Part 69: The Cult of Celebrity Autism

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. Aren’t celebrities odd? We’re going to talk about that today, and how it relates to autism. But first, let’s practice our neurotypical small talk, and chat about the weather! We’ve had some cold and nasty winter weather, recently, haven’t we? It’s a tricky time of year, being the season for colds and flu, and then we’ve still got covid in the mix. I remember from my days in retail management how the sales of vitamin C supplements and citrus fruits go up in winter. People want to guard against respiratory illness, and a good strong dose of vitamin C is bound to help. Even such a scientific luminary as Nobel prize winner in chemistry, Linus Pauling, swore by Vitamin C. Erm… some of you might be detecting a whiff of bovine faeces, right now. And you’d be right. The great Linus Pauling started advocating for megadoses of vitamins in the late 1960s, and so influential was he as a superstar celebrity of science, that his ideas were taken up by an impressionable public eager to hear how vitamin C could be used to ward off anything from the common cold to cancer. And it was, of course, nonsense. Even though Pauling’s claims have been repeatedly refuted over decades, people still go out in their millions and buy vitamin C tablets. It’s a massive worldwide business. Why were people so eager to believe Pauling’s claims initially? Well, it helped that he was a scientist, but he kind of stepped outside his field of expertise with the vitamin claims. But that sidestep didn’t seem to matter to the public. Pauling was famous, a celebrity, and his high profile gave him the air of legitimacy in everything he did. This is one of the most famous historical examples of the public assuming that because a person has expertise in one area, they can be trusted to have expertise in other areas. To be fair, it was a small sidestep for Pauling. But we should never underestimate the gullibility of the public.

Mass media and the rise of the cult of celebrity has given us an era in which the public will buy a particular brand of fragrance because they saw a celebrity spraying it on, or even claiming it as their own by giving their name to the brand. Seriously, I doubt David Beckham has much expertise in the chemical arts of creating fragrances. But there is no getting away from the power of celebrity endorsement. It just works. Even those of us who are aware of the celebrity effect, and who consciously resist it, are likely to be affected in a subtle way: celebrities get exposure, and their fame makes them memorable. If I decide I need a new pair of trainers, will the brand that comes to mind be the start-up with brilliant new sole technology, or the famous old brand that has been relentlessly pushed by a celebrity pop star in TV adverts for the past month? It’s the availability bias that will determine what comes to mind. So, even when we don’t want it to happen, we’re likely to have the course of our thoughts nudged in a certain direction by celebrity endorsements. This creates a problem that is not limited to product advertising…

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Whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow advising women to steam clean their vaginas (which can lead to burns and yeast infections), or Katy Perry claiming her rose quartz crystals help her attract men, there are always famous people lending their support to completely useless or even harmful ideas and products. Some of it might be malicious money-grabbing, some of it might be well-intentioned, but the net effect is the same: people believe this crap because they see celebrity as authority. And of course, the more people who believe, the more apparent legitimacy the claims acquire. So, what’s the link with autism? Well. I want to preface this a little further by drawing an analogy between two subjects very close to my heart: autism, and writing…

It’s difficult for a writer to get spotted and picked up by a major publisher or agent. In fact, it’s a lottery. History is littered with great writers who only achieved recognition posthumously, having been overlooked or discarded by the publishers of their day. Meanwhile, less talented writers get published but their books go straight to remainder. The books that are selling in high numbers currently, for the most part, are written either by established writers who made it in the days before the cult of celebrity really took hold, or by – you guessed it – celebrity authors. Go into a well-known bookshop, and see how much shelf space is given to authors who did not make their names as writers: chefs, sports stars, glamour models, musicians, politicians, and so on. These books sell in huge numbers, because of the power of their celebrity brands.

In a similar way, there are countless autistic people striving to make their point in online spaces, who are largely ignored by anyone outside the autistic community. Meanwhile, newly-diagnosed autistic celebrities, or celebrity parents of autistic children, are hitting the headlines, or featuring in TV shows, talking about their autistic lives, or their experience of autism. And this should be a good thing, right? Surely, autism awareness is a prerequisite of autism acceptance? Right? Well, not if the type of public exposure these celebrities are pushing ends up giving the autistic community the equivalent of burned genitals and a yeast infection…

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Let’s start with Chris Packham. The celebrity naturalist is a household name in the UK. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy, and he is autistic. His 2017 documentary, Aspergers and Me, was interesting and at times moving. He appears to be trying to do his bit for autism awareness. But should we listen to and trust him? It is a mantra of the autistic community that if you want to know about autism, you should speak to autistic people, so Packham qualifies. But does his autism automatically mean he will deliver an accurate message about autism? Or will he be the equivalent of Linus Pauling, using one area of “expertise” (being autistic) to tell the world a message about autism that is outside his field (how autism should be perceived by non-autistic society) When I tell people that if they want to know about autism, they should speak to autistic people, I try to remember to add this qualifier: don’t just speak to one autistic person, speak to a lot of us. We don’t always agree with each other, so get the widest possible sample of autistic views to get a true picture of what autism really is. The wider autistic community has great consensus about who and what we are, and how we should be able to exist. But does Packham engage with this ethos? Not so much. Packham is not only autistic; he is an ambassador for the National Autistic Society (NAS), an organisation about which I have mixed feelings. The NAS is known to back so-called therapies for autism, such as ABA, which are anathema to the autistic community. The NAS also has the Dark Lord of Autism “Research”, Simon Baron-Cohen, on its roster as Vice President. I’ve written often on this website about the problematic Baron-Cohen and the danger he presents to the autistic community, so I’m not going to reiterate those thoughts again right now (you can read more here, here and here). But get this: Simon Baron-Cohen, as well as being an influential presence with the NAS, is also the mastermind behind the horrific Spectrum 10k project, which is almost universally detested by autistic people (another subject already covered at length on this website) Now, guess who supports the Spectrum 10k project? If you said Chris Packham, give yourself a round of applause. It’s all a bit incestuous, isn’t it? Baron-Cohen, Packham, the NAS, all in bed together. Let’s take it a step further. As discussed in last week’s blog, Simon Baron-Cohen has also got his tentacles around celebrity family, the McGuinnesses, with TV personality Paddy the concerned father of autistic children, and husband of newly-diagnosed former model, Christine. Paddy and Christine have openly backed and taken part in the Spectrum 10k project. Meanwhile, the NAS President is celebrity actor, cake-baker, and (sigh) celebrity novelist Jane Asher. Presumably, she gets her autism expertise, such as it is, from the hated Darth Baron-Cohen. But wait, what this? Asher is also a vice president of Autistica, the UK arm of Autism Speaks; an organisation that could not be more detested by autistic people, due to its abhorrent approach to autism. Baron-Cohen’s worldwide reputation underpins his influence on people like Packham, Asher, and the McGuinness family. While renowned publicly for his work in the field of autism, Baron-Cohen is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, perpetuating the view of autistic people as broken, sub-human, incapable of emotion or empathy as he sits at the centre of his web, snaring celebrities, his influence radiating inexorably outward.

Chris Packham has made a new documentary about autism; a two-parter to be shown soon on the BBC. It will be called, Inside The Autistic Mind. I guess we will see how much of an influence we can detect from Baron-Cohen when it airs. If, as I justifiably feared about the McGuinness documentary, the outcome of the new Packham documentary is to feed false ideas and misinformation about autism to the public, what is the net effect on the autistic community likely to be?

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Sometimes, diverse influences with separate agendas combine to bring about unfortunate results. The media has discovered that autism is big news. Autism sells newspapers, gets hits on websites, and gets viewers on TV. Journalists are all about filling column inches, and getting hits. That’s why you’re seeing articles and news reports and documentaries about autism all over the place. Separate to this, you have the likes of Baron-Cohen and the NAS recruiting celebrities and exploiting the appeal to celebrity we’ve already looked at. Celebrity endorsement gives the NAS and Baron-Cohen the public legitimacy they crave. At the same time, we have incidents of autistic people being bullied, assaulted, sacked from jobs, taking their own lives from sheer desperation and depression, living in poverty, and suffering daily discrimination in education, work, and social spaces. These events get reported (sometimes) in the media, alongside reports of what Christine McGuinness doesn’t like to wear because of her autism. Throw into the mix how often, when the news reports about a killer or terrorist, reports contain speculation that the perpetrator was autistic. This damaging speculation is fuelled by irresponsible research papers such as the infamous, Neurodevelopmental and psychosocial risk factors in serial killers and mass murderers, by Allely, Minnis, Thompson, et al. What’s happening here is a two-tier portrayal of autism in the media. When “ordinary” autistic people are mentioned in the media, it is often with negative connotations and speculations about violence and otherness. But when the celebrity people with autism are reported on, it’s all bittersweet, heartfelt, and most of all trendy. The implication is that ordinary autistic people should be treated with caution, but the celebrity strain of autism is safe, thank god! It feeds into the misleading and horribly incorrect misconception that the spectrum is a continuum from mild (celebrity) autism, to the severe (plebian) autism with all its risks of violent outbursts and oh-so embarrassing hand flapping and headbanging.

The reporting of the risk of violence from autistic people has been going on for years.

What would anyone have to gain from promoting this two-tier public perception of autism, though? The sad and obvious answer is encapsulated in the old adage, follow the money. The journalism side, at least, is blindingly obvious: Autism gets hits, and celebrity news gets hits, and that makes money. For someone like Simon Baron-Cohen, or any person or organisation (Autism Speaks, for example) whose reputation and income depend on autism, it’s slightly different. They know that public fear of autism (the “severe” type) means they will always be in demand for their “therapies” and “expert opinions”. And celebrity endorsement gives them the perception of legitimacy. It’s the old carrot and stick principle: If you’re violent, you’re probably autistic, the false claim goes, and so if you’re autistic, you’re probably violent and dangerous. But if you’re a celebrity with autism, your autism is positive and life-affirming. This steers public perception of autism right where Simon Baron-Cohen wants it; the Cult of Celebrity Autism.

Ah, good old mild celebrity autism to make us feel better about lovely Simon.

I should point out here that I’m not blaming the celebrities themselves for this state of affairs, although some of them – those who have known for a long time they are autistic – really should know better, and should engage more with the autistic community. It’s the puppet masters like Baron-Cohen and Autism Speaks I’m aiming at, here. They are recruiting, and shaping the opinions of, these celebrities in a process that is reminiscent of targeted radicalisation. And then they deploy the celebrities as footsoldiers in autism’s endless war of ideas. Unfortunately, the casualties in this war are the autistic people themselves. Will the public listen to us, the ordinary actually autistic people living real autistic lives? Not if Simon Baron-Cohen and his cult of celebrity autism have their way.

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.


Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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