Warren Buffett has never disclosed a spectrum-related identification, but he is clearly autistic. This should be clear to anyone who is familiar with autism and has read his official biography Snowball or watched the HBO documentary Becoming Warren Buffett. For those not familiar with autism or who haven’t read/watched the aforementioned (and are asking “is Warren Buffett autistic?”), I’ve summarized by observations below.
I do not recommend identifying or diagnosing autism in others, although I make exceptions for well-known celebrities since we have exhaustive information about their life, relationships, and interviews with family and friends. Below are the reasons that I believe Buffett is autistic.
Many autistics have limited emotion expression. For some, this may be a result of alexithymia. For others, it may be (essentially) a defense mechanism against overwhelming emotion. In any case, Buffett is famously even-keeled and is known to have difficulty with extreme emotions.
“Well it’s difficult to connect on an emotional level because I think that that’s not his basic mode of operation.” -Howard Buffett, Warren Buffett’s son
Prior to her marriage to Warren, Susie’s father (Buffett’s future father-in-law) told her what life would be like: “My dad, the psychologist, said to me, now you have to understand about him, he’s not — you’re not going to have discussions with him like you would with most normal people. He’s not going to talk about other people or small things, or — there will be a lot of things he won’t talk about, because he’s thinking big thoughts up here. So when he’s ready to talk about those, then you’ll have a conversation.” -Susie Buffett, Warren Buffett’s first wife
“If you’re emotional about investing, you’re not going to do well.” -Warren Buffett
“People sometimes speculate that he is emotionless, and I’m frequently asked if he is autistic. He’s certainly not emotionless, but his emotional pendulum swings in a very narrow arc except on those rare occasions when something personal has deeply upset him. While he does use rules to make decisions, it’s key that he’s detached and not temperamentally excitable to begin with.” -Alice Schroeder
Logic and Rationality
“Warren is probably the most rational person I’ve ever met. Charlie Munger would be a close rival, maybe…” -Carol Loomis, journalist who profiled Buffett for decades
“I think that part of Warren’s success comes from the fact that he does not have the same emotional currents affecting his business decisions that other people do.” -Carol Loomis
Autistics often prefer routines, perhaps due the way that routines lower the mental load (especially for those with executive function issues). His son notes that his dad was consistent growing up, “like clockwork.” Many have probably heard the trope that autistics are like robots, which is inaccurate but they can be perceived that way.
Buffett is notorious for eating the same food over and over. In the film, Buffett mentions he has driven the same commute for nearly 60 years; he’s lived in the same house and worked in the same neighborhood for all that time, which wouldn’t be odd except he’s one of the richest people in the world and his company one of the largest in the world.
In the HBO documentary, Buffett shares that he eats a McDonald’s breakfast every day, but he only rotates between three items and he knows the exact price (to the penny) of each and has the exact change ready before he leaves the house.
“Well I thought he was a prodigy and I got a lot of criticism. My wife said why are you paying such enormous respect for a young man with a crewcut who won’t eat vegetables.” -Charlie Munger, Warren’s lifelong business partner
Neurodiverse: A Spiky Profile
Many neurodivergent people have “spiky profiles,” which is a way of saying that they are extremely good at some things and extremely weak at other things. “Neurotypical” people tend to operate at the same level in different domains, but the differences can be striking for neurodiverse people. In Buffett’s case, he is a genius in some areas and helpless in other seemingly easy areas.
“Focus has always been a strong part of my personality. If I get interested in something, I get really interested. And—and that was true about any subject. I mean my—if I get—if I get interested in a new subject, I wanna read about it, I wanna talk about it, you know I wanna meet people who are involved in it.” -Warren Buffett
Nearly everyone in the film mentions how he is a genius or prodigy, his encyclopedic memory or affinity for crunching numbers in his head. He graduated highschool at 16 and completed his undergrad in 3 years, yet his most cherished achievement is a certificate from a Dale Carnegie (of How to Win Friends and Influence People fame) course. Again, extreme talent and extreme weakness (in naturally connecting with others).
“He wandered aimlessly around the house, barely able to feed and clothe himself.” -Alice Schroeder, in Buffett’s biography Snowball, describing the time when his wife left him
“He can’t function” -Susie Buffett, Warren’s first wife
“He’s not very visual… He’s not visual at all. But… but that has its pluses. I could buy a horrible looking rug and he’d have his feet on it for three years and never know.” -Susie Buffett
Buffet himself acknowledges his neurology: “I was genetically blessed with a certain wiring that’s very useful in a highly developed market system…” -Warren Buffett
Autistics are notorious for their brutal honesty. Again, Buffett fits the mold.
“He’s almost painfully honest at times. Yet some people I interviewed belabored his honesty beyond the point that made sense. They would belabor it to such a degree that you began to realize they held some specific concerns in this area. Eventually it became clearer that this had to do with the incidents in his life where he has been ruthless. I included some representative examples in The Snowball, but space allowed only a fraction to make it into the book.” – Alice Schroeder
Strengths and Weaknesses
It’s clear that Buffetts affinity for numbers, voracious reading, and ability to make connections paired with his extreme rationality explain huge amount of his financial success. His special interest was and continues to be compounding money and he’s become very successful at that. Buffett’s example proves that people on the spectrum can achieve success as a result of their autism.
At the same time, Buffett’s life serves as a warning. His wife and kids lamented at the amount of time he spent reading (alone, separate from the family) and while cool rationality is an investors strength being an “iceberg” husband who has difficulty with emotions can be a challenge in marriage. WSJ writer Jason Zweig fleshed this out in an article. His first wife left him (basically due to neglect because he was so interested in investing) and he admitted that it was the biggest mistake of his life.
“It was preventable. It shouldn’t have happened. It was my biggest mistake. Essentially, what I did in connection with Susie leaving would be the biggest mistake I ever made.” -Buffett, Snowball