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Jerry Seinfeld and Autism

What about Jerry Seinfeld's suggestion that he "might be on the autism spectrum"

Jerry Seinfeld’s casual statement that he “might be on the autism spectrum” has created a huge uproar in the autism community. I posted a few paragraphs on Facebook last night and I thought I’d follow up here with more thoughts.

I think it’s important to have respected figures identify in a positive way with autism. When someone who is admired by many says, “I feel I’m a bit autistic,” I take that to mean he feels solidarity with our group (Our group being those of us on the autism spectrum and our families and loved ones.)

Mr. Seinfeld’s speculation that he “may be on the spectrum,” may be the first step in an actual diagnosis or evaluation, and it may be a milestone of his journey of self-discovery. Many people are critical of self -diagnosis, but the fact is, most adult diagnoses start by people asking themselves, “might I be autistic?” Seldom are adults handed this diagnosis out of the blue. So before we attack self-diagnosis let’s remember that’s how “real diagnosis” begins for many adults.

Whenever someone says, “autism made me the success I am today,” in whatever way they mean, and in whatever field . . . we take a step toward recognizing that autism confers both gift and disability on us. Society needs us, but we also need society – or at least its respect and resources. For the broader public to see examples of autistic strength can only be good.

This should not take away from the fact that autism has aspects that are profoundly disabling, and that society has also changed in ways that render formerly functional autistic people (in an earlier time) outcast and disabled in the world of today. But that’s another discussion.

Someone like Mr. Seinfeld – by virtue of his public persona – could easily be seen as a “face of autism,” when in fact we are a very diverse community and many of us want or need far more services and supports than Mr. Seinfeld has so far requested publically. The uninformed public could look at him and say, “autistic people are millionaire comedians,” which is far from accurate. Sure, there are some autistic comedians and some rich ones but most of us are somewhere in the middle. We are all individuals.

We just have to hope the public recognizes that. I think they do in other cases. Warren Buffett is a business manager and so am I, but beyond that I don’t think most people assume we are the same just because we share that descriptor.

It’s easy for an autistic person who struggles with relationships and jobs to look at Mr. Seinfeld – who seems to have both aplenty – and his seemingly casual description of autism as an insult to those for whom those things come very hard. But I don’t think he meant it that way. He didn’t make a comment about any broader “us;” he spoke about himself.

Many people rushed to judgment in their comments, saying “he’s not autistic,” or “he’s making a play for attention.” Some of the angriest comments came from parents who said, “My son has real autism. Jerry Seinfeld is not autistic and he’s insulting us!” There are also angry comments from autistic self advocates who resent the fact that he helped raise money for Autism Speaks, and an organization they despise.

Not, so fast, I say. Let’s step back and take a deep breath here.

Advocates for autistic people generally ask for three things:

  • Acceptance
  • Respect
  • Accommodation

Those are noble and reasonable requests. Some people approached Mr. Seinfeld's remarks in that spirit. Others did not, and those traits were lacking in the angry backlash to his words. Yet he did not come to us in anger or arrogance. Mr. Seinfeld uttered his words in a reflective tone, perhaps as an explanation for things in his life not previously understood.

Who are we to judge him? We see his TV persona, but we know nothing of his real life. We know nothing of his true feelings. Maybe he is on the spectrum, maybe he’s not. I’m sure of this: We owe him respect as a fellow human being on a voyage of self-discovery.

What about the suggestion that “he does not really have autism?” Actually, he didn’t claim to have autism. His words imply he thinks he is part of what scientists call the Broader Autism Phenotype – people who have traits of autism, but not to the degree that they would be diagnosed autistic by a professional. Millions of people are in this BAP group.

The “my autism is worse than yours” is a counterproductive and destructive way of thinking. Look at depression and Robin Williams. He looked pretty successful and functional a few month back, didn’t he? But now he’s dead. None of us can know the struggles of another. There is no better and worse in autism’s affect.

That brings me to my last point – overcoming or emerging from disability. Mr. Seinfeld is 60 years old. He’s found a place for himself in the world. Did he do it by “figuring out the formula to make people laugh, even though he does not get is himself?” Maybe. I don’t know.

I do know that the “overcoming disability” model is an unhealthy goal or way to portray autistic people. Emerging from disability is a healthier perspective. Autism is not a demon to be battled and overcome. It is a difference that can cripple or render extraordinary. Most autistics are disabled as children because our sensory apparatus is different, our communication skills are weak, and we have not yet learned coping strategies, or found our gifts.

When we find comfortable environments, learn to communicate, and find what we can do well we begin to emerge from disability. When we find places that our autistic differences are respected and we discover they give us advantages, we emerge more. Perhaps Mr. Seinfeld will talk of his own emergence and so provide a constructive model to younger people who follow. I don’t know what he will do but I say, let’s give him a chance.

Please join me to welcome him, and see where it leads. If we don’t like what he has to say, we can tune him out and go about our lives. Remember that we must first extend compassion and acceptance to others if we are to ask and expect it for ourselves.

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and the forthcoming Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary. The opinions expressed here are his own.