Elon Musk's Asperger's Diagnosis Explained

Whether or not you tuned into "Saturday Night Live" on May 8, you've probably heard "Technoking" Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla was the guest host. In his monologue for the Mother's Day "SNL" episode, Musk touched on topics from his controversial tweets, to his son's name, to bringing out his mother to share childhood anecdotes.

But the portion making headlines is Musk's statement that he was "making history as the first person with Asperger's to host SNL." He followed up with he was "at least the first person to admit it" (via Variety). A round of applause then ensued, with Musk joking that he is "pretty good at running human emulation mode." 

It is thought to be the first time Musk has spoken publicly about his diagnosis (via BBC News). The monologue has drummed up some controversy with viewers saying that he isn't the first host with Asperger syndrome. Former cast member Dan Ackyrod hosted the show in 2003 and has since publicly spoken about his Asperger syndrome diagnosis in the '80s (via Today).

What is Asperger syndrome?

Asperger syndrome is described by Autism Speaks as a "previously used" diagnosis on the autism spectrum. It differs from other types of autism with its typical to strong verbal language skills and average to above-average intellectual ability. Those with Asperger syndrome can generally experience social interaction difficulties, a desire for sameness, restricted interests, and distinctive strengths. Those strengths include attention to detail, an aptitude for pattern recognition, remarkable focus, and persistence.

There are some challenges that those with Asperger's can experience. Difficulties with the "give and take" of conversing and the nonverbal conversation skills like distance or tone, as well as hypersensitivity to light, sound or tastes, clumsiness or uncoordinated movements, and anxiety or depression are a few challenges (via Autism Speaks). It is important to note that these strengths and challenges vary widely across those diagnosed. "Many learn to overcome their challenges by building on strengths," the organization explained.

The evolution of Asperger syndrome

According to the Autism Society, Asperger syndrome was first described by Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger, who in the 1940s observed boys who had typical intelligence and language development with autism-like behaviors and difficulties with social and communication skills.

British psychiatrist Lorna Wing coined the term "Asperger syndrome" in 1981 in a series of case studies, according to Autism Speaks. Some years later, Asperger syndrome was added to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as a separate disorder from autism.

Many professionals felt that it was "a milder form of autism," using the term "high-functioning autism." And "in 2013, the DSM-5 replaced Autistic Disorder, Asperger's Disorder and other pervasive developmental disorders with the umbrella diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder" (via Autism Society). There has also been an increase of diagnosis for Asperger's in recent years, but it is not clear if it is more prevalent or if the detection rates are higher.

How Asperger's is diagnosed and treated

Diagnosis occurs after an assessment, developmental history, and observation by a medical professional with experience in autism or other pervasive developmental disorders. The timing of diagnosis is also important, as there is an increased chance of academic success and independent living for children who are diagnosed early (via Autism Society).

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment program. But an effective program should build on the child's interests in a structured environment, have a predictable schedule with tasks taught in simple series of steps, and provide regular behavior reinforcement.

Cognitive behavioral therapy to address anxiety and personal challenges, as well as social skills training classes for help building conversation skills and identifying social cues may be helpful options (via Autism Speaks). Lack of coordination can be addressed with physical and occupational therapy and voice control can be aided with speech therapy. There also may be psychoactive medications prescribed to help with anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Why did Elon Musk face backlash over his use of the term Asperger's?

The addition of Asperger's to the autism spectrum disorder umbrella diagnosis has led to many sharing the feeling Asperger syndrome is an outdated term. Some in the autism community criticized Elon Musk's use of the term, saying that it may perpetuate stereotypes about the condition, as well as overshadow why Asperger's is no longer considered a widely used term (via Today).

While Musk did receive some criticism about his monologue, some people thought the heightened exposure is positive for the neurodivergent community. According to Today, one viewer wrote they identified with Musk's monologue comment that he sometimes has to state "I mean that," calling it a real aspect of being on the spectrum. Although Asperger's is no longer used as a diagnosis, many previously diagnosed have a strong and positive identification with being an "Aspie," according to Autism Speaks.

More to come from Musk?

As of this writing, Elon Musk has not commented specifically on his Asperger's diagnosis or the backlash that followed since the "Saturday Night Live" episode aired. His only tweets since the episode featured a clip of the "Wario" sketch, and that SpaceX will take cryptocurrency Dogecoin to fund its moon mission next year. However, the May 8 show hosted by Musk brought the third-highest ratings in its 46th season. It also marked the first time "Saturday Night Live" was live-streamed on YouTube in more than 100 countries (via Variety). No doubt, people will be curious to hear more from Musk in the near future.

While it's totally up to him what he chooses to share about his diagnosis (or otherwise), you can find more information on Asperger syndrome and autism spectrum disorder through Autism Speaks and the Autism Society's websites. Both provide in-depth details and resources.