Author Michael Lewis, as interviewed recently on NPR’s Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me: Alright, ah, the first, first investor to make a bet that this whole subprime mortgage bond experiment was a disaster, was a fellow named Dr. Michael Burry, who was a, um, he had been a neurologist; uh, he had quit neurology to start a hedge fund. And, he um, he doesn’t know it, but he has Asperger’s syndrome. He knows it now, because it’s in my book, but before….
Michael Lewis: … but, but, but, befo….
Show Host: Wait a minute! You told him? Like, you sent him the galleys, and he’s like, “Wait a minute … I have Asperger’s syndrome?!”
Michael Lewis: Maybe that’s, perhaps that’s taking too much credit, ah, but, he didn’t know it when he made his bet, he found out later.
I’m not sure what difference it makes, if any, whether or not Michael Burry knew he had Asperger’s syndrome at the time he made his bet against the financial system. And tempting as it is to use Burry’s story as a jumping off point for a discussion of how autistic people bring “a fresh eye, every generation, to every human situation,” I’m going to pass.
What caught my attention here was what caught that of host Peter Sagal: the awkward, comically potent moment when it seemed that a person of some accomplishment had been outed as autistic in the pages of a NYT bestseller. Of course all that had really happened was that for all of Lewis’ tendency to um and ah his way through an interview, he well knew how to make use of a superb straight man like Sagal, and while the two made a great team for that segment of the show, none of it really had to do with autism.
It all does though bring up the subject of outing successful public figures as autistic, a practice I’m in favor of, and for which I’d like to make a case. Since “out” is the verb I’m using, there’s an obvious if not particularly fitting comparison to be made to the practice of outing another “type” with which the skies deluge us: the gay, anti-gay politician. These are lawmakers who, in Cory Doctorow’s words, “campaign against gay rights in public, but who are, in fact, gay (and who generally enjoy the rights they’re publicly against, thanks to their power and privilege).”
I recently mentioned the problem of projection encountered by those who are having trouble coming to terms with autistic traits in their own personality. This can result in irrational, exaggerated hostility toward those traits in others who bear the brunt of whatever negative feelings are being projected onto them by the person who’s having their troubles with self-acceptance. It’s not my insight alone that much the same dynamic informs the actions of anti-gay politicians. And, given that they are lawmakers, engaged in promoting their own personal hypocrisy as public policy, it’s not hard to justify giving their hypocrisy a thorough public airing, regardless of any private havoc wreaked.
The same justification would not hold, of course, when it comes to outing autistics, except maybe in cases where clearly autistic opinion leaders (we’re looking at you, Jim Carrey) or politicians are explicitly advocating policies harmful to autistics. This is in fact where the whole notion of “outing” breaks down for any number of reasons, not least of which is that no one ever gets busted for DUI while, say, leaving a known autistic bar.
Actually though, if there is any point to Michael Lewis bringing up a before and an after for Dr. Michael Burry’s autism diagnosis, it’s this: before his fifteen minutes of fame, Dr. Burry may have been a thoroughly successful man, but it’s still hard to say what effect being publicly identified as autistic might have had on his life; certainly for most of us at any rate, there are concerns about how potential employers, business associates, mates, or even family members might perceive us in light of even an informal diagnosis. Afterwards however, Dr. Burry is forevermore bulletproof, the first guy to have bet against the market that snookered the smart money, coming away even filthier rich for the effort. For better or worse, he’s a role model, regardless of his neurology—a role model for autistics, investors, and the general public alike.
We could use more of those. The good news is that there are plenty of them out there, with lives successful enough as to be bulletproof from the kind of damage mere mortals might sustain from being identified as autistic. And that, basically, is my argument for outing them.
There’s something here that needs arguing against as well though: our prejudice against recognizing and offering validation to autism in times and in persons where it cannot be verified to the exacting and very particular standards of the DSM.
Again, what we’re talking about is a battle of perceptions. If we agree to fight for legitimacy only within a frame that portrays us in terms of verifiable pathology, disability, and deficits, we’ve lost before we even begin. If we agree to abide by the literalism of diagnosis, if we agree to reify autism into a concrete, strictly defined thing which either “is” or “is not” officially present in a person, then we may as well not even try.
There’s a reason Tyler Cowen settled on “the autistic cognitive style” as a way to talk about the presence of autism in society. Whatever else it may be, autism is a way of being in the world. It is a style, a manner of behaving and perceiving, and of being perceived. We can either accept what perception we’re handed then, we can curtsy politely and stay in our place, or we can take matters into our own hands, showing and telling the world where we exist and have existed, with emphasis on autism’s ubiquity and pervasiveness—and we can tell people what they’re seeing when they look at us, in terms of contribution, achievement, and yes, for want of a better word, celebrity.
If we’re going to remove the stigma from being autistic, we are not served by denying its presence, even or especially as a “mere” style or way of doing things. One denies the presence of what one is ashamed of, in the process only confirming the prejudice of any observers. That’s how you lose your style and keep your stigmatization; it’s how you lose a battle of perceptions. Me, I’m interested in winning that battle a whole lot more than I am in kow-towing to some clinically pure notion of what autism is and is not.
How much ground, exactly, have we gained by doing that for all these decades? On the contrary, we’re still defined in the popular imagination more by Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of a man who wasn’t even autistic in real life than by anything else. Whoever autism’s lead publicist has been in the years since Rain Man was released, it’s long past time he or she is retired from office.
As it happens, lately I do have a qualified replacement in mind: one Lili Marlene, whom some may know as the proprietor of Incorrect Pleasures, where for going on four years she has made a side project of compiling, in her words, “A referenced list of … famous or important people diagnosed with an autism spectrum condition or subject of published speculation about whether they are or were on the autistic spectrum.”
The list now runs to 155 names. My minor and only quibble with Lili Marlene is that she keeps expressing happy surprise each time the list grows, when I think she and I both know the reality is that the list is limited only by the amount of attention paid to the subject. But then that is why she’s a much better publicist than I will ever be.
Much more, on the subjects of autism and synaesthesia both, all delivered in a voice that manages to consistently be both cheerful and thought-provoking, are to be found at Incorrect Pleasures.
All of which is to say: when it next comes time to choose a publicist for autism—and the sooner, the better—we could do worse than to choose a Lili Marlene.