Elon Musk Autism Revelation Sparks Controversy

Elon Musk Character

Mainstream media and the online autism community have been examining tech billionaire Elon Musk’s May 8th announcement as host of Saturday Night Live that he is on the autism spectrum. Some sites praise Musk for bringing autism into the spotlight and being a potential role model. Other organizations are saying his announcement did more harm than good to the autism community.

Does Elon Musk Have Autism or Asperger’s?

One of the more obvious criticisms is that Musk didn’t exactly say he had autism. He said he had Asperger’s, a diagnosis that no longer officially exists, having been replaced in 2013 by the more inclusive term Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

“I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL. Or at least the first to admit it,” said Musk.

Elon Musk and Autism Trending

Social media lit up with comments about Musk’s two errors:

  1. Dan Aykroyd hosted in 2003 and has been open about his autism, meaning Musk isn’t really the first host with that distinction.
  2. He used the obsolete term Asperger’s rather than autism, autism spectrum disorder or ASD Level 1, any of which would have been medically correct.

No matter how you feel about his words, a quick Google search shows that Musk did shine a bright light on his condition, perhaps bringing awareness and acceptance of autism to a broadly “neurotypical” world. The Asperger/Autism Network reported that traffic to its website more than doubled after Musk’s announcement.

In one segment, he talked about some common symptoms of his autism. “It’s an honor to be hosting Saturday Night Live. I mean that,” he began. “Sometimes when I say something, I have to say ‘I mean that’ so that people really know that I mean it. That’s because I don’t always have a lot of intonational variation in how I speak … which I’m told makes for great comedy. I won’t make a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight. But don’t worry, I’m pretty good at running ‘human’ in emulation mode.”

There is something to be said for Musk’s admission as a business leader. Known for companies like the electric car manufacturer Tesla and the commercial space rocket venture SpaceX, Musk battles other billionaires for the top spot in a list of the world’s richest people. And while many celebrities have been open about being autistic, Musk is the highest-profile business leader to admit his disability.

Autism vs Asperger’s

Musk’s brief comedic career moment spawned a healthy argument over whether it was proper for him to use the term Asperger’s. Some articles defended his use of the outdated term, saying he was probably diagnosed with that word and that you tend to keep using whatever term you were diagnosed with. Others labeled his use of the term as a practice that divides those with autism, not just by levels or points along a spectrum, but by social class.

In a virtual panel of people with autism published on themighty.com, writer Amelia Blackwater said: “Saying you have Asperger’s feels like it is an elitist idea. Even if Elon does not know the history behind the term Asperger’s, he still used it to separate himself as ‘higher functioning’ and elite compared to someone who has autism and might have more support needs.”

Sara Luterman, an author with autism writing for Slate.com, put it more succinctly: “Another rich white tech guy says he’s on the spectrum. So what?”

What’s Wrong With the Term Asperger’s?

Why is there so much controversy over the term Asperger’s? After all, it was an official diagnostic term from 1992 through 2013. And many people, websites and organizations still use terms like “aspies” to describe themselves. One reason may be that the person for whom the condition was named, Hans Asperger, has been linked to the deaths of children with certain levels of autism in Nazi Germany during World War II. Prior to this discovery in 2018, Dr. Asperger was seen as a hero who worked to save children from being executed because of their autism.

Another reason the label Asperger’s continues to spark controversy is that a large percentage of people who fit that particular autism profile strongly identify themselves as having Asperger’s, some calling themselves “Aspies.”

According to the AANE (Asperger/Autism Network), the prevalence of people with an “Asperger’s” profile is estimated to be 1 in 250, although many consider the condition to be underdiagnosed. The current estimate of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is 1 in 54.

Common characteristics of people with what was originally known as Asperger’s include:

  • Intellectual or Artistic Interest
  • Speech Differences
  • Delayed Motor Development
  • Poor Social Skills
  • Development of Harmful Psychological Problems
  • Detail-oriented
  • Persistence
  • Not Socially-driven
  • High Integrity

After Musk’s revelation, more than one expert pointed out that “Asperger’s” could be common in successful entrepreneurs because of the characteristics of this form of autism. Their tendency to ignore social conventions allows them to break all the rules and pioneer new ideas and ventures.

Autism expert Temple Grandin suggests that many of our revered geniuses, including Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, were on the spectrum but undiagnosed. She believes the same may be true of many current tech industry leaders. Quoted in a recent inc.com article, she said, “People with Asperger’s tend to get fixated on their favorite thing, and their favorite thing could be starting a business. That would be really a good thing.”

Another of Musk’s quotes from his now-famous SNL monologue underscores Grandin’s point.

“Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works. To anyone who’s been offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars, and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”

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