Celebrity autism — now you see it, now you don’t

He changed his mind.

Jerry Seinfeld

Jerry Seinfeld found himself on both sides of the autism debate after he made some ill-considered remarks in an interview.

Jerry Seinfeld, that is, who mused during a high profile TV interview that he “thinks” he may have autism, and before you could say “Temple Grandin,” found himself embroiled in a controversy bigger than the puffy shirt.

On one side were those who believe the most successful comedian of all time is — you guessed it — full of baloney, and that rich, coddled celebrities should do their due diligence before making casual pronouncements about complex developmental disorders.

On the other side were those who said hail the conquering hero: if this grinning superstar wants to go around telling people he has autism — even without a formal diagnosis — it’s good for the cause.

But after a backlash bigger than the waterspouts in “Sharknado,” the 60-year-old comedy legend has deftly retreated.

“I don’t have autism,” he told “Access Hollywood,” aware the resulting controversy could easily devour him. “I’m not on the spectrum … I related to it on some level. That’s all I was saying.”

My own feeling — as father of a six-year-old on the higher functioning end of the spectrum — is that:

(1) I’m not surprised by the uproar.

(2) I refuse to get too invested in this debate.

Because when it comes to this Wild West of disabilities — which sees celebrity schnorrers like Jenny McCarthy linking it erroneously with vaccines and snake oil pedlars touting everything from mystical shamans to gluten-free diets — there will ultimately be no consensus.

Trust me, I’ve been there.

The last time I pontificated in print about autism — ranting against unscrupulous advocacy organizations that promote negative stereotypes to spark fundraising — I received responses from two distinct but opposing camps.

Response 1: People with autism are tired of being labelled as broken, defective, lesser than. Thank you for viewing us as actual human beings.

Response 2: You, Sir, are a traitor. You have no idea how tough it is to deal with a severely disabled loved one who requires round-the-clock care. What you call negative stereotyping is not fearmongering. It’s reality.

And then along comes this witty observational comic — the wealthiest actor alive, a guy with his own Porsche collection — and tells NBC news anchor Brian Williams, “On a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum.”’

On a very drawn out scale? He thinks he’s on the spectrum? I’m surprised he didn’t toss in a conspiratorial “not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

Seriously, what did you think the response was going to be?

” ‘Quirky’ is NOT autism!” raged autism mom Ginger Taylor on the Hollywood Reporter website. It’s a “slap in the face of people and families struggling with ASD and people who can’t get or keep a job, speak to others, speak at all, even have ONE FRIEND!”

Not so fast, says Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Advocacy Network.

“Think about what this does for a closeted autistic person knowing that their coworkers have just seen somebody they know, respect and have a positive opinion of — like Jerry Seinfeld — identify in this way. It’s a valuable and important step in building a greater tolerance.”

It speaks to autism’s rising cache as a looming social services catastrophe and a critical component of geek culture — au courant with TV’s “Big Bang Theory” and the “Hobbit” films — that both responses are equally valid.

But I have to tell you: even with a kid like Max — in most respects, a model citizen — autism is no walk in the park.

Bright, determined and artistic, he does well in school, is the most polite kid at any social gathering and is endlessly curious about the world around him.

Go Max.

On the other hand, he struggles with even minor changes to his routine, has meltdowns that rival Mount Vesuvius and — boxed in by perfection — is the only kid I know who gives himself timeouts.

Which puts me in a tough spot.

Do I want him to have role models for the future — trailblazers who have overcome autism’s potential obstacles?

You bet.

Did I relish the thought of witty, well-spoken celebrities giving the impression this fast-rising developmental disorder should be regarded no differently than a mole on one’s back or a tooth that needs capping?

Yikes, no.

Our biggest challenge with Max — because he “presents” so well in public — has always been getting those in authority to take his condition seriously.

Yes, he’s a smart kid. No, he doesn’t throw desks or flee from social interaction.

But here’s the flipside: he needs those supports, dammit. Speech therapy. Occupational therapy. Behavioural therapy. They’re the key to his success.

And because they’re underfunded, in demand, in terminally short supply, we — like all caregivers — are locked in a perpetual public relations battle with the amorphous blob that determines how we, as a society, regard our most vulnerable citizens.

Perceptions do matter.

Swing too much one way and you’re Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” a bundle of nervous tics at the mercy of those around you.

Swing too much the other and you’re Dan Aykroyd or Darryl Hannah, populist superstars whose ersatz “celebrity” autism is trotted out with great fanfare but no obvious symptoms.

But autism — here’s the rub — exists on a spectrum wider than the Grand Canyon.

And a true understanding of this broad swath of disability will require more than some ivory tower billionaire like Seinfeld musing on national TV about the source of his genius.

Still, diagnosis or not, I wish he hadn’t backed down.

There was nothing judgmental in his pronouncement.

And the fact he referred to autism as “an alternate mindset” rather than a “national emergency” gives him one up over the treacherous fearmongers at Autism Speaks.

But context is everything.

And until celebrity fringe-dwellers are viewed as a tiny piece in a large, exceedingly complex puzzle, there is only one response to their dubious claims of ASD membership: no soup for you.

Reprinted from the Waterloo Region Record with permission. The original article can be found here.


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About Joel Rubinoff

Joel is the Arts & Entertainment critic at the Waterloo Region Record – serving Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge & townships. His columns include: Daddy Daze (Tues) & Popsmacked (Sat) Joel Rubinoff is the father of an autistic son. Joe can be reached via email at jrubinoff@therecord.com

You can follow Joel on Twitter at @JoelRubinoff

 Opinions expressed by Autism Daily Newscast Contributors are their own.