Last week, Elon Musk made waves on Saturday Night Live when he claimed that he is the first person with Asperger’s to host the show — or at least the first person to be open about it. This was the first time he had spoken publicly about his diagnosis. Aside from the fact that his claim to be the first simply isn’t true (Dan Aykroyd has been open about his diagnosis for years), many members of the autistic community have criticized his monologue for playing into harmful, inaccurate stereotypes.
After Musk’s monologue, several news organizations published pieces celebrating the disclosure as an important milestone in autistic representation. However, as activist and author Erin Ekins said on Twitter, “The only ‘awareness’ that Elon Musk brings about autism is in regards to a certain presentation of autism (white, male, techy, awkward) which is literally the most over-saturated and represented presentation of autism across the media and society.”
The only ‘awareness’ that Elon Musk brings about autism is in regards to a certain presentation of autism (white, male, techy, awkward) which is literally the most over-saturated and represented presentation of autism across the media and society.
— Erin Ekins (she/her) (@QueerlyAutistic) May 9, 2021
Neurotypicality Research Inc., a satirical Twitter account making fun of the pathologization of neurodiverse people, also pointed out, “We have known for a long time that autistic & neurodivergent people can be successful, especially if they have money and privilege behind them. Elon Musk’s announcement adds nothing to the discussion and does nothing to help the community.”
Autism and the Workplace
While Musk is one of the richest people on the planet, 85 percent of autistic adults with college degrees are unemployed, and this number only includes those who are actively looking for work. In his piece on why “The Fight for Autism Acceptance is the Fight for Socialism,” Left Voice writer Sam Carliner describes his own difficulties with working regularly under capitalism:
For one thing, it’s especially difficult for me to take in multiple sensory sensations all at once… This means I can’t drive, and as a result, the jobs I’m able to work are significantly limited by where the United States’ horribly under-funded public transportation can take me. This risk of overstimulation also makes me incapable of working fast-paced jobs such as retail or food service, ruling out the vast majority of jobs that tend to have regular openings. Even virtual jobs can be difficult if there is no clear structure of communication and routine to the tasks expected of me.
One autistic billionaire being open about his diagnosis does not change the material conditions for the millions of other autistic people struggling with structural ableism. The existence of Black billionaires, women billionaires, or gay billionaires does nothing to improve the life of a working-class Black lesbian.
As CEO of his own company, Musk has the power to structure his own workday with any accommodations he may need. He doesn’t need to worry about being fired, underestimated, passed over for opportunities, shunned by his supervisors, or forced to subject himself to an over-stimulating work environment to the detriment of his own mental health. He can take a break whenever he wants.
Multiple articles on Musk’s lifestyle report that he regularly ignores all of his phone calls, walks out of meetings he thinks are a waste of time, and frequently spends meetings doing other tasks on his phone. How many regular workers, autistic or not, can get away with even one of those things? While an autistic worker has some different experiences and needs than a neurotypical worker, they still have far more in common with each other than the autistic worker has with Elon Musk.
Autism and the Limits of Representation
Autistic people of color and people who are assigned female at birth (cis women, trans men, and AFAB non-binary people) are routinely overlooked or only diagnosed later in life because of the dominant cultural stereotype of autistic people as white boys. Non-diagnosis or late diagnosis prevents people from receiving support that could meaningfully improve their lives.
Representation is valuable in many contexts, but white men who are successful in tech fields are some of the most-represented of all autistic people — think Sheldon Cooper and The Big Bang Theory. Musk’s relationship with this stereotype is also the source of one of the main criticisms of his SNL monologue.
While this article has used “autistic” to refer to Elon Musk, the actual word he used is “Asperger’s.” Asperger’s Syndrome, which was removed from the DSM and subsumed into “Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)” in 2013, is named after Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician who colluded with the Nazis. While plenty of modern terms have sordid histories, this one is particularly nasty. While Asperger praised and advocated for his “little professors,” he was also studying children with fewer “useful” skills and higher support needs, such as non-speaking children. In several cases, he referred some of these children to the Nazi extermination camps. So, while many individuals who self-identify with Asperger’s or as “Aspies” do so just because that is the name of the diagnosis they received, the term originates in the nasty, ableist mindset of “not like those other kids.” Asperger’s is defined in opposition to autistic children (and adults) deemed less valuable to society.
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And indeed, Musk has previously said he hopes to use brain implants from his neural technology company to “cure” autism. But according to some surveys, nearly three quarters of all autistic people do not want a “cure” and would not take it if one existed. Autism affects perception and information processing, which means it’s intimately related with people’s personalities and ways of experiencing the world. In an essay for The Guardian, Anya Ustaszewski writes, “If I were to be ‘cured’ of my autism, the person that I am would cease to exist.” Instead, autistic activists say the focus should be on making sure people have access to whatever support they individually need to live happy lives.
In his opening monologue for SNL, Musk joked that he’s “pretty good at running human and emulation mode.” While this may very well be how he views his own consciousness in relation to others, it plays into the extremely harmful stereotypes that autistic people are not human, lack empathy, and lack a theory of mind, which is defined as the very thing that distinguishes humans from animals. Autistic people are already human, and thus have no need to run “human mode” like it’s a piece of software. This joke does nothing but harm to the autistic community, however much “representation” Musk brings to the stage.
Autism is Not an Excuse for Exploitation
Despite the other issues discussed above, the most despicable move Musk made during his monologue was his attempt to use his neurodiversity to excuse his terrible behavior. “Look,” he said, “I know I say or post strange things but that’s just how my brain works. To anyone I have offended, I just want to say I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars on a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill normal dude?”
Many autistic people do sometimes communicate in ways that others find unusual, but Musk’s tweets that “offend” people are not the ones that are simply written in an atypical style or deviate from particular social norms. Autism does not make you support imperialist coups, bust unions, or force your employees to work in unsafe conditions during a pandemic. Those are all symptoms of being a billionaire.
Neurological differences that impact communication do not exempt anyone from accountability for harming others, and creating rockets and self-driving cars doesn’t excuse terrible politics. (Do we even want these privatized rockets or expensive cars in the first place, instead of public transportation?) In the words of Left Voice’s own Sam Carliner
To be on the spectrum and contribute to the very problems that only make life more difficult for our community is a special level of cruelty. You don’t speak for us. You harm us. Seriously, fuck Elon Musk.
— Sam⌛ (@saminthecan) May 11, 2021