While hosting Saturday Night Live last weekend, Elon Musk, the billionaire behind Tesla and Space X, revealed that he had Asperger’s syndrome. When the audience broke into applause, he joked: “I won’t be making a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight. But don’t worry, I’m pretty good at running human in emulation mode.”
While many might miss the relevance of this throwaway line, the admission is almost more poignant than the revelation of Asperger’s. It tells me that Musk has been struggling to hide his diagnosis for a long time. I know this because I am autistic and, like Elon Musk and thousands of others on the autism spectrum, “running human in emulation mode” is what we are forced to do. It’s painful and absolutely exhausting.
At a very young age, I realised that people didn’t like me being myself, so I began to observe others and copy them so I could be accepted. This is called masking. But the thing is, even with all the effort I put into appearing normal, I still wasn’t accepted. People continued to think I was weird or annoying, and they bullied me for that.
Masking is so tiring. It’s like I can never let my guard down for fear of giving myself away, and it’s had a massive impact on my mental health. Masking for so long is what leads to autistic burnout. Existing is just so tiring for me.
In a single conversation, there are so many things I have to consciously think about which just come naturally to other people. I have to think about making enough eye contact, making the right facial expression, holding my body the right way, talking at the right speed, leaving the right sized gaps in the conversation, speaking at the right volume, using the right tone of voice and using the right words for the situation.
On top of that, I have to then interpret what the other person is saying and understand their body language. There’s a lot going on in my head all the time, and it makes me anxious about coming across as rude.
Over the years, people have dismissed my struggles because they think I have “mild” autism. My autism affects me every minute of the day. Just because others experience my autism “mildly” doesn’t mean I do, too. In fact, the only reason people are able to experience my autism mildly is because I’ve put so much effort into masking. My whole body could be screaming inside, completely overwhelmed with anxiety, but I won’t show it.
That is not a good thing. I shouldn’t have to mask. I should be able to just exist in the world, authentically autistic, and the world should be okay with that. They should accept me, but they don’t. The world is prejudiced towards autistic people.
I admire Elon Musk for speaking out about Asperger’s. The more that celebrities and others talk about autism, the less autistic people will have to mask. There are, however, a few things he could learn from the rest of the autistic community.
In the past, Elon Musk has spoken about “solving” autism. His idea is that planting a brain-tech connection system into a human will solve a lot of brain-related diseases. But many autistic people don’t want a cure. Instead, they want to be accepted and celebrated just as they are. With Elon Musk’s influence, he could use his platform to champion this message and uplift other autistic voices.
My autism is what makes me who I am; it informs my strengths as well as my weaknesses. A few weeks ago, I organised a fundraising event for Autism Awareness Week at Cygnet Elms, a high dependency complex care service in Birmingham for women, and I found myself talking about the many things that are positive about being autistic.
Having sensory differences means that I experience the world more intensely than other people. This is often overwhelming, but it also means I experience a sensory euphoria. I also feel things very deeply which makes me extremely empathetic, and that makes me kind and very accepting of others.
Autistic people often have highly-focused interests, also known as special interests. I love my ability to hyperfocus and how passionate I get about things. I also notice small details and things that other people don’t see. I see the world differently, through a clear lens, and this means I can identify solutions where other people can’t. Does this sound familiar, Elon?
My autism is a part of me, and it’s not something that can be separated from me. I should be able to exist freely autistic and proud. But for that to happen, the world needs to stop punishing difference and start embracing it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies