Publicist: Must Be Willing to Out Prominent Autistics

Help WantedAuthor 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….

[audience laughter]

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.

on 03/31/10 in featured, Society | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Lili Marlene says:

    I’m very flattered by this attention, Mr Stairwalt. There is so much in this article that I agree with. Me as a publicist for autism? That is not a job for only one person. I’m sure many would agree that its not a good situation to have any one autist or expert dominating the public image of the spectrum with their best-selling autobiography or their fascinating theory or their online writing. I believe the living famous people who are in my list are generally doing great things as publicists for autism. Some of them have only mentioned AS or autism once in an interview or blog, and I can think of one famous person who has been happy to discuss it in numerous interviews and also write about it at his personal web page. If these people have the courage to identify with the autism spectrum, I’d like to show the public where these bold statements are published. I aim to provide a resource that people can use to start their own inquiries or research, to make up their own minds about autism and famous people.

    Its an absolute tragedy that I have so little spare time at the moment to work on my list of famous autists or possible autists. There are quite a few names that I could add to the list, and I haven’t finished properly adding the last lot of names. A new book has come out identifying some famous and notable writers as autistic, and I’ve been able to get a hold of a copy of a Jennifer Elder’s lovely book for kids about famous possibly autistic role models that came out in 2006. I hope to have more time to spend online during the Easter break.

    I only add names to my list when I find something in print or in a well-recognized non-print medium that identifies some famous person as autistic, or argues that a famous person is/was autistic, or includes speculation about a famous person being on the spectrum without pushing any definite conclusion. In my big list I don’t initially take on the role “outing” famous autists, I wait for some other writer or broadcaster or famous person to say the words “autism” or “Asperger syndrome”, then I add a name to the list, and maybe write an article of my own about the famous person. In the oldest parts of my blog there is an old list in which I did some original speculation about famous people, but its only based on information that has been publicly accessible to anyone.

    The ethics of outing is a subject that I’ve thought about a lot. I have seen my speculation about a living famous person used in what appears to be a malicious manner against that famous person. I’ve decided to leave one very famous person off my list because I found evidence that is highly suggestive that inclusion in my list would cause offense or upset. I’ll probably temporarily withdraw my article about Kevin Rudd when an election is called. I’ve seen first-hand how speculation about the dead can upset the living. But one thing that I’ve never seen is a famous person asking to be taken off my list. I’m mindful of the fact that my blog publicises sensitive information about famous people, while I write under a pen name. I’ve also thought quite a bit about who to exclude from my list. I’ve made it my policy to leave out people who I believe are primarily notable for being autistic itself. I also don’t add serial killers to my list if the evidence for autism is flimsy or seriously contradicted.

    I love my list and I hope people find it useful, regardless of their opinion of autism. I’ve learned a lot from it, and its been a joy watching it grow, rather like a child really.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Lili Marlene, any positive attention you receive is well-earned. As much of an inveterate list-maker as I am, I’ve always let the examples I’m familiar with slip through my hands; I’m just glad someone is making an easily accessible project of collecting them, in the spirit in which you’re doing it.

    And if there’s anyone for whom it isn’t clear, I’m recommending you and your list as a template to be used for how to present autism to the popular imagination, much as the movie Rain Man has functioned for too, too long as a template for how to imagine autism. What’s needed is lots of people thinking the way you do, not just you.

    At some point in the future, I hope a list of prominent autistic people becomes about as notable as a list of prominent people with brown eyes; both characteristics being just another way to be human. In the meantime, I love your list, too.

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