Was Yosef on the Spectrum? – new review

John Elder Robison

In this fascinating study, law professor and Hebrew scholar Samuel Levine looks at Joseph from the Bible with a fresh perspective. I found his arguments well-reasoned and fascinating, but I also understood some of the pushback the book received. Can any modern-day person bestow an autism diagnosis on someone who lived and died thousands of years ago?

While some people reject that idea out of hand, others (myself included) see more nuance. Most people would agree that we can form general conclusions about a person from the historical record. Were they described as wise, insightful, or even feeble-minded? Kind or cruel? Evidence often exists to answer those questions. Whether we can bestow a medical diagnosis, for a condition that was unknown in Joseph’s day, is another matter.

In reading Levine’s book, I don’t think he intended to bestow a medical diagnosis. Rather, I think he uses the words “autistic” and “on the spectrum” to describe a neurotype – something we are just beginning to understand, but which has been part of humanity forever.

The most widely recognized use of the word “autistic” is the medical one – to describe the withdrawal into oneself that is associated with the medical disorder we call autism. In his analysis, it is clear that Levine is not talking about Joseph withdrawing in that way.

Instead, he analyses depictions of Joseph and considers his sometimes-inscrutable behavior in light of how modern-day people of the autistic neurotype behave. For example, people of the autistic neurotype are often socially unaware, and they fail to read the intentions of others, or properly interpret their statements. Levine argues that Joseph does this in his interactions with his brothers. His reasoning makes sense, and it comports with my own experience of people with that neurotype today. Levine’s book makes many such careful comparisons. When reading them, they are not disability diagnoses, but behavioral insights, and as such they are thought provoking.

While medical autism diagnoses are only given to 1-2% of the population, the broader autistic neurotype is much more common, affecting (estimates vary) some 5-10% of the population. To use our modern day knowledge of that population as a way to understand Joseph’s actions in biblical accounts strikes me as reasonable and insightful.

By doing so, Joseph’s interactions are illuminated in a new light, and we may therefore deepen our understanding.

Some of Levine’s critics see his work as a blasphemous judgement of Joseph, or believe he is beyond our understanding as mere mortals. I do not read Levine’s words that way. Saying a person appears to be of the autistic neurotype is not a criticism or judgement. Rather it is a way to help another understand that person. If we associate the autistic neurotype with being more rational than emotion, as but one example, we will know what to expect in dealing with such a person, and our interaction may only be enhanced. Similarly, if we read Joseph in that light, we may feel we better understand his actions.

When this book is read in the spirit its author intended, I think it makes a contribution to understanding a significant historical figure.

John Elder Robison is the Neurodiversity Scholar at the College of William & Mary.