Seinfeld’s Autism; A Symptom of So Much Else.

Jerry Seinfeld - free use image

Jerry Seinfeld – free use image

Jerry Seinfeld recently shared the view that he feels he may be autistic, if autism was taken to a very “drawn-out scale.”

Of course we all know that if you take autism to a very drawn-out scale, it’s not autism anymore – it’s autistic traits, or the Broader Autism Phenotype, or border-line autism. This fits with the examples he gives of what he thinks makes him autistic, all came from the social communication side of symptoms, which suggests he may better fit what is now called “Social Communication Disorder” rather than meeting the criteria for an autism diagnosis (here are the comparative diagnostic criteria if you’re not familiar with them). Even then though, I’d suggest the impact on this life wouldn’t be to the degree required to meet the threshold for a diagnosis.

How would I know though – all I have to go by is a few sentences from an interview. And yet, those few sentences threw the autism community into an uproar on social media. Twitter is a great way to get snapshots of the variety and intensity of reactions, just type “jerry seinfeld autism” into the Twitter search to see what I mean. The reactions I have come across so far range from those praising Seinfeld for casting a more positive light on autism – particularly because he sees his struggles as an “alternate mindset” rather than as dysfunctional – to those who have demonised him for playing down the harsh reality of autism (and using pictures of dead and suffering autistic children to back up their outrage). From those who say his opinions are personal and hold no weight, to those crying out that he has a societal responsibility before he shares his views on autism. And from those who say he is “courageous” for self-diagnosing, to those who blast him for belittling the diagnostic process.

In all of this, I see symptoms of something other than Seinfeld’s purported autism – I see symptoms of what is so messed up about the autism community. The most aggressive responses are coming from those who seem to think they have some ownership of the autism diagnosis – that it has to look like intense suffering to count, the worse the suffering the more legitimate the autism. Yes, severity is part of considering whether someone meets the criteria because it requires “clinically significant impairment,” but even then autism remains a spectrum, and the severity of autism’s impact on someone’s life can change throughout their life. Furthermore, we can’t forget that what counts as autism can and has changed (many times in our own life-times, and before then too), so good luck pinning down who will be considered autistic 5 or 10 years from now. I don’t own the diagnosis, neither do you, we use it to help people access the services and most appropriate help for them as determined by the current experts in the field (who themselves are forever arguing about what is and is not autism).

And yet the autism community seems intent on splitting itself down strict lines of who is in and who is out. I think that’s because letting the wrong people “in” waters down a political message: Where the message is we need more services, more funding, more help, then it may feel like a direct attack on what you’ve been fighting for when someone who is successful in their life suddenly says they belong to your group. Suddenly the public sees autism isn’t so bad after all, the suffering is played-down, the message is lost. At its worst, the parent of an autistic child may worry people will tell them they’re just not trying hard enough with their kids – if Seinfeld can do it, so can their kid, stop making excuses (etc).

Along the same lines, those embracing Seinfeld’s statements are also embracing him because of the political message it encourages: One of seeing autistic people as people of potential, people who are often under-estimated and facing unjust prejudice, people who are too often compared to anti-social and dangerous psychopaths instead of the shining examples of Einstein and Grandin – and now Seinfeld. They embrace Seinfeld and his message because it fits their agenda – whether he really is autistic or not is secondary to the political message they are pushing about acceptance and potential.

The message is the key. Stay on message. And you see exactly this too when people stop towing party lines: If someone who is autistic says they don’t mind their autism, it is very common to see them attacked as not really being autistic. If someone who is borderline autistic cries out for more services and shares their woes, it is rare for their autism diagnosis to be questioned. In or out of the group, isn’t about autism in these situations, it’s about the message people want pushed.

Tied into all this is the problem with Seinfeld self-diagnosing, and the current wide-spread debates about the growth of mental diagnoses and the concurrent shrinking of the spectrum of normality – the concern that there is a trend in society right now to pathologise perfectly normal human experiences. So Seinfeld again becomes a political football in this debate, and in how it affects the autism community. So if Seinfeld diagnoses himself as autistic, he is just one more fool supporting the expansion of everyone being abnormal in some way, and therefore diluting the focus of resources, funding and research on those most in need. Or, Seinfeld is fantastic for de-stigmatising mental conditions by blurring the lines between “normal” and those conditions – supporting the message that we’re all a little unusual so stop treating those with conditions as if they are so different or as unwanted people in society.

Again, the point is not Seinfeld himself, it’s how neatly he fits in with the political message. I can only imagine how he must feel watching all these debates about him and his autism – I wonder if any of the things people have suddenly turned him into have any relationship at all to how he views himself or autism. In fact, if you read his quote carefully and without any bias about what message you think he’s trying to push, it’s perfectly possible to read him as saying some of his own challenges feel like difference rather than dysfunction – not that autism itself in his view is or should be seen in that way. (Go on, read it again in that light.)

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with wanting to push a message of acceptance, a message of potential, of understanding, of too few services and funding, of unseen suffering, of whatever. But what I do see as wrong is people deciding that views on autism can predetermine the legitimacy of your diagnosis. Whether someone likes or hates autism doesn’t change whether they have the condition – I have met far too many people from across the spectrum with various views and levels of happiness to believe otherwise. Furthermore, whether someone has autism or not, is a fact that can be verified by a diagnosis – someone diagnosing themself does not mean they don’t have autism, and a fair few people who get a diagnosis don’t objectively have the condition either (there is plenty of material proving this fact, from doctors own mouths). So those who decide Seinfeld does or doesn’t have autism based on his views, or based on the fact he is not diagnosed yet, are getting a bit carried away.

Yes, he is a celebrity, and yes some people seem to put a ridiculous amount of stock in what celebrities say about something they have no training in, but that’s a problem to be countered with accurate information and with pointing out the lack of meaningful authority in random celebrities. Seinfeld was doing an interview about how he sees and understands himself, the idea of autism helps him understand himself better, and that’s OK. It’s not an attack on our kids. It’s not necessarily a trumpet being blown for one side or the other of any particular autism debate. It’s just one man doing a bit of navel-gazing in public.

Now can we all just go back to attacking and misconstruing each other instead? We all have so much more material to work with that way. Thank you.

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23 Responses to Seinfeld’s Autism; A Symptom of So Much Else.

  1. fnvandok says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Beautifully put. Beautifully written.

  2. James says:

    I don’t know if JS is Spectrum or not. But I have long cited the Seinfeld comedy series as golden training material for HFAs. Once described as a show about nothing, many episodes tackled seemingly trite everyday situations and social faux pars.

    I found these incredibly useful as they addressed, sometimes in agonising detail, issues which I could never find a way to ask anyone else about. That inexplicable stuff which NT’s take for granted, which they always seemed to know how to handle, what to do, without actually saying it out loud.

    I loved the show, not so much as comedy, but as educational. The regular characters voiced different perspectives of an issue, along with the apparent contradictions of these opinions. I found their long winded expositions most informative.

    Just a different take on Seinfeld …… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  3. Astrid says:

    I agree 100%. Because I can disagree with some pro-cure autism advocates in writing, I’m declared not autistic (enough). I do agree that my core symptoms are relatively mild compared to some people who are completely immersed int heir special interests, dependent on routines, and unable to hold an appropriate conversation. Those, however, are usually intelligent people, simply because those with significant intellectual disability are too disabled to be able to be immersed in routines or special interests. Then there is the severity of co-existing behavior problems, and most intellectually disabled people are more severe on this scale than most without intellectual disability, yet I am pretty severe and yet I’m intelligent. I make no secret of the fact that I advocate for more services for myself and others like me, yet I also advocate for no discrimination against people who are capable of holding down a job except for their social oddities. I do admit that I don’t want to associate with proud Aspies who exclude the “low-functioning” autistics, but it’s because they are exclusionist. If they don’t exclude “lower-functioning” autistics and stop declaring autism as th enext step in evolution and start focusing on its full range of characteristics, that’s fine with me. Similarly, I want no part in pro-cure tactics of parents of “low-functioning” autistics because, in my opinion, we need to focus on which symptoms need treatment, not which people need a cure.

  4. KeAnne says:

    Great post and spot-on thoughts. BTW I just checked out and started “Saving Normal” based on your review. Had wanted to read it for a while!

  5. caelesti says:

    I don’t have a problem with him recognizing autistic traits in himself & acknowledging that- the honesty is refreshing, frankly! It would be helpful if he educated himself more about it and was careful how he talked about it. He could be a great ally to the neurodiversity movement. It’s called a spectrum because it does blur into neurotypicality, and where you draw the line is somewhat subjective. There are quite a few people who claim that John Elder Robison, for example does not really have autism, because of his successes. Personally when I talk about my experiences, I always try to emphasize that autism is diverse, it has strengths & weaknesses, positives & negatives. I do sometimes wonder about parents of kids on the spectrum who loudly object, I wonder if the “mild autism” hits too close to home. I know for myself, having non-NT parents has its pluses & minuses- they have had struggles too, but their ability to empathize based on their own experiences is an amazing blessing. I feel like there is a pressure on parents (whether they are labeled or not) to act more neurotypical to protect their children. My parents have generally not been public about their own labels (ADD & OCD) & I think that’s why- classic stigma management. P.S. my brother-in-law also on the spectrum, pretty much has figured out most social behavior by overanalyzing sitcoms, including Seinfeld.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. However I completely disagree with your claim that the reason it is called a spectrum is because it blurs with neurotypicaity. It is called a spectrum because of the diversity of types and severities of autism, (which were even more obvious in the previous DSM), in fact if it is unclear whether someone is on the spectrum or not, then the best (and most ethical) approach for that individual is to not diagnose them until it is clear what – if any – condition they may have. Any blurring with typical behaviours in such a way as to make it borderline, suggests strongly in favour of non-diagnosis. If you have a read of “Saving Normal” (see two posts back in my blog for further detail), you’ll find a very good discussion as to why this should be so. Regardless, thank you for commenting.

  6. M.J. says:

    “that’s a problem to be countered with accurate information and with pointing out the lack of meaningful authority in random celebrities.”

    Tell that to the majority of Americans….

    The problem with Seinfeld, in my opinion, is that it sets up yet another stereotype about autism that my kids don’t have a prayer of living up to. Sure, it is a big wide spectrum and there are all types of autism but there are almost no well known examples of the types of autism were you don’t go onto become famous or wealthy.

    When I tell someone who isn’t familiar with autism that my children have autism the first thing they do is try and relate it to someone they know has autism (or think has autism). I have literally had conversations like this –

    Me : My kids have autism.

    Random Person : Oh, you mean like Rain Man.
    Me : No, nothing like Rain Man.

    Random Person : Oh, so are they like that guy who wrote the book about looking him in the eye?
    Me : No, they aren’t like that either.

    Random Person : Oh, they are girls so they must be like Temple Grandin.
    Me : No, they aren’t like her either.

    Random Person : But they are good at math, right? (talking to the twins) You girls do like math, don’t you?
    Me : They aren’t able to talk well enough to understand you. And no, they are really good at art but math is hard for them.

    Twin A notices the person talking to them, smiles at them, and starts puring loudly. The purr is loud enough and a high enough frequency that a nearby window almost shatters.

    Twin B hears the key word “math” mentioned, the wheels in her head start spinning, and she starts obsessing about what is happening next –

    Twin B : No math!
    Me : No, no math.

    Twin B : No school!
    Me : No, no school.

    Twin B : No bus!
    Me : No, no bus.

    (repeats 5 times before Twin B is convinced we aren’t trying to pull a fast one on her and send her to school on the weekend)

    Random Person gets strange look on their face, makes an excuse about having to be somewhere, and walks away quickly.

    The point is that what we don’t need is yet another name associated with autism who is so unlike the rest of the people on the spectrum that it sets up unrealistic ideas of what autism is like. If Seinfeld is on the spectrum he would be at the extreme edge of the spectrum and have very little in common with the “typical” person with autism. If he wanted to do some navel-gazing he should have had the common sense to do it somewhere other than a interview.

    • Fair comment MJ, I always appreciate hearing your perspective. It hasn’t fundamentally changed my mind on what JS said or should have said, but yes I do understand (and to a more limited extent) share your concerns. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  7. Very well said! Moving right along to the next social media blowout…………

  8. bubbapigg says:

    Thanks for writing this post. This semester I will teaching Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Many years ago, I went to a conference on whole language conducted by a group of administrators from New Zealand. One speaker said that in the US we had a tendency to label kids and isolate them which is a horrible way to educate children. She hit the nail on the head, and she made this statement before the Big Pharma helped doctors to label and prescribe drugs for these new maladies.

  9. Kathy R. says:

    Great post but the headline alone nails it!

  10. monaresa says:

    Great post. The discussion I’ve seen around this is interesting, to say the least.

  11. Autism Mom says:

    I have to say how much I appreciate you not examining the cynical view that the blasters from all sides in the Autism community do so primarily to raise hits on their websites or increase their twitter followers. I could not help but go there myself, and I very much appreciate how your analysis stayed on the high road and reminded me to do so as well!

    • I haven’t read your post yet but I’ll look it up. Thanks for taking the time to pop over and share that point, I hadn’t given it much thought but you’re right, there are bound to be those who get their knickers in a twist just for hits-sake.

  12. Autism Mom says:

    Oh, I didn’t post about this, I meant just keeping to the high road in my head. 🙂

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