Punch Lines: On Jerry Seinfeld and Autism

Seinfeld - show

Welcome to the club.

That was my first reaction on Friday, upon reading news reports of Jerry Seinfeld’s comments that he believes “on a very drawn-out scale, [he thinks he is] on the spectrum.”

“Basic social engagement is really a struggle,” Mr. Seinfeld said, adding that he is “very literal” and has difficulty “paying attention to the right things.”

Turns out, those personal admissions might not be enough for some people to accept one of the world’s best-known and most-popular comedians into the autism club.

There have been no shortage of blog posts and commentary (some downright cruel) taking issue with Mr. Seinfeld’s revelations.  Over the weekend, I spent some time reading a lot of perspectives on this subject and (despite knowing better) too many online comments. And after seeing the backlash on social media, I wouldn’t blame Mr. Seinfeld if he never said another word about autism – his own or anyone else’s – ever again.

Which, in my view, would be a huge loss for so many people.

People like my son, who despite our best efforts to boost his self-esteem and encourage his talents, could benefit from more real-life, successful examples of living people with autism. (Sure, the likes of Einstein and Mozart are impressive, but to a kid who aspires to be a reality TV show host, Jerry Seinfeld is more relevant.)

Or, people like my friend Rich [name changed] who at 56 is giving serious consideration to those who have told him he may be on the autism spectrum. “But after reading what’s being said about Seinfeld,” Rich says, “I’m pretty sure it would just make me feel even more like I don’t belong anywhere.”

He’s referring to the backlash that has ensued since Mr. Seinfeld’s interview with Brian Williams. Because he’s a comedian, some feel as if Jerry Seinfeld was somehow minimizing the very real aspects of autism and self-diagnosing himself with a condition that is best left to the professionals.

I don’t see it that way. What I saw from Jerry Seinfeld was a candid statement from someone who felt comfortable disclosing something that he has more than likely pondered for some time.  Mr. Seinfeld is clearly familiar with and identifies with some of the traits of people on the autism spectrum. Obviously I don’t know the guy, but I’d imagine this isn’t the first such conversation he’s had. His comments were honest, reflective and thoughtful – not mean-spirited or belittling, as others have insinuated.

The comment that I’m concerned about is the one that’s not going to make headlines.

“I’m pretty sure it would just make me feel even more like I don’t belong anywhere.”

That’s what I keep coming back to.  My friend Rich and all the others like him who wonder what kind of response he’ll get if he mentions his own struggles with social interactions and tendency to take things literally.

People have said Seinfeld should get himself to a doctor and get a proper diagnosis.

I’m no expert on Seinfeld’s medical situation – or my friend’s, for that matter – but when you’re 56 years old in this healthcare day and age and you think you may be autistic, I’m pretty certain seeking medical attention is easier said than done.  Where do you go?  And what does such a diagnosis get you at this stage in life, anyway? Legitimization in the eyes of the autism community?

If that’s what we’re after, I think that’s a dangerous path. It’s sure as hell not one I’m interested in walking down.

But that’s what we’re asking of Jerry Seinfeld, isn’t it?  To prove it before we accept him as one of us, as a member of this club?

Aren’t we better than this?  Don’t we want to be better than this?

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that Jerry Seinfeld thought there truly was nothing wrong with a casual, yeah-you-know-I-think-I-might-kind-of-maybe-sort-of-have autism approach. Perhaps its how he has coped all these years.

Tears of a clown and all that.

Perhaps it is the only way he knew how to tell us what he has wanted to tell us for so many years.

And who are we to judge? If we truly believe that there isn’t one autism, then there’s no room for throwing punch lines when one of our own is vulnerable.  We need to truly reflect on what the meaning of “not one autism” means and we need to truly embrace the spectrum for what it is – as a place where we all need to co-exist together.  This isn’t a battle of who has the more difficult autism – because we are all fighting difficult battles.  And through it all, there is too much at stake for us, for our kids, for our friends and our loved ones.

All of them need the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, whether they know it or not.

And we owe it to them to accept him into this club.

 

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