In a revealing conversation, Jerry Seinfeld tells Brian Williams he’s observed in himself behavior that makes him think he may have autism.
“I think on a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum,” said Seinfeld. “Basic social engagement is really a struggle. I’m very literal, when people talk to me and they use expressions, sometimes I don’t know what they’re saying. But I don’t see it as– as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternate mindset.”
– NBC Nightly News
The reaction to Seinfeld’s revelation was, well, hmm, I’ll let my friend John tell us.
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, 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:
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.
Please click here to read John’s article in its entirety.
Lest you think that John is overstating the case, the very first link that comes up in a Google search of “Jerry Seinfeld Autism” is a Salon article entitled, “Jerry Seinfeld’s not helping: Celebrity autism claims distract from reality and research — Comedian’s revelation doesn’t build the right awareness — and might make it harder for already overwhelmed parents.”
THAT (incredibly problematic title) is the very first link to the man’s intensely personal revelation that he sees autistic traits in himself.
I’m going go out on a limb here. I’m going to choose to believe that the general public is capable of understanding that Autism is a spectrum disorder. That it affects different people in vastly different ways. That there is no static nor consistent level of disability, no fixed ratio of gifts, as-yet-undiscovered or otherwise, to attendant challenges.
Recognizing the traits of autism in oneself and claiming them, lifting the curtain and letting light pour into the darkest places for public scrutiny is not an easy thing to do. In fact, I’d say it takes great courage in the world in which we currently live to say before an audience of millions, “I think I might be on the autism spectrum.”
I can’t imagine having done such a thing on television to begin with, no less to have then been met by a mob of angry villagers telling me to go screw myself when I did.
Are we really not better than that? Do we really so desperately fear allowing for the possibility that when autism’s challenges are sufficiently mitigated so as to make it less disabling, autism itself isn’t necessarily so bad?
Do we really believe that if we do acknowledge that autism is not the devil we’re fighting that no one will help those in desperate need of resources?
Do we really give one another that little credit for being capable of critical thought?
And by God, what are we telling our children and autistic adults when we say, “No one who has achieved any measure of success can possibly represent you because you could never do the same.” That is not a message I’m willing to send. And please, please don’t try to reduce my unwillingness to compromise the world’s perception of my child’s neurological makeup to an issue of her “level of functioning.” I assure you, I’d be only more adamant about not selling her short were her intellect and limitless potential even better disguised to the general population than they already are.
A young woman with Aspergers’ once explained it to me thusly (and I hope she’ll forgive a very sloppy attempt to paraphrase): Let’s say I’m a duck and a nonspeaking, severely autistic child is a goose. I’m not claiming that I’m a goose or that I know exactly how it feels to be a goose, but I do know how it feels to be a bird.