Jerry Seinfeld — Autistic?

Jerry Seinfeld, universally beloved comedian, has created a bit of an uproar in the autism community. He’s claimed that he believes he’s on the spectrum:

Williams notes that at 60, Seinfeld is still “figuring out who he is. For example: in recent years as he’s learned about autism spectrum disorders, he sees it in himself.”

Seinfeld confirms that, saying, “I think, on a very drawn-out scale, I think I’m on the spectrum.”

“Why? What are the markers?” asks Williams.

“You know, never paying attention to the right things,” says Seinfeld. “Basic social engagement is really a struggle.”

Seinfeld goes on to explain, “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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This is a bit of a pet issue for me, as for years–as soon as I figured out what it was–I’ve believed I have Asperger’s Syndrome*. I’ve never put in the effort to seek an official diagnosis (although I’m getting closer to doing so for several reasons), but knowing the heredity nature of ASD, and then having a son with autism, I’m pretty sure of my self-diagnosis.

Seinfeld sparked a nerve. Several people have suggested that a self-diagnosis isn’t really sufficient (although quite a few autism advocates point out that self-diagnosis is usually the method for diagnosis in adults–usually it is what spurs someone to seek an official diagnosis). Others suggest that a millionaire comedian can’t possibly be autistic. Others are concerned that fitting someone who is as successful as Jerry Seinfeld into the spectrum, with what assuredly must be a relatively mild form of autism, devalues the much more severe autism that many of their children face.

I know. I get it. It’s hard to see someone as funny as Jerry Seinfeld, and think that he has issues with social communication. After all, how can someone who connects with so many people through his art be considered autistic?

But really, it’s not all that far-fetched. I know this won’t sound like something that you’ve heard before, but comedy is possibly one of the most natural places for some folks with high-functioning autism. I say this for two reasons:

  • Comedy, for many people who are considered “misfits”, is a defense mechanism. It’s the “if I make them laugh they won’t beat me up” mentality. This is NOT a new statement about comedians.
  • Comedy is usually predicated on seeing things differently than most people. Most people don’t find regular life funny. They just find it to be regular life. But our human experience in society is riddled with absurdities. I firmly believe that people on the spectrum, who can be over-literal and don’t often understand the subtlety of social interaction, can take an “outsider’s” view of regular life.

For me, comedy is a highly intellectual affair. I love looking at jokes and trying to pick apart why they’re funny. I’ve worked hard to develop my sense of humor, largely through understanding other people, not through the normal method of picking things up naturally. As such, I absolutely hold that “outsider’s view” of comedy. The old Seinfeld trope, “What, is the deal, with that?” is the “outsider’s view” in a nutshell. He’s looking at everything we see every day, but through a completely different prism than we’re used to.

Nor is autism a sign that someone cannot be successful. There are autism success stories all through society. Recently someone had suggested that Bill Gates fits many of the symptoms of autism, and he’s certainly no slouch. In fact, I like to think I’m one of those success stories. I honestly have trouble with social interaction. Yet I have a job that absolutely requires social interaction and relationship-building. In fact, I’m a manager of other people in my career. Many autistics don’t have successful romantic relationships. I’m married to a beautiful woman who is WAY out of my league.

But it’s hard. Really hard, sometimes. I am where I am because I challenge the hell out of myself. I try to take those things where I know I’m not good at something and brute-force my way into making myself good at them. There are instances where it’s terrifying. At a recent conference, I knew I needed to approach a woman who was a marketing manager for a company we work with to discuss something that my company needed. I had to summon the courage to start a conversation with her, completely unprompted and without an introduction (EEK!!!). I forced myself to do it.

For most people, that isn’t an existential victory. The fact that it is, for me, is a sign of my Asperger’s.

As for that beautiful wife who is WAY out of my league? If she hadn’t approached me at a bar 13 years ago, I could very well still be single. In fact, one of the most important developments of our marriage has been my realization that I’m on the spectrum, and her acknowledgment of it. It’s extremely difficult for her to relate to me on several levels, but at least we both understand now where some of those blind spots are for me. It can still be difficult, but at least we’re now on the same page about the fact that we’re completely not on the same page!

My success, or Jerry Seinfeld’s much larger success, shouldn’t be taken as devaluing the much more severe autism that many people face. What we’ve faced is an uphill climb, not a roadblock. I understand the concern of parents who have children with more severe autism, because I’m one of them too. My son, at 5, would still likely be considered non-verbal, even though he’s making progress. I desperately want him to have a chance in his life for the success I’ve had, but the largest fear I have in my entire life is that his autism will be a roadblock, not an uphill climb. A parent who hasn’t had to face that fear is a parent that I envy.

I view Jerry Seinfeld as a welcome addition to the wide range of the autism spectrum. There’s a saying in our ranks that if you’ve known one person with autism, you’ve known one person with autism. We’re all different. Jerry may or may not be autistic. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if he thinks he’s one, he probably is. A millionaire comedian isn’t typical when it comes to autism. But the key is that when you’re talking about autism, typical goes out the window. That may be why we call it a spectrum

* FYI, with the most recent DSM-V manual for psychologists/psychiatrists, Asperger’s no longer a recognized disorder separate from Autism. It is now classified as within the subset of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

  • cbyrneiv

    To autistics, the world doesn’t make sense.

    To comics, the world doesn’t make sense.

    As far as I’m concerned, to anyone paying attention, the world doesn’t make sense.

  • http://lizbuddie.com/ Lizbuddie

    I’m so glad that you are talking about this. I suspect we will learn and decide that ‘the spectrum’ exists the the entire way – from ‘normal’ or utterly non-autistic to those who we think of as ‘severe’ Autism, or whose lives and ability to communicate are significantly impaired by Autism. In that sense, we are *all* on the spectrum, only some of us rest within the ‘normal’ range while others don’t. Like depression, obesity, height, intelligence, eyesight, spatial relations, sense of direction and many other conditions and characteristics (insert almost anything), we humans (and our brains) are all different, and fall in different places along any number of various ranges or ‘spectra,’ right? It’s not as if all humans either have perfect vision or are completely blind, right? Jerry feels he is a little closer to, or maybe even within, the range of the spectrum where one would be diagnosed with Autism. Okay. Cool. The author may be a little farther toward what we think of as ‘diagnosable/traditional Autism’ than Jerry is. Or not. Regardless where they and we fall, I think discussing it this way helps expands folks’ minds and understanding about what Autism is and what having/living with it means.

  • Kevin Boyd

    Brad,

    This is a great piece and it really hit home to me. I believe I am probably on the autistic end of the spectrum as well.

    I’m highly unsocial and probably one of the reasons I got divorced is because I couldn’t stand the thought of a close relationship with anyone. I’m cold and unsympathetic to most people, but I’m also highly sensitive at the same time. Communication, especially verbal communication, has been very difficult to me (probably why I’ve become a very good writer).

    I’m one of those who craves order and a routine and hates being thrown off of it. Ironically, I find it very hard to establish a routine.

    As for whether or not this is a “sickness”, I don’t know.

  • conspiracygirl

    Great article. I have a son with Asperger’s and he’s very funny.

  • Brad Warbiany

    Kevin,

    If you ever want to discuss it, let me know. As for whether it’s a “sickness”, I think you need to look at two things:

    1. Does it stop you from doing what you want to do in life?
    2. Can you manage it such that it doesn’t stop you from doing what you want to do in life?

    Understanding who you are is important, because it gives you an understanding of what you need to work through to achieve what you want out of life.

  • Brad Warbiany

    I’m with you, with the exception of the idea that we’re [B]all[/B] on the spectrum. While I think the wider autism spectrum may include a lot of people who would have gone undiagnosed 20 years ago due to their high function, I think there truly is a difference between those who are on the spectrum and the neurotypical. I think my wife is 0% autistic, not 1% or 2%. It’s not a spectrum for her, because she expresses zero of the symptoms.

  • Sarah Baker

    Thanks for this, Brad. I have been loving that the internet is bringing to the forefront that some people are overwhelmed by / dread social interactions. It is nice to have the lists and discussions out there, not only so the people who are this way don’t feel so alone, but also because it helps explain things to friends/family members/coworkers/etc. who otherwise don’t really understand.