Elon Musk’s Autistic Anti-Patterns
Elon Musk — until recently, the richest man in the world — is probably autistic. We know this because he once mentioned he ‘has Asperger’s’ as part of a comedy routine. We know it must have been a comedy routine, because while it may not have been funny, it was on Saturday Night Live.
He doesn’t seem to have talked about it much beyond that; it is hard to rule out that it was intended as a joke, but I think he is too insecure not to have corrected people who took it seriously, if he didn’t mean it. The only time that he has ever tweeted anything about autism at all was in response to a video of a Twitter employee being a dick about it, soon after that SNL episode:
I’d hesitate to equate what the executive said about misinformation with ‘trashing free speech’, but he was mocking Musk’s autism. What can we learn about autism from Musk’s behaviour, and the responses to it?
A quick note on terminology here: Asperger’s Syndrome hasn’t been a diagnosis in the USA since 2013. Musk is talking about Asperger’s, but like most of the autistic community, that’s not a term I’m comfortable using any more. There were a lot of good reasons to merge it in with the broader label of Autism Spectrum Disorder, but the main one was that the distinction just turned out not to mean much. There is huge variety among autistic people, but we don’t fit neatly into discrete categories like ‘classically autistic’ and ‘Asperger’s’; whether we develop language later than most has little bearing on our later lives, and our abilities and support needs can vary dramatically across our lifespans.
The fact that Musk is still talking about Asperger’s is interesting, and a little troubling. I don’t think the term should always be seen as a red flag; outside of the USA, people were still being officially labelled with Asperger’s as recently as last year, and historically, many in the autistic community made it a significant part of their identities. Still, one of the reasons most autistic people aren’t comfortable with the term is because it is now generally thought that Hans Asperger had Nazi leanings, and was involved in a number of disabled children being sent to their deaths. He did help to save others — the ‘little professors’ he was famously rather taken with. He saw these children as having a place in society, for all their oddity. They might be weird and disabled, but they still had something valuable to contribute to the capitalist economy!
It would be one thing if this way of thinking went out with the Nazis, but that is not how it’s gone. Espousing eugenics did rather go out of fashion after Nazi Germany took it to what they saw as its logical conclusion, but the basic idea never really went away: even if they know better than to say it out loud, many still believe that society would be improved if some genetic variations were prevented. If we could stop certain kinds of people from being born.
This brings us to the other reason the term Asperger’s has problematic connotations: the ideology that came to be known as ‘Aspie supremacy’.
Autistic people in modern societies have always been bullied, persecuted and discriminated against — whether or not people know we’re autistic. We are seen as weird, uncooperative and sometimes slow. Social exclusion and isolation are common. Many autistic people end up with chronically low self-esteem.
In that context, it is understandable that some autistic kids will cling to the things they are good at, and decide that these are the most important things, not the nonsense that the other kids waste their time on. At school I was fiercely proud of my academic abilities, and I am embarrassed to say that I believed my intelligence made me better than the bullies who made my school life hell: teachers and children alike. I came from an intellectual and frankly rather odd family; it was a comfort to me to be able to tell myself that while the bullies were obviously right about me being a weirdo, I could out-think most of them easily.
I believe this is a common experience for kids growing up with the kind of autism that used to get labelled ‘high-functioning autism’ or ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’. We are treated like dirt, and it drives us to grasp at whatever we can to make us feel okay about ourselves. Logical thinking, feats of memory, ‘splinter skills’. There may be worse coping strategies, but there are deep problems with this one. For one thing, it is often fragile. You meet people who are at least as book-smart as you, but who seem to have ‘normal’ social skills, for example; or it finally dawns on you that extraordinary skill with solving Rubik’s cubes is just not enough to get you through life. Or maybe you spend $44 billion buying a social media platform in the name of free speech, only to find that you’re no good at running a social media platform, and people keep using it to make fun of you, so free speech doesn’t seem like a good idea at all any more.
Valuing people for their skills can mean overlooking their inherent value as a person — someone who has every right to exist regardless of their abilities. The other side of this is that over-valuing certain abilities means looking down on people who don’t share them. Aspie supremacy is the ideology that follows from taking this to an extreme: ‘aspies’ have extraordinary powers which not only make their existence worthwhile, but make them better than other people. This is one counter to the eugenic position that autism should be prevented, but it is a flawed one. As Simon Baron-Cohen once memorably asked, “what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism? Would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians, for example?”
Baron-Cohen’s suggested resolution to this problem is to do eugenics carefully. With a more sophisticated understanding of the surprisingly complex genetics of autism, perhaps we can make informed decisions about which specific types of autistic people ought to be expunged from the gene pool? Perhaps we can even promote the passing on of good autism genes? Is that perhaps what Elon Musk was going for when he fathered at least ten children?
Francis Galton, pioneer of eugenics and intelligence testing — himself a deeply odd man — was obsessed with the idea of genius. Intensely proud to be a cousin of Charles Darwin, he charted the family lines of those he saw as great men, hoping to demonstrate that genius could be inherited. A faith in great men is a thread running through ‘tech bro’ ideology. Forget governments getting things done, democratic control just means plebs holding things back, right? Move fast, break things! So what if subways already exist, and technotopian dreams get in the way of solutions like trains, which actually work?Wouldn’t it be more EXCITING if you could drive your own car into long, tight tunnels where you can’t turn around, or drive your car ONTO a train in a giant vacuum tube? If only venture capitalists were allowed to make all the major decisions, what a world this could be!
The concept of neurodiversity offers a subtle and much more comprehensive counter-argument to eugenics. It is not just because some autistic people are brilliant that autism should not be eliminated: it is because diversity is inherently valuable, and so are people. All people. When someone is unable to participate in society, it is a sign that society is doing something wrong, and we all miss out as a result. Diverse perspectives allow better decision-making. Putting too much power in the hands of a few people means overlooking problems that would be obvious to someone not blinded by privilege. Assuming that some people are poor because they were born with poor genes means ignoring everything else about the system that might be keeping them in poverty.
Autistic people do not represent ‘the next step in evolution’ for humankind: that is categorically not how evolution works. It’s more like a tree than a ladder; more like a mycelium than either. Evolution proceeds by constant branching and recombining. Species and ecosystems thrive on variety — we aren’t on a trajectory from less advanced to more advanced, we’re all just finding different ways of solving the many problems of survival, in an endlessly complex world.
Valuing diversity is diametrically opposed to ideas of supremacy, and it should not be a huge surprise that people who espouse ideas along the lines of aspie supremacy often turn out to believe, for example, that white people are superior to other races. Again, many of them know better than to come right out and say so out loud, but it’s hard to see how else to interpret the concerns about population expressed by people like Elon Musk:
Worrying about population collapse makes no sense in a global context. Many countries have quite high birth rates — Musk’s problem seems to be that those countries are usually full of people with brown skin. The ‘civilization’ he is talking about here is clearly ‘western civilization’, not civilization in general. His fear appears to be that good, smart white people are being replaced by people of other races — an idea sometimes referred to as ‘Great Replacement Theory’, which is discussed in episode 2 of Adam Rutherford’s excellent BBC Radio 4 series on eugenics, ‘Bad Blood’.
Worrying about overpopulation, which is much more common among environmentalists, is similarly problematic. Humans don’t do very much damage to the environment by simply existing. Our planet could easily sustain seven billion people, if we all consumed as little as the poorer half of the world’s population do on average. When 50% of the world’s population is responsible for only 10% of our carbon emissions, while 10% of us produce 50% of those emissions, it is clear that the problem is not so much the number of people as the amount some of us consume. Again, if you scratch the surface of these concerns, there seems to be a layer of racism just underneath: white-dominated rich countries trying to shift the blame for a crisis we created, onto majority brown and black countries that we have long exploited and impoverished. Rather than wealthy white people consuming less, they want other people to exist less.
In software engineering and related fields, an anti-pattern is a recurring approach to solving a common problem, which is superficially appealing but turns out to be really bad. Programmers learn about them to avoid pitfalls that could lead to them doing things they might regret.
Elon Musk is a walking bundle of autistic anti-patterns. They turn up in other people’s reactions to him, too.
When people try to use Musk’s autism to defend him, the most common response I see from autistic people is to say that autism has nothing to do with it. Autism really doesn’t make you racist, it absolutely doesn’t make you transphobic, and it certainly doesn’t make you randomly accuse people of paedophilia. It doesn’t excuse any of his actions, in fact: he’s a grown man, and he knows what he’s doing. There are things about Musk that people sometimes criticise, like his ways of expressing emotion, that are autism-related, harmless, and have very little to do with the actual problems with him.
I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t think Musk’s autism was relevant, though. Yes, there are plenty of non-autistic people who are horrifyingly arrogant and self-absorbed, but there is… an autistic flavour to his egoism. I have seen too many other autistic people — other autistic white cis men, usually — fall into some of the same ways of thinking and acting that make Musk such a disaster for the world and the people around him. That makes Musk a valuable anti-role model! If we can all learn how to be less like Elon Musk, and how to help others to be as little like him as possible, this planet will be a better, healthier place.
A lot of the problems relate to privilege, which is why the worst autistic people, like Elon Musk, are usually white men. In common with the autistic spectrum, privilege is a complex construct, with multiple dimensions to it, which is too often reduced to a linear scale. In other words, you can’t boil problems of privilege down to questions of who is more privileged: you need to look at different kinds of privilege in different contexts. People who are oppressed in one way sometimes have difficulty recognising how big their advantages are in other ways.
As I mentioned earlier, autistic kids, like Musk, are very often bullied at school, and that can make a person feel like they are at the bottom of the pecking order; from there, it can be difficult to recognise all the unearned advantages we might have over other people.
Feeling superior is one potentially effective, but deeply flawed strategy for coping with feeling devalued, especially for children perceived as intelligent — and those whose race, gender and wealth make this easier.
Ideally we would all get much better at preventing bullying, ensure that children and professionals understand neurodiversity, and foster a sense of Weird Pride in those who are at risk of becoming outcasts. In a much more general sense, we need people to understand the value of diversity, the many things about people that are worthy of appreciation and respect, and the importance of recognising problems that are outwith our own experience. Relatedly, we need to be wary of people presenting their views as if they were objective — especially ourselves, and especially people in positions of power. Nobody is truly objective, but autistic people can sometimes be excessively confident in their own rationality.
Empathy is another of these things which gets mistaken for a simple quantity: a lot of people have the idea that some folk are just more empathetic than others, and in particular, that autistic people lack empathy.
This is absolutely not how empathy, or autism, work. Autism doesn’t cause a lack of empathy, but getting good at empathising with people with very different life experiences takes practice. Austistic and non-autistic people can fail to empathise with each other because it is so much easier to empathise with people who share a lot of your experiences, or whose experiences you get to hear about a lot. People born into privilege of any sort can lack the motivation to learn how to empathise with those who aren’t; and people who acquire great wealth and power can lose their ability to empathise.
The stereotype that autistic people are inherently unempathetic remains a widespread misunderstanding among specialists in the field, even ten years after Damian Milton first flagged up the ‘double empathy problem’. Some autistic people, understandably, just accept it. They see autism as an excuse not to bother trying to empathise with others. Naturally, this is far more likely among autistic men, given how much easier it is for men to get away with being unempathetic in a sexist society, and for those in any kind of position of privilege and power. The jaw-dropping lack of empathy that Musk shows for his employees should be understood in this context, but we should not accept this sort of thing from anyone.
I don’t believe that any society on Earth does a good job of teaching young men how to express romantic or sexual interest in a respectful way. People are expected to muddle through a social landscape riddled with ambiguity and indirectness — not a great situation for anyone, but particularly disorienting for autistic people. I’m 44, and I still don’t really get how flirting is supposed to work. Is it meant to be confusing?
There are a few ways to deal with this lack of clarity, for someone who is interested in sex. One is to just back off, and hope someone unambiguously expresses interest in you eventually. Another, much harder approach is to very carefully learn how to spot that someone might be into you, and how to check without too much risk of offending them. A lot of us could do with a bit of help with that! Another approach is just to charge straight into propositioning people, with little regard for the consequences.
I have occasionally seen autistic men take the latter approach, disastrously. One of the things I found most distasteful about the first few episodes of Atypical was the way this kind of creepy behaviour was played for laughs, and this certainly seems to be how Musk goes about approaching women he finds attractive. On top of the harm this kind of behaviour does to the people directly affected by it, it does a lot of damage to the way autistic people in general are seen. I have written before about how we are often seen as creepy for perfectly harmless behaviours like avoiding eye contact, or expressing emotions in unusual ways. When a few of us validate people’s prejudices by being genuinely creepy, it makes things much harder for those of us who make a real effort not to make people uncomfortable.
Autism is only one part of what has made Elon Musk the man he is. Being born into extraordinary wealth played at least as large a role, even if not much of that wealth was directly inherited. He got much richer still off the back of a few lucky decisions, combined with ruthlessness, arrogance and emotional disconnection. None of those are really autistic traits, but they do show up disappointingly often in a privileged subset of the autistic population, and among a certain kind of geek (who may or may not meet the diagnostic criteria). Capitalist economies tend to reward these traits richly, when they are found in people with enough of the right advantages: starting capital, marketable skills and so on. So much the worse for the rest of us.
Elon Musk is not a genius, and many of society’s worst problems stem from giving too much power to people who are convinced of their own superiority. At the very least, it is foolish to ignore that everybody has things they are bad at. Focusing too much on perceived brilliance also leads to fragile self-esteem on an individual level, and fragility has a way of creating jagged edges. To be kind to yourself, you need to know that your value doesn’t depend on your talents, and that it will survive your weaknesses.
Elon Musk and Greta Thunberg are probably the two most famous autistic people on Earth right now, and the contrast between them is deep and instructive. Much of Musk’s wealth has been accumulated by convincing governments and his fans that he is out to save the world and the species, with fantastic technologies that will change everything. Meanwhile Thunberg’s monotropic focus, realism and humility are almost certainly achieving more good than all of Musk’s companies put together — and without the trail of human wreckage.
I think we can all learn something from Elon Musk: from his failures, and from the costs of his successes. Only some of that has much to do with autism, but the parts that do, provide a powerful cautionary tale for autistic people who want to make the world a better place.
A shorter article excerpted & adapted from this one appears on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism site: We Need to Talk About Aspie Supremacists.