Autistic Individuals in the Arts: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Today, the name “Mozart” is nearly synonymous with the genre of classical music. Over two centuries after the renowned composer’s death, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart still permeates concert halls, film scores and playlists around the globe. The city of Salzburg, Austria, Mozart’s birthplace, has been transformed into a kind of Mozart “theme park”1, boasting museums, statues and even chocolates bearing his name.

A store window in Salzburg, Austria displaying Mozart chocolates and other merchandise.

Recently, Mozart has also come to be associated with the field of psychopathology via the controversial “Mozart Effect”2, a theory claiming that listening to the composer’s pieces enhances a variety of mental processes. Certain therapists have gone so far as to advocate the use of the Mozart Effect to “cure” autism.3 Besides the moral implications of this practice with regards to neurodiversity, this viewpoint is laden with bitter irony:

Mozart himself may have been autistic.

Biographical accounts of Mozart’s life, including the Oscar-winning film, Amadeus4, have described the composer’s eccentric characteristics. For instance, Mozart reportedly demonstrated repetitive hand motions and facial expressions. He was also known to have a fickle attention span for tasks that did not interest him and often expressed his boredom in bursts of acrobatic physical activity.5 In addition to these habits, Mozart was known to have a peculiar conversational style, involving unrestrained, inappropriate comments and cyclical wording in written letters.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as portrayed by Tom Hulce in the 1984 film, Amadeus.

To both modern psychologists6 and Aspergians7, Mozart’s repetitive behaviors and selective attention bear striking resemblance to contemporary descriptions of Asperger’s Syndrome. Similarly, his use of circular language has been likened to echolalia8, a form of repetitive speech observed in autistic children.

Mozart’s potential ASD may explain not only his idiosyncrasies, but also his phenomenal talent. For example, his distractibility with regards to activities that bored him was countered by his intense concentration on certain compositions. This ability allowed him to write immortal overtures in a matter of hours. Both extremes of focus could be explained by ASD9. Mozart’s musical prodigy may have been a manifestation of ASD similar to the talent of today’s savants.

The composer’s posthumous “diagnosis” has not been uncontested. A diagnosis for ASD would have been impossible

A painting of Mozart composing the Overture for “Don Giovanni”, a piece he reportedly wrote in the span of a single evening.12

during Mozart’s lifetime, because autism was not formally described until over a century later10. As is the case with other potentially autistic historical figures, it is impossible to determine today whether Mozart indeed fitted all of the diagnostic criteria for ASD or other forms of neurodiversity.11

Regardless, the prospect of this musical icon being on the spectrum is undoubtedly encouraging for neurodiverse individuals today. If Mozart’s ingenuity stemmed from ASD, his legacy represents a celebration of both classical music and the unique potential of autistic individuals. Perhaps, the true Mozart Effect is not a clinical attempt to eliminate autism, but rather an inspiring example of how divergence from the neurotypical model can foster invaluable skills.





  1. Good post. I’m facing some of these issues as well..

Speak Your Mind