Monday, March 7, 2011

Do you know the Leather Man?

In the late 1800s, a homeless man known as the Leather Man (because he wore a 60-lb leather suit at all times) was famous for walking a 365-mile circuit through some 41 towns in New York's Westchester County and southern Connecticut. He walked the same route every 34 days for years, rarely speaking with anyone.

Photo by F.W. Moore, 1888

Since his death in 1889, his legend has grown - Pearl Jam immortalized him in song - and thousands have flocked to see his pauper's grave and the plaque that bears what is probably not his real name. There's a controversy now about whether his body should  be exhumed and his grave moved (it is too close to a highway). Caretakers of the burial site also want to have the Leather Man's remains tested to try to solve some of the mysteries of his life, including whether he was autistic.

I'm not going to weigh in on the ethics of moving or testing the Leather Man's body, but I find it very strange that archaeologists would bother testing these old bones for autism: there is no reliable genetic test for autism. The best genetic test available, chromosomal microarray analysis, only detects autism in about 7% of individuals who have been diagnosed under DSM-IV guidelines. We do not yet have a genetic test to conclusively confirm an autism diagnosis in the remaining 90+% of the ASD population. This means there is also no genetic analysis that could rule out an autism diagnosis.

But for the popular parlor game, "Did This Historic Figure have Autism," the Leather Man sounds like a likely candidate: living alone, not speaking, following a predictable route for years on end. I doubt his bones would speak louder than his actions on this subject.

1 comment:

    This is a link to an interview with the author of a book about the Leather Man. He apparently spoke french and had a wealth of practical skills. I too can't imagine what post-mortum test could identify autism.


Keep it civil, people.