Two big autism stories bookended last week. First, a mother threw her autistic child off a bridge. The second was Jerry Seinfeld, in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, placing himself on the autism spectrum.
The danger with announcements like Seinfeld’s — or fictional portrayals of the Everyman autistic like Ray Romano’s Hank character on “Parenthood,” who self-diagnoses his autism after reading a book about Asperger’s syndrome — is that autism, a neurological condition, becomes almost fashionable. Who wouldn’t want some odd quirkiness to make you memorable?
Seinfeld told Brian Williams that one symptom of his autism is that he over-literalizes language — for example, the expression “the apple of my eye” makes no sense to him, as no one’s eye has an apple. You can hear echoes of his comedy in here, the implicit takeaway becomes the idea that autism could be an enviable driver of creativity, the same way that politicians and corporate interests spin climate change with visions of bananas growing in Minnesota while ignoring the devastation it will also bring.
Seinfeld said he hopes his announcement will help diminish the stigma of autism, an unequivocally laudable intention. Retroactively self-diagnosed adults or high-functioning autistics like Temple Grandin indeed may be living proof that one can overcome huge obstacles and live with and even flourish despite autism. Every day, dead people, too — Mozart, Newton, Einstein — are also retroactively diagnosed with autism.
What I fear is that these public faces of autism will allow society, and more important, policymakers, mentally off the hook. You can have autism and get a Ph.D.! It helps you write jokes! Your charming quirks and aggravating behaviors are now explainable.
To veer to the other end of the spectrum, the sporadic — but steady — news of overwhelmed parents killing their own children warns of a crisis building in our own homes. Many of these cases have been mothers, but before we explain it away, as it has been, with gendered suggestions of mental illness, attention seeking, etc., let’s also remember the story of a father — and high-ranking former Bush official — who shot his autistic 12-year-old son in a murder-suicide inside their suburban McLean home.