What is Asperger’s Syndrome, and why have some people stopped using the term?

Elon Musk says he is first person with Asperger's to host SNL

Asperger’s Syndrome trended online on Tuesday, as video footage emerged of a Twitter executive mocking businessman Elon Musk – who himself has the neurological condition – and his plans to buy the company.

The conservative activist group Project Veritas, regularly criticised for its poor grasp of journalistic ethics and questionable reporting practices, released a video showing Alex Martinez taking aim at the Tesla founder.

Mr Martinez, credited as the lead client partner at Twitter, said: “He has Asperger’s … so he’s special.

“You’re literally special needs. So I can’t even take what you’re saying seriously.”

Musk later hit back at Mr Martinez on Twitter –ironically – and wrote: “Twitter exec trashing free speech and mocking people with Asperger’s…”

But what is Asperger’s Syndrome?

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Allow us to explain. Asperger’s Syndrome is an autism spectrum condition, with the National Autistic Society (NAS) saying “some people with Asperger syndrome say the world feels overwhelming and this can cause them considerable anxiety”.

In a page on their website, they write: “Understanding and relating to other people, and taking part in everyday family, school, work and social life, can be harder. Other people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other, yet can also struggle to build rapport with people with Asperger syndrome.

“People with Asperger syndrome may wonder why they are 'different' and feel their social differences mean people don’t understand them.”

The charity says there are around 700,000 autistic people in the UK, and that includes those with a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.

But autistic people and medical professionals are moving away from that term…

And for good reason, too, as although the term was – according to NAS – introduced by by British psychiatrist Lorna Wing in the 80s, its name is taken from one Austrian paediatrician known as Hans Asperger and a study he carried out on “autistic psychopaths” during the Second World War.

He was, to put it simply, affiliated with the Nazis.

A 2018 study published in Molecular Autism, which drew upon multiple publications and archives, found Asperger “managed to accommodate himself to the Nazi regime and was rewarded for his affirmations of loyalty with career opportunities”.

It reads: “Asperger’s involvement in the selection of victims for the child ‘euthanasia’ programme includes an episode when, in 1942, he was part of a commission tasked with the screening of more than 200 residents of a home for children with mental disabilities in Gugging near Vienna.

“The commission’s mandate was to categorise the children according to their intellectual abilities and prognoses and to define a residual group of ‘uneducable’ children who should be killed.

“Thirty-five children were placed in this group and later died at the ‘euthanasia’ facility. While Asperger was not directly responsible for their deaths, this episode nevertheless shows to what extent he cooperated with the regime’s murderous policies.”

It is now more likely that an autistic person will receive the diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) instead.

Some people however, like Musk, still use Asperger’s

The SpaceX owner revealed he has Asperger’s Syndrome during an opening monologue on Saturday Night Live in May last year.

He told the audience and viewers at home: “I don’t always have a lot of intonation or variation in how I speak, which I’m told makes for great comedy.

“I’m actually making history tonight as the first person with Asperger’s to host SNL – or at least the first to admit it.

“So I won’t make a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight, but don’t worry, I’m pretty good at running ‘human’ in emulation mode.”

Musk had mentioned autism before back in November 2019, when he claimed his Neuralink brain chip would be able to “solve” the condition – prompting an outcry from autistic people.

Musk told the Artificial Intelligence podcast: "So Neuralink, I think at first, will solve a lot of brain-related diseases.

“So it could be anything from, like, autism, schizophrenia, memory loss — like, everyone experiences memory loss at certain points in age. Parents can't remember their kids' names and that kind of thing."

In a piece for The Independent last year, autistic writer Florence Grant said “many autistic people don’t want a cure”.

“Instead, they want to be accepted and celebrated just as they are. With Elon Musk’s influence, he could use his platform to champion this message and uplift other autistic voices,” she said.

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