Jerry Seinfeld’s self-diagnosis is a hallelujah moment for autistic adults
“I think on a very drawn out scale, I’m on the spectrum.” That’s what comedian Jerry Seinfeld told Brian Williams on NBC’s Nightly News.
As Seinfeld has learned more about autism over the years, as we all have, he was able to identify markers that lead him to the conclusion that he may be autistic.
"Basic social engagement is really a struggle. I'm very literal, when people talk to me and they use expressions, sometimes I don't know what they're saying," he said. "But I don't see it as dysfunctional, I just think of it as an alternate mindset."
I’m not surprised that Jerry Seinfeld could be on the autism spectrum. He was born in 1954 when doctors were convinced that autism was a subset of schizophrenia, a misdiagnosis until the 1960s. The 1970s brought a bit more clarity steering researchers towards the idea that autism was its own, separate, unrelated disorder, yet, despite this clarity, treatments in the 1970s bordered on barbaric. LSD, electro shock therapy and a wide variety of medications were used to treat this misunderstood developmental issue. Unless young Jerry was exhibiting behaviors that were wildly out of the norm-even for him-there was no chance that his parents would have sought out a diagnosis, let alone treatment. His was likely mild enough that his family could have thought, “well, that’s just Jerry.” An important observation on their part (in my imagined Seinfeld home in Brooklyn, circa 1960), since many adults with autism are, indeed, high functioning.
A pivotal paper published in 1997 by Cambridge University investigated high functioning adults diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and concluded that in some ways (short term memory, for example), autistic adults and non-autistic adults are indistinguishable. The difference between those adults and Mr. Seinfeld is that they had been diagnosed. That is a key distinction since anecdotal evidence shows that many people with autism view a diagnosis as a relief. They finally have an explanation for why they are incredibly adept at some things while other tasks or social interactions are inexplicably difficult. Over the years Mr. Seinfeld may have suffered through countless relationship difficulties without knowing why therefore, this latest revelation could be of some comfort to him and his family.
Autism advocates are applauding Jerry Seinfeld’s courage and his candor for coming forward and discussing this highly talked about disorder, and I am with them. The stigma surrounding autism for adults is limited to Dustin Hoffman’s role in Rain Man. Sure, he can count like amazing, but he was a low functioning individual who didn’t seem destined or deserving of the success and joy we all are entitled to. Rain Man painted a sweet but bleak picture of adults with autism and while it certainly did accurately reflect a portion of the population with Autism Spectrum Disorder, it left most of America with the idea that all adult autism looks like that.
Jerry Seinfeld saying, “I’m on the spectrum” is such a hallelujah moment for adults living with autism, as well as their families, who are apprehensive about revealing their diagnosis to those around them. Perhaps this will open a dialogue in unexpected ways.
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