Elon Musk, Asperger's and Autism Spectrum Disorder

in StemSocial3 months ago

SpaceX Falcon Demo Mission, 2018
Credit: SpaceX. License:public domain.

Anyone reading this blog has certainly heard of Elon Musk. He seems to be in the forefront of various technological advances, including electric car design, software innovation and rocketry.

In 2021, Musk announced on Saturday Night Live that he had been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Is there a connection between this diagnosis and Musk's extraordinary creative productivity? Musk himself believes this may be so.

Why? What are characteristics of the syndrome Musk addresses that might have helped him to be productive? In answering this question one must keep in mind that Asperger's Syndrome no longer exists in the American Psychiatric Association's most recent edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Still, people, including Musk, refer to Asperger's. What are they talking about?

Greta Thunberg, Climate Advocate, Diagnosed With Asperger's
Credit:European Parliament. License: CC 2.0.

Characteristics of Asperger's, as Defined in Previous Editions of the DSM

Included in the DSM criteria (From Interactive Autism Network):
"Qualitative impairment in social interaction..."
"Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities..."
"There is no clinically significant general delay in language..."
"There is no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or in the development of age-appropriate self-help skills"

What Relationship Does Musk Draw Between His Asperger's Diagnosis and his Productivity?
The relationship Musk draws between his diagnosis and his productivity:
“I found it rewarding to spend all night programming computers, just by myself. … But I think that is not normal.”
He said he also became “obsessed” with physics and trying to figure out the meaning of life.
“My driving philosophy is to expand the scope and scale of consciousness so that we may better understand the nature of the universe.”

Statue Representing Dan Aykroyd (Diagnosed With Asperger's) in the Movie The Blues Brothers
Blues_Brothers dan Aykroyd.png
Credit: Broderick from U.S of A. CC 2.0 license

Autism, Diagnosed but Lacking in Neurological Clarity
An extract from the Psychology & Psychological Research International Journal (2021) describes autism as "a neuro-developmental disorder, which is associated with impaired social interactions and communication." The apparent certainty of this statement is followed immediately by this one: "The biological basis of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is still not fully understood." This gap in certainty, between diagnosis and biological proof, may explain why there is such controversy over autism diagnostic criteria. The criteria is based on observed behaviors and essentially a diagnostic checklist.

The U.S. CDC acknowledges the challenge of diagnosing autism. Quoting from the CDC website: "there is no medical test, like a blood test, to diagnose the disorder". Determining whether or not someone is 'on the spectrum' is a matter of comparing behavior to 'normal' models. Again, from the CDC website: "Screening questionnaires and checklists are based on research that compares your child to other children of the same age."

John Denver, (Some Sources Report) Diagnosed With Asperger's
Credit: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com from Laurel Maryland, USA. CC 2.0 license.

A result of this lack of clarity is that diagnostic criteria in the APA's diagnostic manual becomes a matter of consensus, and not science. It is hardly surprising then, that people who had been told they had Asperger's Syndrome in 2012, balked at being told this diagnosis no longer existed in 2013, but that their observed behavior pattern would more accurately be included in a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

The Range of Behaviors and Symptoms Included 'On the Spectrum'
The website HelpGuide, attempts to organize the wide range of disorders that are now grouped (according to the APA) as autism spectrum disorder. The behaviors range from the most severe forms of autism, in which individuals are nonverbal and intellectually/developmentally stunted, to the mildest forms in which individuals may actually be intellectually gifted but evince social deficits and also certain atypical behaviors such as perserverence and extraordinary focus, even obsessive/compulsive type tendencies.

What's in a Name (Diagnosis), and Why do People Care so Much?

The controversy surrounding the word 'Asperger's Syndrome' seems to reflect a nexus of political, social and medical concerns. Part of the trouble may derive from the origin of the term. Hans Asperger, for whom the diagnosis was named, had an unsavory connection to Nazis and euthanasia.

Asperger was the first physician to describe autism (although that credit is sometimes given to Leo Kanner, a physician working at Johns Hopkins in Maryland). And, Hans Asperger was the first person to distinguish a particular kind of high-function autism from other disorders on the spectrum.

Hans Asperger
Credit: Unknown author, 1940. Public domain.

According to an article published in Nature, The Truth About Hans Asperger’s Nazi Collusion, this Austrian doctor was responsible for the death of many children. The article asserts: "it is now indisputable that Asperger collaborated in the murder of children with disabilities under the Third Reich". Apparently, Hans Asperger was interested in eliminating the disabled from the gene pool. Autistic children fell under the label of 'disabled'. However, Asperger noted that some autistic children were distinct from others. These special children were actually gifted, he asserted, and he thought they should be distinguished from others who suffered from mental impairment.

Hence, in the minds of many, there is a stigma attached to separating the able on the autistic spectrum from the disabled. In the twitterstorm that erupted over Elon Musk's diagnosis, many references were made to the history of euthanasia and the bias known as ableism.

In its extreme form, ableism was associated with the eugenics movement. While Hans Asperger is an example of how ableism/eugenics was exercised under Nazi rule, in fact the law that prescribed euthanasia and sterilization of the genetically unfit in Germany was based on an American law. That U.S. law, The Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924, was actually upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court (Buck vs. Bell) and became a model for other eugenics-based laws in the U. S.

Carrie Buck (left): Underwent Compulsory Sterilization
Credit:Arthur Estabrook. Public domain.

What's in a Name?
Juliet, in Shakespeare's play (Romeo and Juliet) may have said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", but language matters. Language is one of the ways we communicate ideas. The more precise our language, the more accurately we express ourselves. Did we lose anything, in the sense of communication, when the APA dropped the term Asperger's (and other categories of autism) in favor of an overall, general label of autism spectrum disorders? Here's a chart that illustrates the absorption of many terms under one umbrella term.

Four Categories of Autism Subsumed Under One Label
Credit: Anwer2007. Used under CC 4.0 license

If you never heard of Elon Musk, or Dan Aykroyd, and I told you these men had been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, what would you understand about them?

If you look at the chart above you realize they will have social deficits and some atypical behaviors. A rather clear picture of the men emerges.

Here's a chart that strips away the subcategories (derived from the chart above).

autism spectrum dsmV.png

Now if I revealed that the men have Autism Spectrum Disorder, and you depend on this second chart for information, have I really told you anything that would enlighten you about the personalities of Elon Musk and Dan Aykroyd? No. The impression you get from the first chart and an Asperger's diagnosis is much clearer.

Why Drop the Sub-Categories, Especially Asperger's? (My View)

I can only imagine this decision was arrived at because of pressure exerted by certain interested groups of people (including the insurance industry). Otherwise, muddying a diagnostic picture makes no sense to me. Apparently, it makes no sense to a lot of people, because the term persists. Greta Thunberg's diagnosis was announced long after the change in the DSM. Elon Musk revealed his diagnosis long after the change in the DSM.

It seems the APA may assign whatever diagnostic code it wishes to someone who presents with behaviors that suggest autism/Asperger's. The DSM may label it Autism Spectrum Disorder. In the public mind, though, Asperger's as an idea and useful term will probably endure. Common sense usually does prevail.

Selected Sources

Please Note: I am designating my friend @yaziris as 10% beneficiary on this post because he did some research for me on Elon Musk's connection to cryptocurrency. Although I didn't end up using that information, still he did the work. Thanks @yaziris.

Thank you for reading my blog. Hive on


When I was a kid, you could tell someone was what they called autistic just by looking at them, or sometimes observing them a bit. Even with today's broadened definitions, Musk and Thunberg definitely stand out in some way, in their outward expressions and mannerisms; not so with Aykroyd, as far as I've seen.

The behaviors range from the most severe forms of autism, in which individuals are nonverbal and intellectually/developmentally stunted, to the mildest forms in which individuals may actually be intellectually gifted but evince social deficits and also certain atypical behaviors such as perserverence and extraordinary focus, even obsessive/compulsive type tendencies.

I've often wondered whether the extreme forms exist because of a possible evolutionary benefit the milder forms might provide.

Hello @alexanderalexis, Nice to see you here. This is a puzzling topic for me, although I did choose to handle it. This whole spectrum thing kind of grates against me. I think that we are all on some kind of spectrum, but that society only accepts readily those who fit in a very narrow band of behavior pattern. I know judgment of those who are 'different' must somehow serve species survival, but it still irritates me. Those who are at the higher end of the autism 'spectrum' have only one problem: people and judgment.

Anyway, I like raising this issue and prompting all of us to think about what is normal, what isn't normal. I think it's a good exercise.

Thanks for stopping by and for your, as ever, interesting comment.

Hi @agmoore.

The above is another very interesting topic you are providing us with information about. I enjoyed reading it very much.

It seems to me that it is very popular today to apply the predicate Asperger's Syndrome to people. Over the last few years in particular, I've often noticed that among colleagues (mainly software developers and IT specialists) there are people who literally wish to be in this category.
There are numerous Asperger self-tests on the Internet. And those who get the Asperger's diagnosis from them are not always unhappy about it nowadays. At least that's what I've been able to observe for many colleagues.
After all, this syndrome was hyped in a manifold way in the media the past years. Thus, the image of Asperger's Syndrome as a handicap changed to a syndrome that makes people special. Like a kind of mutant X syndrome that makes you develop superpowers.
I am therefore not very surprised that this is now also used to adorn people of the public with. Yes, to decorate oneself carelessly with it is probably even very popular.

Most of the time, there's probably no truth in it at all.
Also, many of my colleagues who claimed to be "Asperger's" or slightly "Asperger's" are in fact just children of their time. Of course with all the consequences that our time brings with it.
It has been proven that social media and smartphone use are bad for people's social development. This often results in behavior patterns that could also be mistaken for Asperger's syndrome.

Regarding Elon Musk's statement about his personal Asperger's indicator:
Well, I know it very well and it was always like that with myself. Whole nights literally disappear every few days in the dim light of my monitors. Sciences, computer technology, all very interesting topics that also regularly occupy me very intensively. But it's really no wonder, in view of the huge amount of information available to the public nowadays. This era is just like a giant playground in terms of information, isn't it?!
When something is interesting, isn't it always captivating?
I once learned to simply name this behavior "devotion" and "passion". :-D

Let's hope the trend of aspergerization ends soon, and that people realize everyone is special anyway.

Hello friend, @quantumg,

The expression, "Know thyself" captures the phenomenon you describe among your associates, I believe. People who notice that their behavior is atypical in small ways look for a reason. We are social animals. We adapt behavior to 'fit in'. Your colleagues, I think, are seeking an explanation for behavior and inclination that distinguish them from most of the people they see. Asperger's is a benign solution to a pesky problem.

To me, the diagnosis is merely shorthand for saying "I'm different, but productive and positive". If this helps people to feel comfortable and define themselves, then it has use. That, for me, is the chief value of an Asperger's diagnosis. It gives clarity to the way some people feel they are. It also finally allows people who feel alienated to be part of a group.

Thanks so much for stopping by. As always, your comment adds a great deal to the discussion. Take care my friend.

Interesting info about Asperger’s condition, A.G. . I was surprised that Musk and Greta Thunberg have the syndrome because of their outspokenness. I know of one man whose wife claims he has Asperger. A smart man in business and prefers working alone on the computer. He follows his wife’s lead in social functions and seems to lack emotional depth. Maybe that’s just his wife’s opinion. 😊

Hello my friend @redheadpei,

I think Asperger's Syndrome, the label, helps people explain what seem to be eccentricities. I think if we were all tolerant of differences (as you and I are I'm sure) then people with atypical personalities wouldn't have to explain themselves. That man (your neighbor) sounds like me in some ways, although I have too much emotional depth 😆. I love my computer and am really not comfortable around a lot of people.

We are all different. Sounds like either his wife is critical, or she takes care of him. I hope it's the latter.

Thanks for visiting and for commenting. Have a most wonderful weekend (whatever is left of it).

Excellent article. I wonder if Tesla also suffered from some form of functional autism. Newton as well. I read his biography, Never at Rest, and Newton has all the classic symptoms. An often unhealthy obsession with numbers, rules, laws, and mysticism. He hated social interaction and is one of the reasons he didn't want to publish his experimental results. It is likely he made other discoveries, but the man was so prickly that we'll never know for sure. His laboratory burned down at one point and his work of 20 years along with it.

You make a good point that actually pinning down Asperger's syndrome as a clinical phenomenon is difficult. The concept starts becoming meaningless when you can take any human being on the planet, observe their behavior, and conclude that they have Asperger's syndrome when they are actually just behaving normally.

Well researched and written article. Right on!

Hello @litguru. I think the greatest value of the Asperger's diagnosis for many people was the clarity it gave them in understanding themselves and in explaining their peculiar characteristics to others. Isn't that what language does? Gives us clarity and understanding. Sure a lot of people misdiagnosed themselves. People do that with metabolism (to explain away obesity) and many other 'conditions'. So long as the doctors had a firm grip on the parameters of this diagnosis it worked OK. Of course, firm grip is an aspiration, never a fact.😆

Anyway, following the discussion on Twitter was fascinating. So many open wounds apparently on this subject (and the issue of ableism). I just had to take this on.

Thanks so much for reading. Always a pleasure to hear from you.

What an enlightening article about the Asperger Syndrome and the history of it.

As I expressed before, I do believe all "normal" humans are on the spectrum of this and that, just different tunings make our personalities and abililies the way they are, distinct, unique, and valuable. The Psychiatric Associations can categorize people the way they want. But the way I see it, "normal" is what really needs redefining.

I am designating my friend @yaziris as 10% beneficiary on this post

Truly appreciate it 🙏 even though I told you it's not necessary at all, or even the mention (You haven't even used any of the information, and I wish I was more useful).

Although, considering me a friend in this mention really made my day. And I'm really honored!

Once again, thank you, and thank you for this delightful read!

Much love to you my friend!

Hello @yaziris,
You are my friend and colleague. I really appreciated your quick response to my rather audacious request. Even if I didn't use the information, it enlightened me.

Yes, we are all distinct and unique. Each of us a puzzle. Most of us spend a lifetime looking for self-understanding. I think that drive motivates a lot of writers. It certainly motivated me as I became an avid reader. My immediate environment didn't offer much in the way of explanation, but books did.

Thank you very much for stopping by and for jumping in to help with research. It is a pleasure to be able to credit your generosity.

Take care my friend.

I do not believe that autism is bad nor an illness/ disorder.

I think being normie and normopathic is way more serious of an illness..

But I also do not think musk is autistic.
Maybe traumatized.

Hello @woelfchen,

Thank you for your comment. I did have an issue using the word 'disorder' when I wrote this. In my view, the APA misses the mark not only with regard to autism but with regard to many other 'conditions'.

What is 'normal'? I don't know. My own standard is personal comfort and not doing harm to others. It would also be great if an individual could manage to be productive. That's it.

I don't know anything about Elon Musk. If he likes to think of himself as having Asperger's...that's fine. Why not?

I appreciate your meaningful feedback.

When I saw Elon on SNL (Saturday Night Live), I felt that he had been performing a bit differently, it can be related to ableism, although he performed for 10 minutes in his monologue and entertained the audience. I think it was his own idea to perform on SNL to minimize the effects of syndrome.

Every human being has some kind of disorder, most of the psychiatric problems arise from local environment and attitude of family and close relatives, the child's mental development starts from home, how he observes elders' behaviors also play a big part in shaping child's psychology.

Medical findings rely on data collection and research work on patients, doctor's diagnosis relies on those correlative theories found in medical books.

Hello @emaxisonline,
I don't really believe in psychiatric disorders, unless the condition makes people feel miserable and they cannot lead full lives. I think psychiatry misses the mark a lot. I do believe we all have issues (I do!!) but that a tolerant environment is the best cure in many cases.

Thank you very much for reading my blog and for your meaningful comment.

Thanks for your contribution to the STEMsocial community. Feel free to join us on discord to get to know the rest of us!

Please consider delegating to the @stemsocial account (85% of the curation rewards are returned).

Thanks for including @stemsocial as a beneficiary, which gives you stronger support. 

Thank you, StemSocial. I am very grateful!

Very well presented!

Thank you!

The rewards earned on this comment will go directly to the people(@agmoore) sharing the post on Twitter as long as they are registered with @poshtoken. Sign up at https://hiveposh.com.

 3 months ago Reveal Comment