Or, Why I’m Not Happy that Elon Musk is Autistic.
I am always grateful when someone famous announces that they are autistic. Or so I thought. Now I have to say that I am almost always grateful, because in the case of Elon Musk, gratitude was not the first, or second, emotion that I felt. Instead, I felt apprehensive and weary, because I knew I was going to have to write this post, re-inform people as to what autism isn’t, and explain why I’m not happy about his announcement, over and over, because people love asking the one autistic person in their lives about every little thing that has anything to do with autism. And not only am I the only autistic person they know, I’m the only autistic person I know, so this blog is the only place I get to vent about it.
Basically, the last thing the autism community needs another example of a white male autistic who fits the vanishingly rare stereotype of the super-genius misanthrope. At the risk of stating the obvious, most people with Autism Level 1, as Asperger’s is clinically termed, do not have 99th percentile IQs and aren’t billionaire entrepreneurs. A considerable number are not even white men. People with “high-functioning” autism are a diverse group of individuals with a range of functionalities of which those like Musk’s (and, full disclosure, mine) are the ceiling, not the average. Such outliers are exceptions to the rule, their success unattainable for the rest of the autism community.
Most people on the spectrum, including me, struggle in our day-to-day interactions because we don’t intuit social norms. We pay a price for unintentionally upsetting neurotypicals (non-autistics) around us, who often accuse us of having a “bad attitude” and “negative tone.” But these traits are just fine if you are a white male of outrageous wealth, autistic or otherwise.
Musk is a self-centered blowhard whose only goal in announcing he had Asperger’s was the promotion and benefit of Elon Musk. When someone like him comes along and says they are autistic, it reaffirms stereotypes about autistics being unfeeling savants and reifies a social structure where the norms that apply to an overwhelming majority of the population are lifted for the elite few.
This is a problem for several reasons, of which being allowed to be a jerk if you’re privileged is the least of them. Lack of knowledge about autism makes a celebrity of Musk’s stature a template against which all other autistics, including the non-white, non-male, non-rich and non-genius, are measured, thereby setting an impossible standard none of the rest of us can reach. People already carry around a lot of negative implicit bias against autistic people, even though most would claim otherwise, and Musk just reaffirms what they already feel.
For autistics who aren’t named Elon Musk, there are severe penalties for not adhering to social guidelines. We have to work for bosses, at the local fast food joint, retail store, or office, and we do so at their pleasure and according to their rules. Musk may be a genius, but he wouldn’t last a single shift at the local Starbucks, and he’d undoubtedly blame everyone else for getting himself fired, because that’s the kind of guy he is. Most autistics are not like that, but those like him make it that much harder for us to convince people of that fact.
Do we need people to make autism more visible to non-autistics? Yes, absolutely, and that’s why Musk’s reveal isn’t all bad. At least we’re talking about autism, right? There are as many different types of autism presentations as there are people with autism, and I have no doubt as to his diagnosis. But autistics struggle to hold down jobs, make and keep friends, and meet the expectations of the neurotypical (non-autistic) people around them, challenges that, if Musk ever faced, he certainly doesn’t have to worry about now. If only his admission had come with caveats, with a “Yes, I’m successful, but I’m the exception, not the rule,” I would have cheered him on. Instead, he’s become the latest front in our ongoing battle against tired autism tropes.
Most people will never be billionaires. Most autistics will never be Elon Musk. This is an opportunity to recognize that autism is more common than we realize. So long as we realize that Musk is not a common autistic, that is good thing, and I [wearily] welcome it.