On Saturday night, Elon Musk announced live on US television that he was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome. Autistic Twitter exploded into a binary set of oppositions in response to this. Some argued this was excellent exposure and would help spread the good word about what autism is, and how autistic people have plenty to offer society. Others, like myself, voiced fear of what this extremely polarising figure would do to the always-fragile public perception of autism.
We have just left behind April – traditionally a very stressful month for the autistic community, as the wider population suddenly gains opinions about autism for World Autism Awareness Month, and shares them with neither knowledge or understanding. So we are a slightly fraught, exhausted demographic right now. For those of us who work to improve understanding of autism, our lives are filled with trying to eradicate myths, clear up misunderstandings and clarify information so that the general public has a more accurate and fairer concept of what autism is. These days I have literally dedicated my working life to it. And so the news that Musk has suddenly become one of the more famous ‘faces of autism’ came as a shock and, frankly, a disappointment. Public perception of a thing is massively influenced by celebrities. It’s interesting that a lot of very positive strides in the field of advocating autism came at the same time as folk like Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham went public with their diagnoses (crucially both Aspergers). These two individuals, and others such as Anthony Hopkins, Jack Monroe, Marina Amaral and Dan Aykroyd, have helped detoxify the publics perception of autism, which is far too preoccupied with old tropes based on Rainman and the use of ‘autistic’ as a playground slur term.
So the arrival of Musk on the scene is, in my opinion, less than welcome. I am not suggesting he should keep quiet, nor that he should not count himself as autistic. More, I am simply exhausted and afraid of what might follow.
There is a potential here for lots of good work to be partially undone, simply because autism and Musk might become inseparable in the public eye. If that happens, the autistic community will suffer. Why? Because many of the tired old stereotypes of autism (or rather aspergers) being a white male thing, obsessed with science and technology, abrasive, rude and prone to massively unhelpful comments (see Musks words on the diving expert who helped the trapped kids a few years ago) will all come flooding back into focus, pushing advocacy attempts back by several years.
Admittedly this may not happen. Musk may not become a posted boy for autism. But the potential is there, and it is that I am afraid and upset by. The fact there is a demographic who would benefit from this – the male aspergers orientated ‘autistic dark web’, who spend their time disparaging autistic women as fakers and attention seekers, and the neurodiversity movement as a sham, make the situation even more febrile and stressful.
So no, there’s no gatekeeping here. Just concern about what may come to pass as a result of this.