(This article previously appeared on ChildMind.org.)
Jerry Seinfeld's surprising revelation to NBC news anchor Brian Williams last week — that he thinks he's on the autism spectrum — immediately became a hot topic in the autism community, drawing both praise and criticism.
"I think, on a very drawn-out scale, I think I'm on the spectrum," Seinfeld, 60, told Williams. "You're never paying attention to the right things. 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. But I don't see it as dysfunctional. I just think of it as an alternate mindset."
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No Formal Diagnosis
While Seinfeld lacks a formal diagnosis, there are many adults who have gotten diagnosed later in life because Asperger syndrome wasn't a diagnosis when they were kids. (While the DSM-5 — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition — did away with the Asperger's diagnosis, instead placing people on a wide spectrum from more to less challenged, many in the community continue to use the term.)
In fact, celebrities including Daryl Hannah, Dan Aykroyd and Susan Boyle were only diagnosed as adults. And some adults only seek out a diagnosis after their child receives an autism diagnosis, leading them to recognize the traits in themselves.
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Some Felt He Did a Disservice
Seinfeld's announcement angered a vocal contingent. While some commenting on Facebook wondered if the spectrum had become "too wide" under the DSM-5, others felt he had done a disservice to more impaired kids — and their parents — by presenting autism as something less impairing than it can be on other points of the spectrum.
Blogger Autism Daddy, who has a severely autistic, nonverbal 11-year-old son, wrote: "I am not thrilled about Jerry's autism self diagnosis. I think it's stuff like this that puts an even bigger divide between the low functioning community & the high functioning community, between the parents of severe kids, and the parents of aspie kids."
Some Embraced Seinfeld's View
But there were many high-profile autistic adults who chose to embrace Seinfeld, with or without a diagnosis.
As Jean Winegardner wrote on her blog, Stimeyland, "It is very scary as an adult who has 'passed' for your whole life to come out as autistic. It is hard to tell people who might not believe you that you are autistic. I am absolutely positive that people have doubted my diagnosis, have said that I'm not autistic or not autistic enough. I am not willing to do that to another person."
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Plenty of parents also applauded Seinfeld.
Joel Manzer, who has an 11-year-old autistic son and is lead editor at Autisable.com, notes that whether the comedian is on the spectrum or not, "the fact that he thinks he is could actually benefit the community at large. Also, if having this self-diagnosis helps him address certain things about himself, all the better as well."
Christina Kotouc, whose nine-year-old son was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder last year, writes that "the more high-profile people who say, 'Hey, that's me,' or 'That's my kid,'" the better. She thinks it will help validate kids who are diagnosed with less severe autism. "Yes, it's a true struggle, not just made up," she writes. "And if they are positive about it, even better."
Beth Arky reports on special needs, including autism and sensory issues for the Child Mind Insitute, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming mental health for children everywhere. You can follow her on Twitter (@betharky) and follow The Child Mind Institute (@childminddotorg).
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