Adding to the insult, she said, is that the man who aligned himself with the autistic community made his livelihood by humorously dissecting the social nuances of the human condition, a painfully ironic twist for a disorder marked by sufferers' inability to read social cues and communicate effectively.
“My kids’ lives are irrevocably altered by autism and not in a good way,” she told The Post. “Autism is a neurological condition that requires a clinical diagnosis based on serious behaviors and issues and challenges. It’s a medical diagnosis, not a personality or a gift.”
For many parents, she said, that diagnosis, and the medical services it demands, is not easy to come by.
“Jerry, if you think you have autism,” she added, “come over to my house for a night, and we’ll show you what it’s all about.”
To be fair, Seinfeld never actually said: I am autistic.
"I think on a very drawn-out scale, I'm on the spectrum," he told NBC's Brian Williams. "Basic social engagement is really a struggle. I'm very literal. When people talk to me and they use expressions, sometimes I don't know what they're saying."
Seinfeld was referring to Autism Spectrum Disorder, an umbrella term for a condition characterized by "persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts," according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
The reaction to Seinfeld’s statement within the autism community was as varied and nuanced as the community itself; opinions ranged from reactions of outright rage to support and gratitude.
“Think about what this does for a closeted autistic person who goes into the workplace knowing that their co-workers have just seen somebody they know, respect, and have a positive opinion of, like Jerry Seinfeld, identify in this way — it’s a valuable and important step in building a greater tolerance for autism,” Ari Ne’eman, the president of the Autistic Advocacy Network who is also living with autism, told NBC News in a statement of support.
But there was an equally loud chorus of condemnation from parents and health professionals who argued that by positioning himself as the face of autism — even inadvertently and temporarily — the funnyman diminished the seriousness of their struggle. At stake, they say: public perception, which influences taxpayer dollars to fund research, education and regional health-care services.
“We go to our congressperson to ask for more funding for Social Security benefits,” Stagliano said. “This community is going to be a drain on our social system for decades because they need help. How can we ask for funding through the Department of Disability Services in each state if the perception is that autism is not a disability?"
Some of those who found Seinfeld’s statements offensive were bothered not only by the fact that he made them, but how he went about doing it. Theresa Cianciolo, a behaviorist with the state of Connecticut who specializes in working with twins, triplets and siblings with autism, said the comedian should have avoided a public self-diagnosis. Instead, Cianciolo said, she would have preferred if he had spoken to a mental health professional before associating himself with the autistic spectrum.
“When your child gets an autism diagnosis, it’s devastating,” said Cianciolo, who has a 9-year-old autistic son. “Your life is now over. Your life is your child’s life, and you are forever bound by that diagnosis.”
During her interview with The Post, she noted that as she spoke, her son was sitting on the floor in front of her and licking his hand, a common form of repetitive stimulation among autistic children.
While admitting that she’s never been in a room with Seinfeld and that some high-functioning sufferers are able to train themselves to appear at ease in social settings, Cianciolo said that while watching the NBC interview, she was struck by elements of Seinfeld’s demeanor that seemed at odds with severe autism symptoms.
Among them: consistent eye contact; social awareness and reciprocity; his apparent ability to block out external distractions and focus on the interviewer’s questions; and, she said, his natural charm.
"A lot of college kids who take a psychology 101 class end up saying ‘I can see a part of myself in that,’” Cianciolo said. “But to hear somebody flippantly align themselves with autism and not sound devastated is hard.”
The reason it’s hard for many in the autistic community, according to Rick Ellis, a clinical psychologist specializing in Asperger's syndrome and autism, is because of the strain autism places on many families. He pointed to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders that found that mothers of autistic children experience a level of chronic stress similar to combat soldiers.
Factoring in health care, school, therapy and family services, other studies, such as this one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have placed the economic burden created by childhood autism spectrum disorders at more than $20,000 a year. To be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, Ellis said, the symptoms must “limit and impair everyday functioning.”
“It is generally a slap in the face to thousands of parents who have to deal with a child who is non-verbal or severely impacted by autism to compare those children to Bill Gates or any other famous individuals, even of those individuals display some of the minor characteristics of a major condition,” Ellis said.
Based on what the public knows, Ellis said, Seinfeld doesn't appear as if he’d be able to qualify with an insurance company as having a clinically significant disorder.
What should Seinfeld have said, in Ellis’s opinion?
“It would have been more appropriate for Seinfeld to acknowledge that he exhibits some of the characteristics but lacks a diagnosis and is not autistic.”
A representative said Seinfeld was unavailable for comment.
John Robison, an autism advocate, best-selling author and current scholar in residence at the College of William and Mary, acknowledged that while many in the autistic community dismiss self-diagnosis, he sees it as the first step in a process of self-discovery for many psychiatric conditions. But it should be followed up, he said, with a visit to a professional before public declarations are made.
"You have mothers of kids that have severe disability who can’t take care of themselves," said Robison, who is autistic. "When Seinfeld becomes the visible face of autism, they feel like their kids are rendered invisible and unimportant. That said, just because he is seemingly financially successful, we don’t know if his private life is a living hell or a dream world. Robin Williams was another famous successful comedian that everyone loved and who supposedly had it all, and yet, he's dead."
In an article she penned for Salon, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, a writer and parent of a child with severe autism, offers an altogether different solution:
“What I am proposing,” she writes, “is separating the high-functioning end of the spectrum — perhaps calling it something else — so that we can focus on the urgent and looming issue at hand.”