Elon Musk announced during his monologue at Saturday Night Live that he has Asperger’s, a mild form of autism. It’s a condition that–obviously–does not limit his intelligence, creativity, or his ability to change history. But it may help explain some of his interactions with others, and some of the problems he’s run into over the years.
What does Musk having Asperger’s, or autism spectrum disorder, as many prefer to call it, really mean? Here are some answers.
1. People with Asperger’s are so much like everyone else, they may not know they have it.
“I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL–or at least the first to admit it,” he said toward the beginning of his monologue. That wasn’t quite true. Several people pointed out on Twitter that former SNL cast member and host Dan Aykroyd has publicly said he has Asperger’s.
The fact that one of the two richest people in the world and one of Hollywood’s biggest stars both say they have Asperger’s should tell you that “Aspies” can be highly intelligent and successful. The movie star Daryl Hannah and the singer Susan Boyle have revealed they have the condition as well.
Because people with Asperger’s are high-functioning, it may be difficult for them or others to recognize that there’s anything different about them, beyond some eccentricity. “To the untrained observer, a child with Asperger’s Disorder may just seem like a neurotypical child behaving differently,” the Autism Society notes on its website. People with Asperger’s may not realize themselves that they’re different from their neurotypical peers.
2. People with Asperger’s tend to be obsessive.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In 2013, Aykroyd told the Daily Mail that his obsession with ghosts, law enforcement, and the ghost hunter Hans Holzer led directly to the hit movie Ghostbusters.
Musk is nothing if not obsessive, which has sometimes worked to his advantage. Three years ago, with Tesla’s survival being questioned, Musk literally began living at the factory, fixing robotics as needed late into the night and sleeping under his desk in order to meet the company’s ambitious production goals and prove that it could be profitable. Concerned friends and even Inc.com columnists worried for his health and sanity. But it’s safe to say now that his obsessiveness paid off big-time.
3. People with Asperger’s may have trouble with social interactions.
Those with full-blown autism are often seen as aloof and uninterested in other people, the Autism Society explains. But, they write,
“This is not the case with Asperger’s Disorder. Individuals with Asperger’s Disorder usually want to fit in and have interaction with others, but often they don’t know how to do it. They may be socially awkward, not understand conventional social rules or show a lack of empathy. They may have limited eye contact, seem unengaged in a conversation and not understand the use of gestures or sarcasm.”
In a delicious irony, The Verge said this about Musk’s announcement that he has Asperger’s: “It did not appear he was joking, but it was a bit difficult to be sure how sincere Musk was being, given his history as both an internet troll and someone who doesn’t always know how to deliver a joke.” Since not knowing how to deliver a joke is a sign of Asperger’s, The Verge seemed to be unintentionally confirming that what he said was likely true.
During his monologue, Musk mentioned a couple of other Asperger’s symptoms as well. “Sometimes after I say something, I have to say, ‘I mean that,’ so people really know that I mean it,” he said. “That’s because I don’t always have a lot of intonational variation in how I speak…which I’m told makes for great comedy.” Because he has Asperger’s he said, “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.”
Musk also joked about some of the ways he’s gotten himself in trouble in the public eye, for example by smoking pot on Joe Rogan’s podcast. “I know I sometimes say or post strange things, but that’s just how my brain works,” he said. “To anyone I’ve offended, I just want to say, I’ve reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship. Did you think I was also going to be a chill, normal dude?”
Clearly, that would be unreasonable to expect. Besides, if Musk were a chill, normal dude, we would love him a lot less.