How the Mark Zuckerberg backlash is for people who’re #ActuallyAutistic

As a Facebook user I’m furious at Mark Zuckerberg. As an autism mom, I’m furious at the people mocking him.

Alexandra Samuel April 14, 2018

Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

There are lots of angry things I’d like to say to Mark Zuckerberg, like:

What makes him think that starting a website in his dorm room qualifies him to lead the most influential communications medium in the world?

How can he claim he’s connecting people when he’s selling ads based on their personal data that foster manipulation, not open conversation?

How could he betray his platform’s users—betray his country—with misleading policies and even more misleading Congressional testimony?

But there’s one trending social media conversation I won’t join in with—making fun of the Facebook founder’s speech patterns and socially awkward demeanor during his Congressional appearance. Here’s a taster of the comments flying on Twitter:

“im going to mark zuckerberg’s home to validate him as a robotic reptilian.”

“Something is not right about #Zuckerberg – his facial expressions, movements, speech, the way he drinks water. He appears void of emotion…almost robotic – it’s creepy.”

“Zuckerberg gives autistic kids, robots and shape-shifting lizards a bad name.”

Even mainstream media is jumping on the bandwagon: The Huffington Post ran a story comparing Zuckerberg to Lt. Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

My kid has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and these jokes and analogies disturb me. They play to a long-held stereotype: that of the affect-less, unemotional computer geek—make that the autistic computer geek. And the idea that people with autism are robotic and emotionless is a false understanding that just won’t die.

A number of #actuallyautistic people have pointed out on social media that referring to Zuckerberg as robotic plays to this disparaging and able-ist view of autism, even when the comments aren’t explicitly describing Zuckerberg as autistic.

Autistic British satirist John Schafthauer (@hourlyterrier) tweeted, “Zuckerberg might not be autistic, but people seem to be coincidentally pulling out every derogatory trope for describing autistic people to talk about him.”

“[A]s an autistic person, i do not find “Zuckerberg acts like a robot/alien” jokes funny. The man is an absolute douchebag, and yet the default way to insult him is by pointing out his social awkwardness,” tweeted @Kelesti_.

“I know Mark Zuckerberg is not exactly a good person & doesn’t need defending, BUT as an autistic person it makes me (and no doubt others who struggle with this) uncomfortable to make fun of someone for how they present emotions or lack of,” tweeted John-James.

The worst tweets we’re seeing are those that flat-out treat autism as a slur:

“Bring Zuckerberg back every day, he clearly hates it, so keep grilling his registered on the autistic spectrum ass,” John Geyer tweeted.

My worst fear as the parent of an autistic kid is that my son will be judged for his quirks rather than his talents; that potential employers or friends will write him off as emotionally inaccessible, rather than taking just the little bit of extra time and effort required to discover how deeply empathetic, funny and kind-hearted he is. Seeing the Twitter pile-on of robot jokes stokes my anxiety that outdated stereotypes and social conformity will limit my son’s future.

And many of the criticisms of the Zuckerberg-as-robot meme are just as painful as the jokes themselves. Tweets and comments about how we should cut Zuckerberg a break because he’s “obviously autistic” ignore the complex and varied presentations of autism. By all means, stop to reflect on whether someone may be neuro-atypical before you judge their presentation, but keep your armchair diagnoses to yourself. If it were possible to diagnose autism based on ten minutes of watching TV, it wouldn’t take hours or even years of assessment by medical professionals for kids with ASD to get a diagnosis.

Since my son’s diagnosis at age nine, I’ve felt incredibly fortunate to discover a vibrant online community of autistic people whose articulate posts about their life experiences have informed my parenting and therapeutic choices and my hopes for our son’s future.

Ironically, my interactions with these individuals mostly take place on Facebook, which is uniquely suited to supporting sustained, emotionally intimate conversations about complicated issues with the depth they require. That’s why I’ve felt committed to staying on the platform. And it’s also why I’m so angry that the platform constantly betrays its users’ privacy and subjects us to targeted ad manipulation.

I’m not letting Zuckerberg off the hook for his role in that betrayal. Seeing him called before Congress, and forced to answer for his sins—even if most of his answers appeared to be half-truths—was something I delighted in. All Facebook users should. But the many, many faults of Facebook and its founder should not be attributed to autism, either implicitly or explicitly. At this moment when our faith in connection has been shattered, let’s not turn justifiable fury at privacy abuses into a totally unjustified slam on an entire community.


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