Musk’s candid disclosure on SNL has opened up a larger conversation about business leadership and the autism spectrum.
The diagnoses are characterized by varying degrees of impairment in language and communication skills, according to the National Institutes of Health, as well as repetitive or restrictive patterns of thought and behavior. According to the NIH, it is considered a “developmental disorder” because symptoms like avoiding eye contact or a delay in speech development tend to appear by the age of two.
“We all reveal a spectrum of behaviors and neurological learning styles. Recognizing and embracing this neurodiversity helps build strong, inventive, and supportive teams,” business psychologist Melanie Katzman told CNN Business. “Rather than viewing autism, dyslexia, ADHD, OCD and others as pathologies, the focus needs to be on how to view these predispositions as super powers,” she said.
The intersection of autism and innovation
Some think of autism as a challenging circumstance as those with ASD may struggle with social interactions. But for years, there has been talk about some of the most successful people in tech living and working with Asperger’s and benefiting from it.
“In Silicon Valley, I’ve pointed out that many of the more successful entrepreneurs seem to be suffering from a mild form of Asperger’s,” tech investor Peter Thiel said in a 2015 interview with economist Tyler Cowen. “It happens to be a plus for innovation and creating great companies,” he added.
Embracing thought diversity
In his SNL monologue, Musk nodded to a common communication behavior for people who have Asperger syndrome, saying, “I won’t make a lot of eye contact with the cast tonight.” Such factors are important to take into consideration in the workplace.
Katzman emphasized the importance of creating work conditions where people can safely share that kind of personal information and assume individual responsibility. By mentioning eye contact, Musk “took the pressure off of himself and reduced the chance that he would be ridiculed as the evening progressed,” she said.
Reducing stigma and allowing people to talk about their differences allows more diversity of thought and different approaches in the labor market, said licensed therapist and Chapman University Assistant Professor Amy Jane Griffiths. “I would say mental health and disability are still very much stigmatized in business,” she added.
But Griffiths pointed out that Asperger syndrome shouldn’t always be lumped in with the term “mental health” since it is generally considered a neuro-developmental disorder. “Perhaps the focus can shift from ‘what is wrong’ with individuals with ASD and how can ‘we fix it’ to what gifts do they offer and how can we accommodate their unique approaches into our neurotypical environments,” Griffiths said.