Sunday, November 16, 2014

Jerry Seinfeld Declares His Autism

Update: Jerry Seinfeld has since stated that he is not autistic. I don't know why he reversed his previous statement, nor will I speculate. However, I still stand by what I wrote here.

Last Thursday, comedian Jerry Seinfeld joined the ranks of certain other celebrities, such as Dan Aykroyd, George Harrison, and Daryl Hannah. He stated in an interview with Brian Williams on NBC's Nightly News that he believes that he has some form of autism.

When asked what markers led him to this conclusion, Seinfeld responded “Never paying attention to the right things. 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.” These are all common traits among autistic people.

To be honest, this doesn't come as a surprise to me. I've long suspected that Jerry Seinfeld may be on the autism spectrum. However, before I continue, I want to stress that I am in no way qualified to make an autism diagnosis. Even if I were, it would be highly irresponsible of me to do so on this platform. Everything I say about Seinfeld from this point on is purely for the purpose of mental exercise.

Now that that's out of the way, let's move on to what I've noticed about Seinfeld. First, his material tends to be very logical, even for observational humor. The neuronormal human brain does not naturally process logic. That seems to be the domain of other neurotypes, such as autism. This by itself, of course doesn't mean much. Just as many autistic people are capable of learning social norms, most neuronormal people are also capable of learning logic.

More relevant are his speech patterns and mannerisms. Both tend to be slightly robotic. His facial expressions, while they do change, seem a lot more static than most people's. He also has a very slightly monotone voice, except for that tone that can mean almost anything, made famous on his self-titled sitcom. I've heard variations on that tone, without any intent to reference the TV show, from many of my autistic friends.

Of course, none of these things on their own would necessarily point to autism. However, the combination of all of them starts to make it look very likely. These are also some of the things I tend to notice in other autistic people.

As far as I know, Jerry Seinfeld has not received an official diagnosis. So how can we be certain he is autistic? With most adult diagnoses, a self-diagnosis is the first step. Very few people, in fact, have any cause to take action that might lead to an autism diagnosis prior to noticing it in themselves. In his case, he's learned a lot about the condition. Along the way, he started noticing traits in himself.

The next step would of course be to visit a professional to get their opinion. I feel it's worth saying that I don't remember ever talking to anyone who self-identified as autistic, and was told by a professional that they weren't. Additionally, there is currently no objective test for autism. A diagnosis is given purely on the basis of the examiner's opinion. Further, a professional diagnosis is acknowledged to be only around 90% accurate. For these reasons, I don't feel a professional diagnosis is necessary, unless the recipient plans to apply for benefits.

In fact, many self-identified autistic adults never seek a professional diagnosis. Whether Jerry Seinfeld seeks one or not is entirely up to him. The truth of the matter is that most of us in the autistic community will usually accept a self-diagnosis as being no less valid than a professional one.

I think we can also use Jerry Seinfeld's story to help dispel a few stereotypes of autistic people. The most obvious is that autistic people have no sense of humor. The fact that he's a comedian says all I need to say about that one. Additionally, some will say that a self-diagnosis of autism or Asperger's syndrome is often adopted to explain why a person's life has failed. While this, unfortunately, has been known to happen on occasion, I don't think there will be much disagreement that there is some other reason in this case.

Seinfeld has also said of his own suspected autism, “I don't see it as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternative mindset.” This is the predominant view taken by most autistic people, including very severely autistic people. The point is the idea that autistic people can quite often live full, normal, and productive lives.

I would like to extend a thank you to Jerry Seinfeld for having the courage to publicly declare his autism. Awareness of severely autistic people will never go away, and the need for autism supports will never end. I hope, though, that a person like Jerry Seinfeld can help to bring light to the diversity within the autistic community.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Autistics Speaking Day

Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of an event hosted on Facebook called Communication Shutdown. Facebook users were encouraged to go one day without logging into their accounts. The intent behind Communication Shutdown was to raise autism awareness by sharing in the experience of being unable to communicate. However, many of us in the autistic community found this event to be highly insulting for multiple reasons.

To start, few things have been more helpful to the autistic community than social media. The internet, including social websites like Facebook, has allowed us to find each other. We have used it to share coping strategies, learn how to navigate the neuronormal world, exchange ideas to be heard, and reassure each other that there are others like us in the world. Encouraging abstinence from this mechanism is a poor way to celebrate these accomplishments.

Probably the more obvious insult is the implication that autistic people don't communicate. It's true that we have difficulties with social interaction, but social interaction is different from communication. In fact, even completely nonverbal individuals are fully capable of communication. To the extent that our attempts fail, it's usually due to those attempts being ignored or not noticed.

To my knowledge, Communication Shutdown has not continued after its first year. Maybe it was due to the backlash from the autistic community. Perhaps it was only planned to be a one-day event from the beginning.

So, why should I bring this up now, four years later? Mostly, it's to talk about the response from the autistic community, which has lasted much longer. Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of Communication Shutdown, but it was also the fourth anniversary of Autistics Speaking Day.

Autistics Speaking Day is an annual event that takes place on November 1st each year, the same date as the event that inspired it. It was created as a positive, educational alternative to Communication Shutdown. Not simply a push back, but something to fill the resulting void if that push back were successful.

Autistics Speaking Day was created to show that autistic people can and do communicate. What's more, we have a lot to say. The day was created for us to rise up, either in real life or behind our keyboards, and say “I'm autistic, and I will be heard!” Many of these messages are placed under the easy to find heading of “Autistics Speaking Day.”

Worthy of note is that much of what is said on Autistics Speaking Day is at odds with what we are told by the media. The reason is simple. What is said by autistic people is not filtered through experts trying to make sense of what they are seeing. It comes straight from the minds that they are speaking about.

I try to keep a writing schedule, mostly to make things easier for me. (I always post on the first and third Sundays of each month.) This time, it did cause me to be a day late for the event. However, all of the Autistic Speaking Day writing should still be present.

Now log on to your favorite search engine and search for “Autistic Speaking Day” to see what the autistic community has to say.