|"Elon Musk oveseeing the construction of Gigafactory" |
by jurvetson is licensed under CC BY 2.0
[image: Elon Musk, wearing mirrored sunglasses and a reflective chartreuse safety vest.]
Elon Musk announced to the world that he’s autistic on Saturday Night Live. Some people have claimed that this represents a noticeable step forward for autistic people in public life. But I’m not celebrating.
My interest here isn’t to rehash all of the reasons why Musk is an obnoxious public figure who has done damaging things to his employees and the world at large—although I hold this opinion. Other people have already written about the litany of his misdeeds. Instead, I want to consider Musk’s shortcomings in the specific context of autism and disability politics.
First, Musk did not describe himself as an autistic person. He said he had “Asperger’s,” which is a term that is rooted in ableism. In the U.S., “Asperger’s” is no longer a valid diagnosis. Although I understand that some countries still use the diagnosis, the problems with the Asperger’s label are very real and worth noting. Even before revelations about Hans Asperger’s probable Nazi connections came to light, most people in the autistic community had abandoned the term. Oftentimes, the Asperger’s label is used to suggest that some autistic people are superior to others. That’s not solidarity, and I want no part of it. So if Musk wants to be warmly welcomed into the autistic community, he needs to address this issue.
The next problem is that Musk’s announcement itself erased other autistic people. He claimed to be the first openly autistic person to host Saturday Night Live, but this is not the case. Founding cast member Dan Akroyd is openly autistic, and he hosted the show in 2003. Musk isn’t the first autistic person to host SNL—just the first to make this kind of self-aggrandizing announcement.
That isn’t the biggest problem with Musk, however. His previous contributions to autism-related issues do not exactly embody the spirit of disability advocacy. Musk, who is not a neuroscientist, claimed in 2019 that his company Neuralink will soon be able to cure neurological disabilities—including autism. Neuralink is developing an “AI chip” that will be implanted in the brain to stimulate brain activity.
So far, this claim is the stuff of science fiction. I know of no serious autism researchers who are working in this field of study. But, fantastical science aside, Musk’s claims reveal a deeper lack of understanding about the issues facing autistic people.
Many autistic people say we would reject a cure even if one were offered to us, and that should be respected. Yet the issue of a cure is, in many ways, besides the point. The fact is, we’re a very long way from being able to change people’s entire neurological make-ups. Even with AI chips and whatever other doodads Musk’s tech friends are promoting this week.
As a society, we spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to cure autism and identify genes associated with autism. Neuralink is valued at $500 million. At the same time, many autistic people struggle to obtain services in community-based settings. As a group, we are horrendously unemployed and underemployed. We are more likely to live in poverty, to face sexual assault, and to live in institutions. Is Musk going to do anything to address these problems, or is he just interested in peddling his products?
Musk is, undeniably, an incredibly privileged autistic person. He was born in apartheid South Africa, to white parents who owned an emerald mine. As a rich white man who fits the “techie” stereotype, autistic people like Musk are among the most privileged autistic people. This in and of itself would not be as much of a problem if Musk used his fame and position to extend solidarity to other autistic people. Alas, that is not the case.
Highly visible autistic people carry certain responsibilities. Fairly or not, many non-autistic people often start comparing the rest of us to them. I have been informed more than once about the existence of Temple Grandin, as though her success is supposed to make me feel better. Or something.
I wonder if I and other autistic people will now told that we can be like Elon Musk. To which I say: no thanks!
My message to Elon is this: If you want to be enthusiastically welcomed into the autistic community, act like a member of our community. Stop using the “Asperger’s” language. Familiarize yourself with the issues facing less privileged members of our community, and pass the mic over to them. And, for goodness’ sake, stop promoting sci-fi solutions to our problems.
If you can do that, maybe we can talk again. But until then, I’m not interested in extending the welcome mat.