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‘Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That’: On Seinfeld and Autism

Read Thursday, 13 Nov 2014

Jo Case, author of Boomer and Me: A Memoir of Motherhood and Asperger’s, reflects on Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘coming out’ as as being on the autism spectrum this week – and the conflicting responses from the autism community, which range from outrage to gratitude.

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Jerry Seinfeld declared this weekend, in an interview with NBC, that he believes he’s on the autism spectrum. ‘Basic social engagement is really a struggle,’ he said. ‘But I don’t see it as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternate mindset.’

My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (now high-functioning autism) eight years ago; he’s now fifteen. After his diagnosis, I realised other members of my family, including me, are on the autism spectrum. My son knows he has Asperger’s Syndrome, and is personally reconciled to it, but he’s wary about letting his peers know, for fear of being judged by a label they don’t understand – one that’s often portrayed in a negative way. He is passionate about comedy and aspires to be a writer and performer.

My son and I have a kind of game we play, where we identify and claim cultural figures as ‘Aspies’. (Kubrick, Jesse Eisenberg, Community creator Dan Harmon.) Almost none of them – except Harmon – have publicly identified as being on the autism spectrum. It’s empowering to have these role models, people who demonstrate that while autistic traits pose challenges, they can also be gifts. That autism shouldn’t restrict what we aspire to in life, though it might inform how we might go about getting it.

Awareness of high-functioning autism has grown since my son was diagnosed eight years ago, but there’s still a fairly narrow understanding of what it means and what it might look like. While people once thought ‘Rainman’ when they heard ‘autism’, the first response is now Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, followed by Silicon Valley IT workers, math geniuses, and perhaps engineers or academics. Surely, the wider the variety of role models that exist, the wider the choices seem for those who identify as autistic. And the more high-profile role models who are willing to identify with a marginalised community, the better.

Not everyone in the autistic community agrees. Kim Stagliano, mother of three autistic daughters and editor of The Age of Autism, was just one of the many who were outraged and insulted by Seinfeld’s statement. They feel that Seinfeld’s self-diagnosis is invalid and that it was irresponsible of him to publicly align himself with the autism spectrum without a medical diagnosis. The issue, it seems, is they believe Seinfeld does not have ‘serious behaviours and issues and challenges’: he’s one of the world’s most successful entertainers, he has a wife and three children, he’s well respected. To his critics within the autism community, his successful life devalues their everyday struggles – and puts funding for autism research and treatment at risk.

It’s much harder to attract funding for ‘difference’ than for ‘disability’. And since the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome was discontinued, replaced last year with ‘high-functioning autism’, it’s become harder than ever to differentiate the staggering variety of experiences on the spectrum when talking about autism. Parents of those at the ‘lower-functioning’ end, who might be non-verbal, unable to connect with the wider world, and require intensive care, can feel marginalised when they don’t see their experiences reflected in the high-achieving success stories who have turned their ‘special interests’ into career triumphs through hours of obsession and focus.

‘This is autism,’ tweeted Stagliano at Seinfeld, accompanied by a photograph of her family. ‘Gorgeous young ladies who need 24/7 lifetime care.’ She told the Washington Post that she’s tired of those in the spotlight making autistic symptoms sound fashionable. ‘It’s a medical diagnosis, not a personality or a gift.’

Other members of the autism community have welcomed Seinfeld’s actions. ‘Think about what this does for a closeted autistic person who goes into the workplace knowing that their co-workers have just seen somebody they know, respect, and have a positive opinion of, like Jerry Seinfeld, identify in this way – it’s a valuable and important step in building a greater tolerance for autism,’ says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Advocacy Network (and autistic person).

John Elder Robison, bestselling author of a series of autobiographical books on Asperger’s Syndrome, including Look me in the Eye, agrees. He also defends Seinfeld’s much-criticised ‘self-diagnosis’, pointing out that most adults on the spectrum start out by recognising something in themselves that might explain how they experience the world, and asking ‘might I be autistic?’

Some of the reactions against Seinfeld’s diagnosis mirror the myths about what the autistic spectrum looks like. But he has friends! He looks people in the eye! He’s a performer! He has a sense of humour!

Autism is not about what a person looks like on the outside; it’s about how they process the world inside their heads. Sometimes that’s obvious to onlookers, sometimes it’s not. There are many things people on the spectrum can learn, but don’t do instinctively. Like looking people in the eye, taking turns in conversation and other social skills that neurotypicals (non-autistics) take for granted.

Given that many autistic people must learn to perform as ordinary-seeming humans in order to ‘pass’ in everyday life, it’s not surprising that some of them transfer this to a career. The autism professionals I know have privately confirmed that actors on the spectrum are not uncommon. It’s the same with writers (and directors). Experiencing the world you inhabit as an outsider and having to constantly decode everyday social interactions to make sense of them is a solid grounding for transforming observation into art.

The idea that autistic people don’t have a sense of humour is a myth; like many autism myths (including that of no empathy), it’s now accepted that the difference is that the triggers for humour and the sense of what’s appropriate in different contexts may be different in someone with autism. But autistic people often have a very keen sense of humour; international expert Tony Atwood says that ‘many have a unique or alternative perspective on life that can be the basis of comments that are perceptive and clearly humorous’.

Creative endeavours that involve highlighting the absurdities, contradictions or hidden patterns of everyday interaction – like observational comedy – are especially suited to some people on the autism spectrum. Tony Attwood says that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome ‘is trying to understand our social customs in much the same way as an anthropologist who has discovered a new tribe will want to study its people and customs.’

Autistic advocate Temple Grandin says that autistic people are like dogs; we tend to sniff each other out. I first wondered if Seinfeld might be on the spectrum (then dismissed it as my habitual over-analysing) when I read a 2012 New York Times profile that described his approach to creating comedy. It was obsessive, highly detail-oriented and routine-driven. He described needing physical and mental space to step into his comedic persona (or, ‘costume’) before he steps on stage, likening it to Clark Kent transforming into Superman. When he scored his first appearance on Johnny Carson in 1981, he practised his five-minute set 200 times beforehand.

Seinfeld will nurse a single joke for years, amending, abridging and reworking it incrementally, to get the thing just so. ‘It’s similar to calligraphy or samurai,’ he says. ‘I want to make cricket cages. You know those Japanese cricket cages? Tiny, with the doors? That’s it for me: solitude and precision, refining a tiny thing for the sake of it.’

It’s hard to come out as being on the spectrum. I know: I’ve done it. I did it because I wrote a memoir about my son’s diagnosis with Asperger’s Syndrome and coming to accept it as a difference rather than a disability; learning to let it inform our lives but not define them. I quickly realised that I couldn’t ‘out’ him without publicly owning my own identity on the autistic spectrum. And it’s lonely out here.

While critics perpetuate the myth of the ‘trendy diagnosis’ that people clamour for to make themselves feel special, I observe the opposite. I don’t know anyone who has identified as autistic without their child being diagnosed, though I’ve had many people confess to me they might be, only to just as quickly dismiss the idea.

Labels can be restricting. It’s challenging and vulnerable to own a label that admits the public self you present is consciously crafted, that social situations make you anxious, that you lack an instinct for understanding your peers. It opens you up to being judged and criticised as less than genuine, as defective in important ways – though it can also be a path to self-understanding … and ultimately, self-acceptance.

I can’t see what Jerry Seinfeld, possibly the world’s most famous comedian, has to gain in terms of profile, career or monetary reward by identifying as on the autism spectrum. And as a smart man who is obsessive about research and getting things right, I imagine he’s done his homework and come to his conclusions based on that.

On Tuesday, the same day I talked over breakfast about Seinfeld’s declaration, my son told his friend – casually, in the course of conversation – that he’s Asperger’s. It’s the first time in three years of high school that he’s said as much to his peers.

The negative reaction to Seinfeld’s self-outing makes it less likely that other high-profile figures on the autistic spectrum will do the same thing. But the fact that he spoke up at all makes it that little bit easier for the rest of us to own our difference. And for that, I’m grateful.

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