Famous people

Game Changers in History Who May Have Had Learning and Attention Issues

By The Understood Team

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Historians speculate that many major figures from the past may have had learning and attention issues. We can’t know for sure whether someone from an earlier century had these issues. And for many—especially women and people of color—there aren’t enough records to let us guess. But here are some accomplished individuals who made a big impact on history—from centuries past to more recent times. They overcame challenges and may inspire your child to do the same.

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Leonardo da Vinci
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Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)

As an artist, inventor, scientist, engineer and writer, Leonardo da Vinci had many talents. He also had interesting habits, like writing backward, spelling strangely and not following through on projects. Today, we understand that these traits can all be characteristics of dyslexia and other learning and attention issues. For example, his ability to create imaginative drawings is a strength shared by some people with ADHD. Whether or not he had learning and attention issues, Leonardo used his strengths to earn a place as one of history’s greatest geniuses.

Alexander Graham Bell
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Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922)

Bell reinvented the field of communications by creating the first telephone. But years earlier, he struggled in school. Even though he was gifted at problem solving, it’s thought that he had trouble reading and writing, possibly as a result of dyslexia. He was eventually homeschooled by his mother. With her help, Bell learned to manage his challenges. And he went on to change the world.

Thomas Edison
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Thomas Edison (1847–1931)

School didn’t come easily for Edison, either. He was considered “difficult” and hyperactive. Historians believe he may have had ADHD and dyslexia. But his appetite for knowledge was huge. He developed effective ways to study and learn on his own. As a result, Edison’s unique way of tackling problems helped him make history. He shaped modern life by inventing the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the light bulb.

Henry Ford
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Henry Ford (1863–1947)

Industrial revolutionary Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company and transformed the transportation industry. Ford, who preferred hands-on learning to reading, may have had dyslexia. If he did have reading issues, they didn’t stop him from creating an industrial empire.

There also may be learning issues in his family. Ford’s great-granddaughter Anne (former chair of the board of founding partner the National Center for Learning Disabilities) writes and speaks about her daughter Allegra’s trouble with learning.

Pablo Picasso
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Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

According to many accounts, the world-famous artist may have had dyslexia. He expressed feelings that many kids with learning and attention issues have. “Don’t think I didn’t try [to learn at school],” he said. “I tried hard. I would start but immediately be lost.” Fortunately, his father, an art teacher, encouraged him to develop his artistic talents. His unique vision of the world came through in his powerful works of art. The rest is art history.

Agatha Christie
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Agatha Christie (1890–1976)

This famous writer’s mysteries had a big impact on how suspense stories have been written in the 20th century and beyond. But historians think that Christie may have had reading and writing issues. They don’t know whether it was dysgraphia or dyslexia (or both). But they do know that she dictated all of her famous works, possibly in response to her issues. Those novels still rank among the world’s most popular books. And characters she created, like Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, continue to entertain readers today.

Babe Ruth
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Babe Ruth (1895–1948)

As a young child, baseball great George Herman “Babe” Ruth Jr. always seemed to be running wild, getting into trouble and fighting. That’s why his parents sent him to a strict boarding school that emphasized discipline, learning a trade and sports. There, he discovered his love of baseball and honed his skills. Today historians believe that Ruth may have had ADHD. ADHD can make it hard to pay attention, but it can also lead people to focus on a topic they’re deeply engaged with. Maybe this helped Ruth become the “Sultan of Swat.”

Harry Belafonte
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Harry Belafonte (1927–)

Belafonte dropped out of school at 17 because of his trouble with reading. He was working as a janitor’s assistant when he discovered his love of theater. He started singing to pay for acting classes. That’s when his career took off. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he learned there might be a reason for his reading problems: dyslexia. The “King of Calypso,” Belafonte won a Tony and three Grammys, as well as the first Emmy to go to an African American. He helped break down racial barriers in entertainment in America. And he’s used his fame to support the civil rights movement and many other humanitarian causes.

Muhammad Ali
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Muhammad Ali (1942–2016)

One of the greatest boxers of all time, Ali struggled with dyslexia. He’s said he could barely read his high school textbooks. Nonetheless, he managed to graduate. He became an Olympic gold medalist at the age of 18. And he was world heavyweight boxing champion at 22. He’s also remembered today for having strong principles. He refused to fight in the Vietnam War, even though this damaged his career. And his determination inspired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Later in life, Ali worked to encourage more young African Americans to enjoy reading.

Carol Moseley Braun
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Carol Moseley Braun (1947–)

At the age of 8, Braun was bused across Chicago to an all-white school. Upset that she was put in the “dumb row,” she figured out ways to manage her dyslexia. She used a ruler to help her focus on words and numbers. And she re-read books and re-did math problems. A semester later, she was in the “smart row.” Her grit and determination later helped her become the first female African American senator. She later served as ambassador to New Zealand. Today she owns her own organic food company. And she’s worked to take away the stigma of dyslexia.

Erin Brockovich-Ellis
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Erin Brockovich-Ellis (1960–)

When she was growing up, Brockovich-Ellis was teased by her classmates for having dyslexia. She was also told she would never make it through college. But she read through thousands of pages of legal documents to help bring a landmark case against a power company accused of polluting water in a small town. Even though she had no formal legal training, she helped win the largest settlement ever for a lawsuit of that kind: $333 million. Today, she continues her work as a consumer advocate. And she’s spoken out about her dyslexia and how it’s affected her.

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About the Author

Understood Team Graphic

The Understood Team is composed of writers, editors and community moderators, many of whom have children with learning and attention issues.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Sheldon Horowitz

Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D., is senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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