How does Elon Musk announcing he has Asperger’s syndrome impact the autistic community?

Share on Pinterest
Maja Hitij/Getty Images

During his guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live (SNL)” on May 8, entrepreneur and business icon Elon Musk announced 26 seconds into his opening monologue that he has Asperger’s syndrome.

His revelation opened up conversations around the globe about this pervasive neurodevelopmental disorder, leaving unanswered questions about Asperger’s and how it fits into the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnostic criteria.

While some people with ASD identify as having Asperger’s syndrome, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) removed the subtype in 2013.

As a result, autistic people who would have once received an Asperger’s diagnosis are now diagnosed with ASD.

This change, as well as Musk’s announcement, has created controversy within the autism community.

Elon Musk was born June 28, 1971, in Pretoria, South Africa. Biographies written about Musk say he was introverted and bullied in school.

Still, these childhood challenges did not deter his success. He created several high-profile companies, including SpaceX, Tesla, and The Boring Company. He is also well-known for his involvement in Dogecoin, a meme-based digital currency.

During his “SNL” monologue, Musk said, “Sometimes after I say something, I have to say, ‘I mean that’ — so people really know that I mean it. That’s because I don’t always have a lot of intonation or variation in how I speak, which I’m told makes for great comedy.”

He continued: “I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL — or at least the first to admit it. So, I won’t make a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight. But don’t worry, I’m pretty good at running ‘human’ in emulation mode.”

As the studio audience applauded, his words set off discussions across social media and news feeds about Asperger’s syndrome.

Although the DSM-5 no longer includes Asperger’s as a diagnosis, Musk still identifies with this subtype. But is there a difference between autism and Asperger’s?

ASD is considered a spectrum disorder because it’s said to exist on a spectrum, with each person having their own set of differences and needs.

Autism affects each person differently. Not all people will have every characteristic or behavior. But for a diagnosis, a number of behaviors will be present.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ASD is characterized by these behaviors:

  • differences in social communication and interaction
  • repetitive patterns, interests, or activities
  • movement problems

Also, these behaviors are typically present early in the person’s development, and based on the individual, they can cause challenges in daily life.

Diagnosis also involves determining whether the autistic person has intellectual or language delays.

Before the DSM-5 criteria changed in 2013, an autistic individual received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome if their symptoms or behaviors required minimal support and they did not have a language delay or intellectual impairments compared with neurotypical individuals.

Now, instead of labeling a person with Asperger’s or using stigmatizing terminology like “high functioning” or “low functioning,” the DSM-5 has identified three levels of autism defined by how much support the autistic person needs:

  • Level 1: requires some support
  • Level 2: requires more support
  • Level 3: requires substantial support

A person with Asperger’s falls under the Level 1 support criteria. While some with Asperger’s need help with social interaction, they typically may not need support for daily living.

The biggest difference between autism and Asperger’s syndrome is that Asperger’s is no longer a diagnosis. After 2013, Asperger’s is now considered an autism spectrum disorder.

The other is that people with Asperger’s are considered on the “high” end of the autism spectrum, meaning they:

  • may need less daily support
  • did not have a language or communication delay
  • can more easily mask certain behaviorial patterns

Unlike autism, typically diagnosed in childhood, a person can be diagnosed with Asperger’s in adolescence.

Some people believe the new DSM-5 diagnostic criteria don’t fully describe the subtle differences that once indicated if a person had Asperger’s or is autistic. This has created debate in the autistic community.

According to an article published in Spectrum News, some people with Asperger’s may feel they’ve lost their individuality since the DSM-5 changed and they continue to identify as an Aspie, Aspien, or as having Asperger’s.

Other autistic people prefer to have the subtypes of autism under the diagnosis of ASD to remove barriers between different autistic groups.

Musk’s announcement that he has Asperger’s may have helped reduce the stigma associated with ASD. It may have also helped prove, once again, that autistic people are just as capable of contributing to society as neurotypical individuals, if not more so, in some cases.

For some autistic people, Musk gave them a renewed sense that having autism is not a limitation. It also helped increase self-esteem and a feeling of empowerment they may not have experienced before.

Sam, an autistic student at Lakeland STAR School/Academy in Wisconsin, says, “Because of all the great things Elon Musk has done, finding out he has autism made me feel like I have a chance to succeed in life, too.”

However, some autistic people view Musk’s revelation as merely a publicity stunt using Asperger’s as a marketing tool to further his professional goals.

According to an article published in Slate and written by Sara Luterman, an openly autistic writer, Musk’s announcement was a “poor attempt at laundering his image as a heartless billionaire.”

Also, Luterman feels that Musk isn’t accurately representing most autistic people, as many have difficulty with employment, financial disparities, and unstable housing situations.

Because ASD includes people with a wide range of strengths and abilities, identifying as autistic, an Aspie or Aspien, autist, or on the spectrum is a personal choice. So is choosing not to identify with any of these diagnostic labels.

Although ASD is considered a developmental disorder, many autistic people do not wish to be “cured,” they want only to be understood and accepted for who they are — just like everyone else.

Hearing that a highly admired and successful entrepreneur is autistic has helped bolster self-esteem for some people on the spectrum. It may have also reduced the stigma associated with the condition.

Meanwhile, other autistic and non-autistic people believe his announcement presents an inaccurate depiction of autistic people as a whole.

At the very least, Musk’s announcement has brought autism and the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria to the forefront of conversations worldwide. And, hopefully, this awareness will help reduce stigma and foster a greater understanding of ASD.

If you’re autistic or have Asperger’s, there are online groups that offer help and support if you need it. These include: