Elon Musk and Autism

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.

30 things you can do that might help autistic people in your lives.

1. Let us decompress in quiet areas when we need to. Our desire to be alone is not judgement on you, it’s simple self preservation.

2. If you need us to do something, give us very clear, unambiguous instruction. Don’t feel like you’re being rude doing this, but don’t sound irritated or patronising!

3. Do not expect us to react to things in a way you would expect. That way lies disappointment. We often show our emotions in very different ways to what you might expect.

4. Don’t assume we aren’t capable of thought and feeling if we’re non-verbal. Don’t assume we’re incapable of communicating in other ways either.

5. Don’t expect autistic children to ‘grow out of’ being autistic. They just won’t. That doesn’t happen.

6. Don’t force us to wear particular clothing if we have a visceral negative reaction to it – it’s texture or fit might be causing *significant* discomfort and unhappiness.

7. Don’t be upset if we don’t wish to socialise with you, as we often have considerable limits in our capacity. However do ask as generally it’s nice to get the opportunity.

8. Check in on autistic people from time to time. Don’t be upset if they don’t respond quickly – all socialising is stressful and many of us are very forgetful and disorganised!

9. Don’t use banter or negative insulting humour to autistic people, unless you know they’re OK with it from you specifically. There are maybe four people on earth I can be jokingly insulted by without panicking that they mean it.

10. Remember all autistic people have a very different experience of autism – it’s a huge, varied grab bag of traits so any list like this has to be taken carefully.

11. Don’t force us to make phone calls. Phone phobia is common for many autistic people and it can be *very* serious. If there’s an alternative let us use if without judgement.

12. Don’t force eye contact. Many autistic people find eye contact way too intimate and emotionally draining so they’re not gonna want to do it with their boss or a
stranger. We are still listening.

13. Let us stim! These movements, sounds of activities are great for regulating our stress levels and are absolutely vital. Unless we’re hurting ourselves or others, let us be.

14. Talk to us and listen to us about our special interests. It may be a bit of an info dump but believe me, be a safe listener and we’ll appreciate it so so much.

15. Let autistic people play with their toys however they want.

16. If an autistic person forgets something, don’t be too harsh on us please. It’s hard to remember stuff when just surviving is tricky.

17. Remember that many autistic people have comorbid conditions – from depression to intellectual disabilities. Be sensitive and assume nothing.

18. Don’t infantalise autistic people – we’re not big kids or babies, we are adults with agency and minds of our own.

19. Don’t spread misinformation about autism and call it out when you see it – eg autistic people having no empathy and so on.

20. Pay attention to our pronouns and language. Many, many autistic people are in some ways non-binary, trans, queer or asexual, or more. Again, assume nothing and *listen*.

21. Don’t assume we’re ‘high functioning’. That language can go in the bin. We may well be good at some stuff but behind the scenes you don’t know how difficult we find life.

22. Don’t treat ‘autism’ or ‘autistic’ as if it’s a dirty word, avoiding it with euphemism.
It’s really fucking annoying.

23. Give opportunities to autistic people, if you’re in the position to. We’re frequently in the creative arts thanks to our brains, and being given chances can change everything.

24. If you want autistic people to do stuff for you, pay us as you would non-autistic people.

25. Don’t force an autistic person into a situation they’re uncomfortable with unless you know they’d rather you help push them. You have no idea how scared we may be.

26. Let autistic people follow their routine as much as you possibly can. It helps lots of us immeasurably most of the time and doesn’t usually cost anything.

27. If an autistic person has a meltdown or shutdown, give them space and don’t judge them. Be kind. Let them rest afterwards.

28. Don’t tell anyone who identifies as autistic that they’re not autistic. First, you have no idea, second, your objection is probably based on incorrect stereotypes.
Third, it’s rude.

29. Give us processing time to answer when you ask us things. Even if it seems an easy question.

30. Above all, follow loads of autistic accounts on here, Facebook, YouTube etc and see what they have to say.