Jerry Seinfeld told an American television interviewer recently that he believes he is slightly autistic. A bit on the spectrum. Autism lite. Seinfeld based his public self-diagnosis on what he was feeling – that sometimes he doesn’t really understand what people are telling him. As a result, in the minds of millions around the world, Seinfeld became the personality most identified with autism. Just as Michael J. Fox is identified with Parkinson’s disease and Stephen Hawking with paralysis.
The new face of autism is a man who made his fame and fortune from a special brand of humor, exposing the most complex nuances of social human behavior. His jokes, which are spot on, sometime focus on the smallest details of verbal expression.
When Seinfeld is interviewed, he maintains eye contact, distinguishes the important from the trivial, ignores distractions, and speaks to the point. He doesn’t lick his hand or interrupt the interviewer with a question that reflects a level of understanding like that of a 5-year-old.
What can one say? On the spectrum, a great life.
Autism has been in vogue lately. There are documentary films, leading characters in television series. The autistic person is special. An original type. As Seinfeld explained, in his case it doesn’t involve a problem with functioning, but rather “thinking in a different way.” In truth, if that’s what it is, who wouldn’t want to be a little autistic?
But Seinfeld’s nonchalant self-diagnosis is a joke of sorts at the expense of my son, Yotam. While Seinfeld preened with a little autism on television, I sat with Yotam in our living room, together with a social worker. Yotam is 19, but incapable of being responsible for himself. The social worker had come to talk to him as part of the process of having his mother and me appointed his legal guardians.
A week ago, a cab took Yotam to a meeting of children “on the spectrum” at the Beit Frankfurt Community Center in north Tel Aviv. The driver dropped him off by mistake about a hundred meters from the center. Just 100 meters. He’s 19. And Yotami got lost. He had a cell phone with him, but it took 40 minutes to find him. I’d been about to call the police.
For parents, the diagnosis of their child as autistic is a terrible blow. For him and them, lifelong. Parents of autistic children suffer from high levels of tension and anxiety. And that’s in the best cases, where the children are high-functioning.
Yotami is high-functioning. He does not smear excrement on the walls; he is not catatonic; he demonstrates love and has meaningful conversations. If Yotami’s functioning is high, how shall we define Seinfeld’s? The functioning of a man with no sensitivity, who has no substantial connection with autism.
The social worker talked with Yotami about his future. He wants to work at a dog shelter. He hopes he will be able to aim the water in the shower by himself, and that when he leaves home to live in a special home under constant supervision, the staff members will not get angry with him. He said he was sorry for throwing a chair at the teacher when he was 9 years old. Seinfeld resembles Yotami about as much as he resembles Helen Keller.
Yotami will be showing an exhibition of his paintings in a month. On good days, he is happy with his life and accomplishes things. When he watches “Seinfeld,” it doesn’t make him laugh. Not even a little.
I wouldn’t change him for any other kid on earth. But for his sake, I would change his future if I could.
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