Jerry Seinfeld uttered the words, “I think, on a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum...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 are saying, but I don’t see it as dysfunctional, I just think of it as an alternate mindset” and set off a firestorm. For some, it was welcome. It was a well liked, well respected face of autism. For others, it was a slap in the face. In these cases, it is important to remember the saying, “If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.”
Autism is a spectrum disorder, meaning that there is a range, from mild to severe and everywhere in between. Some people, with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism, don’t need much in the way of support while others do. On the other end of the spectrum are those that do, and will remain, non-verbal. They have behavioral issues and are severely disabled. Their caregivers don’t see an end to their constant needs and don’t see a time in the future when they will hold a job or be the least bit independent.
The number of autism diagnoses continues to rise. The last numbers issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 1 in 68 children have autism. While increased awareness and better detection can certainly account for some of the continued rise, scientists don’t believe it is solely responsible. Study after study looks for other causes, such as environmental toxins or pollution. Some worry that if we don’t find the underlying cause or causes of autism, the number of people on the spectrum will continue to rise with no end in sight.
But back to Jerry Seinfeld. Why would some people welcome his comments while others are extremely angry?
In an article on NBC News, Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Advocacy Network, explains that this type of disclosure can help to reduce the stigma surrounding autism. When people see someone they like and respect, such as Jerry Seinfeld, talk about autism, they may view autism differently. They might adjust their perception of autism. And for those with high-functioning autism, who are worried about disclosing their diagnosis, celebrities speaking up can help. Some might relate to Seinfeld’s comments and feel hopeful that someone so successful shares similar autistic traits.
Others worry that Seinfeld’s comments put a face on high-functioning autism but push those with more severe symptoms to the background. They worry that Seinfeld’s comments oversimplify the diagnosis and do a disservice to those struggling with autism or caring for someone on the other end of the spectrum. They worry that, if the face of autism is a successful comedian, the public won’t understand why it is necessary to spend money and time researching autism. Why should money be spent on research when you can be so successful with it? They want the face of autism to be more in line with those that struggle every day, from those with Asperger’s syndrome that spend their life friendless and alone because they can’t master social skills to those that remain locked inside an autistic mind, unable to communicate even their basic needs. They worry that those who “self diagnose” take away from the importance of reputable medical care.
John Elder Robinson, author of Be Different: My Adventures with Asperger’s and My Advice for Fellow Aspergians, Misfits, Families and Teachers, Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s and Raising Cubby: A Father and Son’s Adventures with Asperger’s, Trains, Tractors and High Explosives, sees it differently. He believes that when an adult is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or autism, it began with the question, “Am I on the spectrum?” similar to what Seinfeld is saying. He explains that this self-diagnosis is often a first step on the journey of self-discovery and is willing to wait it out before deciding whether Seinfeld is a help or hinderance to the autism community. He agrees with the need to reduce the stigma surrounding autism and hopes Seinfeld’s revelation can help do so. He believes Seinfeld can help in showing that the face of autism doesn’t look the same, that it is indeed different in each person.
Published On: November 11, 2014