Elon Musk Discloses He Has 'Asperger's' — Does That Explain Or Excuse Anything He's Said Or Done?

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Elon Musk

During his ‘SNL’ monologue this past weekend, Elon Musk publicly disclosed that he has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

"I'm actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger's to host SNL," he revealed (though it should be noted that original "Saturday Night Live" cast member, Dan Aykroyd also has the disorder and returned to host in 2003).

Musk struck a tone of humility as he poked fun at the lack of intonation and past controversies before welcoming his mother out to share the stage briefly in keeping with the show's Mother's Day weekend tradition.

His appearance was surprisingly smooth for a guest who faced overwhelming backlash from both cast members and longtime fans of the show before even stepping onto the stage.

Does Elon Musk's disclosure of his Asperger's diagnosis excuse or explain some of his more controversial moments?

Musk, clearly aware of what his critics might say, seemed to be at least attempting to offer an explanation for some of the things he has said or done that offended others, perhaps implying that his ASD diagnosis might be part of the reason he has spoken out of turn in the past.

Those with autism disorders often have a desire to fit in and interact with others, yet not always know how to make that happen.

They may say or do the wrong thing or misunderstand social conventions.

Musk appeared to address this in his monologue, saying, “Look, I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works.”

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One of the “strange things” Musk could be referring to is a comment about a British diver that landed him in a defamation case in court.

The diver had accused Musk of trying to make a rescue mission to save Thai schoolboys trapped in a cave into a PR stunt by offering a submarine that was never used.

In response, Musk called the diver a “pedo guy” on Twitter.

He later apologized and deleted the tweet, testifying in court that this was a common phrase in his home country of South Africa and didn’t have any connotations of pedophilia.

Musk won the case.

Knowing what we know now, it’s possible Musk posted what he did without thinking fully about the implications of the term to other people.

Did Musk's disclosure that he has Asperger's change anyone's opinion of him?

Musk’s disclosure may possibly made some more sympathetic towards him.

It’s certainly possible some of his controversial statements have been miscommunications that don’t entirely reflect his personal values.

However, others are refusing to let Musk of that easy, making for very divided discourse.

Depending on whether or not you already have a personal gripe with Musk and how strongly you feel about it, his revelation about his ASD diagnosis is likely to invoke a different response.

Some are bothered that Musk "incorrectly" identified his autism spectrum disorder.

There has been some pushback against Musk’s use of "Asperger’s" in reference to his diagnosis, as Asperger syndrome (AS) is no longer a diagnosed form of autism.

As of 2013, Aspergers ceased to be used a separate diagnosis, instead being folded under the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5).

Because of how differently ASD can manifest in different people, it can be reductive to attempt to apply homogeneous labels to different aspects of the spectrum.

The name Aspergers syndrome also has controversial roots in Nazi Vienna. Dr. Hans Asperger played a key role in sending children with disabilities and developmental disorders to be euthanized and experimented on.

Asperger’s was previously defined as "mild" or “high-functioning” autism in comparison to others with autism spectrum disorders and, therefore, people with this syndrome were allowed to remain active in society rather than institutionalized or otherwise shunned.

The term is therefore seen as inherently ableist, and some social media users expressed concern that Musk’s choice of words could add to the stereotype that other forms of ASD are somehow inferior.

There is a preoccupation with defining great intellectual figures, like Albert Einstein or Bill Gates, as being on the autism spectrum, despite no confirmation of this.

But this fails to acknowledge the many people with autism disorders who don’t make history but still deserve celebration.

Musk’s insistence on using the defunct term lead some to question his ability to be representative of ASD.

However, it’s also possible that Musk was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum prior to 2013, and is simply used to referring to himself as someone with Asperger’s.

His choice to define himself in these terms may be out of habit rather than part of a desire to offend others or elevate one aspect of ASD over another.

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Musk’s past comments about autism have not been forgotten.

Others pointed out that Musk’s previous stance on autism may make him a less favorable figurehead for the ASD community.

In 2019, Musk said that an AI-enabled chip he planned to design could “solve” autism. The chip would be planted in people’s brains in order to monitor and stimulate brain activity.

"So Neuralink, I think at first will solve a lot of brain-related diseases. So could be anything from like autism, schizophrenia, memory loss,” Musk claimed.

Neuralink could start testing on humans in 2021 but no indication of its effectiveness has been outlined.

Autism is not a disease — nor is schizophrenia, for that matter. It is a fundamental aspect of someone’s identity related to how their brain works.

Again, it’s possible that Musk simply misspoke here, as he has indicated he does frequently.

Now that we know Musk is on the autism spectrum, it’s also reasonable to think his interest in ASD interventions comes from a personal motivation rather than from a desire to shame anyone else.

However, it is crucial that we use Musk’s statement as a means to educate people on the correct language around autism.

It is important to hold Musk accountable for his comments without being ableist. But seeking to educate is probably more productive and understanding than shaming him for using offensive terminology.

That said, it may also be patronizing to pass off his controversial moments as being because of his place on the autism spectrum.

Musk is clearly a highly intelligent man, it's not fair to act as though he doesn't have a strong grasp on what's going on in the world.

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Others saw Musk’s representation of the neurodivergent community as a positive.

Of course, some of the popular resentment towards Musk has less to do with his problematic statements and more to do with his finances.

As one of the richest people in the world, Musk is one of the greatest contributors to the global wealth gap.

However, many other billionaires have hosted SNL and faced much less criticism than Musk, so critiquing him based on his wealth is not entirely valid.

For some, this is a sign that living with ASD does not hinder personal success, as others might have you believe, and celebrated the announcement and what it might mean for young people also growing up with autism.

The ASD community often lacks representation, so seeing an accomplished figure take ownership of this identity on a public stage is something worth celebrating.

It is a reminder that these identities should not be seen as a hindrance, and may even be the making of the next generation of successful entrepreneurs.

Musk is seen as a symbol of privilege, partially due to his upbringing as a white man in South Africa during apartheid.

His success is sometimes diminished by implications that his wealth was inherited rather than earned. However, Musk has denied this and argued that he was in debt after his two college degrees.

What we should acknowledge is that, despite outlier success stories like Musk’s, most young adults with an ASD earn less than the general population and may struggle to find jobs.

Hopefully, with more understanding about how ASDs do not limit success, Musk’s announcement will pave the way for more prospects for young neurodiverse young people.

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her on Twitter for more.