Jerry Seinfeld has created quite a stir, and not for the latest episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” First, in an interview on NBC Nightly News, he told Brian Williams that he thinks he is “on the spectrum”. When asked about this comment in an Access Hollywood Interview about a week later, Seinfeld backtracked, explaining that he simply found himself relating to the autistic protagonist of a play he’d seen recently, but that he didn’t think he was actually on the spectrum.
Some might be offended by the casual way Seinfeld adopted and then shed the label. I suspect many of these are the same people who were insulted by his original comment in the Williams interview. These were mostly parents of children with autism, who charged that the comment trivialized the challenges they face every day.
But I think these people are missing the point. I appreciated Seinfeld’s original observation. Like many others who voiced their opinions online — mostly adults with autism and autism rights activists — I thought Seinfeld’s comment helped de-stigmatize the disorder.
In my former life as a clinical psychology intern, I worked with people with autism every day. The people I saw came from across the entire spectrum, from children who wore helmets to protect their heads when they banged them against the wall repeatedly to higher functioning adults who suffered from depression and anxiety because of their difficulties with dating and finding a job.
It doesn’t make sense to compare one person with autism to another. As autistic author John Elder Robison pointed out in a blog post for Psychology Today, “[t]he ‘my autism is worse than yours’ is a counterproductive and destructive way of thinking.” A common adage in the autism community is, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Having worked with many people on the spectrum, I can attest to that heterogeneity. It’s part of what makes autism spectrum disorders fascinating and, at times, mystifying.
That doesn’t mean I ever thought Seinfeld truly had autism — but neither did he. What he said in the Williams interview is that he thinks he’s somewhere on the spectrum “on a drawn-out scale.” As Robison suggests in his post, what Seinfeld describes sounds more like what experts call the “Broader Autism Phenotype”: having some of the traits of autism — in Seinfeld’s case, being overly literal and feeling uncomfortable with social interaction — without the full complement of symptoms required for a diagnosis.
What’s refreshing about Seinfeld’s comments, and what hasn’t gotten enough attention in the media, is that he how he feels about his “autistic” side: “I don’t see it as dysfunctional,” he told Williams. “I just think of it as an alternative mind-set.” This is the message that autism rights activists have been trying to convey for years: that the features of autism should be thought of as different, rather than bad.
I’d go even further than Seinfeld did and argue that some of his “autistic” traits have probably helped him succeed. Research suggests that people with autism are often very detail-oriented, which gives them an edge on certain tasks, such as mentally rotating 3-D figures. Studies have also found a higher incidence of autistic traits among people in highly technical professions, such as scientists and mathematicians. Recently, companies including Freddie Mac and SAP have started seeking out people with autism for technical tasks that involve a level of attention to detail that eludes most “neurotypicals” (the preferred term of autism rights activists for people who are not on the spectrum).
Comedy might not strike you as an obvious profession for someone with this cognitive profile, but if you think about Seinfeld’s humor, it makes sense. Much of his comedy focuses on the minutiae of everyday life, details you might have never considered but are hilarious once he points them out. I recently watched a very old HBO special in which Seinfeld pontificates about the absurdity of the little hangers that come with socks in stores.
Who notices and thinks about little sock hangers? Only someone with a keen eye for detail.
So, let’s forget about whether Seinfeld is on the spectrum . Let’s focus instead on his underlying message: that having “autistic” traits makes people different, but not lesser. That doesn’t diminish anyone’s experience. And it’s a message that needs to be heard.