50 Inspiring Autistic People of 2011: Celebrities
The idea of an autistic celebrity would once have been a joke. Each of these individuals has helped to alter that perception forever by gaining the world's attention and letting their audience know that autism is part of what makes them special.
Dr. Temple Grandin does rhythmic drumming.
There are few people in the world's history who have changed it for the better more than Dr. Grandin. The subject of an HBO biography that is teaching people all over the world that autistic people are fully human, her most significant accomplishments are in the area of livestock handling, where she has revolutionized the industry in ways that have both increased productivity and reduced the suffering of animals. Even Leslie Stahl loves her. I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't.
James Durbin performs "Maybe I'm Amazed" on American Idol
By being one of the most popular performers on the most recent season of American Idol, James Durbin proved that people with Asperger's syndrome can be talented, sexy, and cool. He just released his first album.
Ari Ne'eman speaks in London
Ari is the president and co-founder of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and was appointed by President Obama to the National Council of Disability, making him the first openly autistic person to ever serve on it. He just turned 23. I had the chance to both listen to Ari speak and to talk with him this year and, although we do not always agree, there is no one I respect more.
John Elder Robison introduces Be Different.
John Elder Robison is the author of Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian, which was the best book about autism I read in 2011. He is the only autistic person to serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of Autism Speaks, and an industrious and compassionate supporter of other autistic people.
Alex Plank interviews Laurent Mottron at IMFAR.
Alex is the founder of Wrong Planet, one of the largest and most important communities for people with Asperger's syndrome and autism. He is also the producer of Autism Talk TV, which is a media effort supported by Autism Speaks.
Michael John Carley explains the political history of autism in the United States.
Michael John Carley is the executive director of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership. The speech above is one of the best explanations of autism history and politics I have ever heard.
Zev is undone by the Samba.
Zev Glassenberg and his partner Justin Kanew were so popular on the CBS series The Amazing Race that they were brought back for a second season. I got to interview Zev and Justin at AASCEND's Success on the Spectrum conference this year. Zev is funnier and cuter in real life than on TV-- he needs his own show!
Dan Harmon talks about race on his show Community.
The producer of NBC's Community is not the first person people think of as autism celebrity. But he told Wired's Brian Raftery that he is indeed on the spectrum and it does both help and hurt his work:
Most Community fans assume Abed has Asperger’s syndrome. Many of the signs are there: His inability to pick up on others’ feelings, his tendency to relate more to film and TV than to actual people, his obsessive analyzing and categorizing of events. From the beginning, Harmon didn’t want to specify the character’s pathology, but out of curiosity he eventually started looking into Asperger’s.
“So, in a very naive way—and I’ve never told anybody this before—I started researching the disorder,” Harmon says. “I started looking up these symptoms, just to know what they are. And the more I looked them up, the more familiar they started to seem. Then I started taking these Internet tests.” The tests came up positive.
When he began writing Community, Harmon thought the character he related to most was Winger, who had “all the defense mechanisms that I acquired,” Harmon says. But the more online tests for Asperger’s he took, the more he began to wonder if he was just as similar to Abed. It had never occurred to him before, he says, because he has always been so oversensitive.
Eventually, Harmon met with a doctor and came to understand that symptoms of the disorder lie on a spectrum, and that in fact there is a place on it for people with inappropriate emotional reactions and deep empathy. Harmon now sees that he may fit somewhere on that spectrum, though figuring out exactly where could take years.
When he created a TV character who relates to the world through television, Harmon didn’t realize that he was, in a sense, inserting himself into his show. Ever since he recognized this, writing in Abed’s voice has gotten much easier; all Harmon has to do, he says, is “open up my memory.” And he has learned to understand himself a bit better, including why—like Abed—he sometimes unintentionally hurts those around him.