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.