People are often told that they should walk before they can run, but Joshua Beckford from Tottenham, London, could read before he could do either. Child prodigy Joshua was described in 2013 by Dr Nicole K. Grimes of The City University of New York as one of the smartest kids in the world. Recognised internationally in over 90 countries for his extraordinary educational achievements, Joshua learned to read fluently by the time he was two using phonics and taught himself to touch-type on a computer before he could write using a pencil. He was speaking Japanese by the age of three. At the age of six, he became the youngest person in the world to study Philosophy and History at Oxford University, gaining a distinction in both subjects. As if that wasn't enough, he was the youngest person ever to give a TED talk at the TED x International Conference in Vienna in 2016. The Duke of York, after meeting Joshua in 2017, posted one of his drawings on his personal Twitter account, and Joshua's drawing of a cheetah now hangs in Buckingham Palace. Inspired to help people with Autism, Joshua also serves as the face of the National Autistic Society’s Black and Minority (BME) campaign. Diagnosed with high functioning Autism himself, he helps to spread the campaign’s mission of highlighting obstacles autistic people face when trying to obtain access to necessary support and services. In our interview, we discuss how Autism affected his childhood, why he dreamt of becoming a neurosurgeon at the age of four while sketching superheroes, and what it means to him to be a free spirit.
Portrait of Joshua. Photograph courtesy of Joshua Beckford.
At what age did your parents first notice that you were incredibly gifted?
My Dad says that he noticed that I was different when I was ten months old. I used to sit on his lap when he was using his computer at home. He said that I was fascinated with the keyboard and would try to press the keys while he was typing. He showed me a different key on the keyboard each day, and then numbers. By the time I was one, I could point to all of the letters and numbers. People say that I have a photographic memory.
What's your earliest memory?
Crawling on the carpet and holding on to the table to stand up.
How did your curiosity deepen as you grew into a toddler?
I remember my Dad reading bedtime stories to me every night. He used to read my favourite book called I Am Cute which is a story about a clever owl. Dad also bought me a real laptop computer when I was two years old with lots of educational software and games.
How old were you when you were diagnosed with Autism, and how did this affect your motivations and goals?
I was seven years old when I was diagnosed with Autism. This did not affect my motivation and goals. Dad explained to me that I was born with lots of gifts and that I learned differently from other people. He also let me read books which explain what Autism is.
Portrait of Joshua. Photograph courtesy of Joshua Beckford.
Which were your favourite academic subjects growing up, and why?
Science, especially the human anatomy and art. Also, anything to do with space. I had a Microsoft Space Simulator and a Surgery Simulator, plus lots of CDs and DVDs on lots of subjects. Even Japanese and Chinese. I think that science can do almost anything - solve difficult problems in the world and answer many questions that people have.
Did you paint or draw as a child? If so, what did you draw?
Yes, I loved drawing. I started when I was about three. Dad saved most of my early drawings on his computer. I used to draw stickmen and super heroes like Batman and Ben 10.
Human Anatomy by Joshua Beckford.
Joshua meeting the Duke of York in 2017. Photograph courtesy of Joshua Beckford.
Did you have any career dreams as a young child and how have they evolved since?
Yes, I decided that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon when I was four years old, because I want to understand how the brain works and help people who are sick. I also would like to create games for children and eventually own my own games company and art company.
You started studying at Oxford University at the age of six, making you the youngest student to ever be accepted to study there. What did you study? What was this experience like and what did it teach you?
I did a master class in Philosophy for high achieving students. I passed with a distinction. Then I did a research project on the Great Plague of 1665. I also got a distinction. It was a great experience and it taught me that I can have the confidence to do anything.
Joshua Beckford giving his TED talk in Vienna. Photograph courtesy of Joshua Beckford.
Which books have had the biggest impact on your life?
My human anatomy books have had the biggest impact on my life.
If you could choose any artist from history to paint your portrait, who would it be and why?
It would be Stephen Wiltshire because he is a uniquely gifted artist who is also on the autistic spectrum like me.
Do you have a special place? Somewhere you go when you need to replenish your mind, or seek inspiration?
Yes, in my room where it is quiet. I can play with my toys and superheroes and have epic battles between good and evil.
Which projects or campaigns are you most enjoying working on now?
Raising awareness about Autism. I'm an ambassador for three Autism charities, one in the UK and two in Africa. I also want to help save the environment by persuading people to do the right things for the earth. The earth is our only home in space and we must all care for it.
What's the best piece of advice that you've heard, that you try to pass on to others?
Live your dreams! Never give up and don’t listen to people who try to put you down. Also, every year just always create new goals that you know you can achieve.
Joshua's drawing which now hangs in Buckingham Palace.
When do you feel most free?
When I am drawing and using my imagination.
What does it mean to you to be a free spirit?
I love being a free spirit because I have my own mind and way of thinking. I don’t like to be told what to do.
Joshua at the National Diversity Awards where he was the 2017 winner in the category 'Positive Role Model Award for Age'. Photograph courtesy of Joshua Beckford.
Joshua's TED talk in 2016 in Vienna.