With all the recent hullabaloo about how celebrities being autistic somehow harms the autism community (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check news sources for Jerry Seinfeld and autism), one counter example seems to be ignored: Dan Aykroyd. Mr. Aykroyd is perhaps most famous for his movie Ghost Busters, but his credits are many (including my favorite, Elwood Blues of the Blues Brothers). He’s a successful entertainer, and a diagnosed autistic.
Begs the question, why no backlash against him?
One can only speculate, so speculate I will. First, Mr. Aykroyd’s “coming out” didn’t make such a public splash. In my mind, that’s the most likely explanation for a lack of backlash. People could see his statement as more of a threat. Also, with more publicity, people know that their responses will be more widely read. A second reason for the difference in response is that Mr. Aykroyd handled the topic much better than did Mr. Seinfeld. Consider these two news stories:
In 2013 he was interviewed by the Daily Mail. In ‘I have Asperger’s – one of my symptoms included being obsessed with ghosts’, Mr. Aykroyd responded to the question of what is his “worst illness” thus:
I was diagnosed with Tourette’s at 12. I had physical tics, nervousness and made grunting noises and it affected how outgoing I was. I had therapy which really worked and by 14 my symptoms eased. I also have Asperger’s but I can manage it. It wasn’t diagnosed until the early Eighties when my wife persuaded me to see a doctor. One of my symptoms included my obsession with ghosts and law enforcement — I carry around a police badge with me, for example. I became obsessed by Hans Holzer, the greatest ghost hunter ever. That’s when the idea of my film Ghostbusters was born.
My very mild Asperger’s has helped me creatively. I sometimes hear a voice and think: “That could be a character I could do.” Of course there are many different grades, right up to the autism spectrum, and I am nowhere near that. But I sympathise with children who have it.
Let’s do the compare and contrast with Mr. Aykroyd and Mr. Seinfeld.
1) Mr. Aykroyd has a diagnosis. About 3 decades ago he was diagnosed. Of course, back then Asperger syndrome wasn’t an “official diagnosis”. But, of course Asperger’s work on autism goes back as far as Hans Kanner’s work. Mr. Seinfeld doesn’t have (nor did he claim to have) a diagnosis.
2) Mr. Aykroyd was also diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. At age 12. So, having a neurlogical diagnosis early on gives more credence to his later-in-life autism (Asperger) diagnosis.
3) Mr. Aykroyd has acknowledged that his challenges are much less than most autistics. This is a big point. Temple Grandin does the same thing, by the way. As do pretty much every self-advocate I’ve ever encountered in real life or online.
So, yeah, Mr. Aykroyd and Mr. Seinfeld approached their public discussions of autism very differently. And, as a result have received very different responses.
Leaving aside the lack of any “rage spirals” involved in Mr. Aykroyd’s revelation, what about the basic fact that he’s been essentially ignored? Here we have an autistic, with comorbid Tourette syndrome, who is successful. Who credits his autism as contributing to his success.
Why is he ignored? Perhaps that question is asked and answered. He’s successful and he credits his autism with contributing to his success. That doesn’t fit into the narrative. While Mr. Aykroyd is NLMK (not like my kid), he could be a hero for some in the autism community. Why can’t we have autistic heroes? Autistic people whom autistics and non-autistics can look up to and say, “Dang, s/he did well”?
The answer is we can have autistic heroes. We can acknowledge successful autistics. Because there is no one face of autism. Autism can be Dan Aykroyd and be people who need extraordinary support so they don’t end up sedated or restrained in an emergency room. Sometimes we talk about those who meet a more standard definition of successful. Sometime we talk about those with more extraordinary challenges. And sometimes we talk about the entire spectrum in a single conversation. That’s what it means to be part of such a varied community.
By Matt Carey