are known to be remarkably persistent in the pursuit of interests or ventures that are of interest to us. Bentley’s study of snowflakes lasted most of his life, and he showed remarkable persistence in his invention and development of a new technique of photographing snowflakes, requiring an expensive camera, after initial failure. Photographing snowflakes is a difficult task requiring huge patience, as the things melt quickly and don’t show up well in photos. Bentley must have displayed remarkable passion for his interest to his parents, who spent their savings on a special camera for Bentley to use only for his interest.

A true autistic special interest is not motivated by any desire for financial gain or enhancement of social status. Autists study special interests simply because they bring joy, and may be one’s main joy in life. Special interests are interesting. If Bentley was motivated in his interest by desire to make money from it, he failed, as he spent more on photographing snowflakes than he earned from this interest.

The intellectual originality of people with Asperger syndrome was first noted by Hans Asperger in his seminal paper written in the 1940s. Bentley displayed autistic originality in his snowflake interest. He eventually came to be known as the “world’s expert on snow” and he wrote a book about snowflakes. His unique collection of photos was used as a scientific and artistic resource by others. “He saw beauty where no one else had noticed it …” A common characteristic of autistic people, related to autistic originality, is that we are often self-taught people, or autodidacts. The picture book about Bentley mentions no mentor or teacher fostering his photography, so I can only assume that it was a skill that he taught himself.

Bentley’s interest could be categorized as systemizing. Prof. Baron-Cohen has theorized that autistic people are hyper-systemizers. Systemizing involves trying to discover or work with the underlying rules governing the natural world and technology. Scientists, engineers and computer programmers are systemizers. Bentley could be described as an amateur scientist and a technology innovator. As a child he “did many experiments with raindrops.” Bentley discovered that most snowflakes have 6 sides and are unique in design, and he theorized about how snowflakes form and factors determining the design of snowflakes. He also discovered a new technique in photography. Bentley wrote an article on snow for one edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which must have been a source of great satisfaction for a person who read encyclopaedias as a child. Like some other notable autistic people (such as pianist Glenn Gould and artist Henry Darger) Bentley had an unusual interest in the weather, and “kept a record of the weather”. At the age of 55 Bentley was elected as a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

People who are not of the systemizer psychological type seem to believe that scientific, technological and nature-study type interests are dull, repetitive and emotionless experiences, but that view is only a reflection of their own (unavoidably negative) experiences of science, technology and the natural, non-social world. An autistic systemizer enjoying their special interest, whether it is observing the amazing diversity of snowflake shapes or experimenting with putting together different types of computers or computer networks, or simply looking at whatever the storm has left on the shore, must be experiencing powerfully motivating pleasurable emotions. If they weren’t, why would they keep doing what they are doing? My own personal experience of an autistic special interest is of the joy and wonder and anticipation of discovery, not second-hand, but one’s own discovery, and being in direct contact with the forces of nature, the scientific laws of the natural world, or fascinating and puzzling creations of the natural world. This is the feeling that I get when looking at Bentley’s photographs, and I’m sure he felt a similar feeling. “Eloquently passionate language” was used in the many articles that Bentley wrote about his work.

All autistic people are (relatively) socially isolated or socially uninterested. The picture book about Bentley implied that he studied snowflakes instead of playing with other children. There is no mention of Bentley marrying in any sources that I’ve read, so I must assume that he never married. He was “often misunderstood in his time,”

Musical talent is one of the group of talents that autistic people, particularly autistic savants, often have. Bentley had an unusual gift for music, playing a range of different instruments and composing.

Bentley might have had the autistic characteristic of being able to tolerate extremes of temperature, or having a sensory insensitivity or confusion with regard to sensing temperature. Wilson Bentley was known for going out in the cold weather to observe snowflakes. Bentley’s special interest was the theme of his life, and it was possibly the cause of his death. Snowstorms were events that enabled Bentley to find the snowflakes to make pictures. He died after falling ill with pneumonia following a six-mile hike in a blizzard in pursuit of snowflake photos.

Copyright Lili Marlene 2007.

Web sites, books and articles about or by Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley

Bentley, W. A. The magic beauty of snow and dew. National Geographic. 43 (1923), 103-112.

Bentley, W. A. Snow crystals. McGraw-Hill, 1931.

Bentley, W. A. and W. J. Humphries Snow crystals. (Dover Photography Collections) Dover Publications Inc., 1962.
[still in print]

Buffalo Museum of Science Bentley Snow Crystal Collection.
[this web site also includes an extensive bibliography and links]

Club 166 The advantages of being odd. Club 166. February 10 2007.
[a blog article about Bentley]

Jericho Historical society

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs and Azarian, Mary (illustrator) (1998) Snowflake Bentley. Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
[ A beautiful Caldecott Medal-winning picture-book biography for children]

Mullett, Mary B. The snowflake man. American Magazine. 99 (1925), 28-31.

Wikipedia contributors. Wilson Bentley. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed May 6, 2007.


John Elder Robison said...

At this moment, I think many high functioning Aspergian people remain "in the closet" either through ignorance or shyness.

If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say most are in the closet because they themselves are unaware of their condition, and, being perfectly functional, are not seeking diagnosis.

However, knowing about our differences can be life-changing and beneficial, even for those of us who are already seemingly successful.

It is my hope that books like Look Me in the Eye will make the public more generally aware of what Asperger's is like, and make a few people sit up and say, "Hey, that sounds like me!"

Lili Marlene said...

I think there could be other reasons to remain "in the closet" besides ignorance or shyness. There's always the possibility of losing custody of your children because of being on the autistic spectrum, either from having social workers judge you to be an unfit parent due to autistic differences, or losing custody in a divorce type scenario in which one's autism would most likely be used against the autist. This kind fo thing does happen, and it's not so many years ago that homosexual parents had their kids taken from them because of their private lives. Other possible reasons for not being open about being on the spectrum include losing your legal right to run your own financial affairs (crooked family members seeking control of valuable assets have been known to institute this kind of thing, and this can be similar to the common "elder abuse" scenarios), discrimination in the workplace or as a job seeker, and generally exposing yourself to being treated weirdly or prejudicially by people. I guess if one was diagnosed with any autism spectrum condition that would mean they would therefore be ineligible to join the armed forces or the police force? I would also presume having such a diagnosis would mean you would be unlikely to be allowed to migrate to countries like Australia. Would people vote for an openly autistic political candidate in an election?

I agree that it is of great importance for autists who are to any degree autistic to know that they are on the spectrum, and to be well-informed about autism, but that doesn't mean one should rush out the door seeking a formal diangosis, or tell all and sundry about that they are on the spectrum.