The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s assumes that the person being assessed feels entitled. Just because you like monologuing, and have trouble understanding the difference between monologuing and a conversation, doesn’t mean that you will monologue if something painful happens every time you try to do it. Just because you love flapping your hands and jumping up and down doesn’t mean you will do it, if every time you do it your parents scream at you to stop. The diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s assumes that you are seeing a person who has not received a punishment for ASD behaviors. Because when people are punished for things, they stop doing them.
– Amanda Forest Vivian, “Mad Men and My Dad”
Amanda Forest Vivian, who runs the outstanding autism-related blog I’m Somewhere Else, is a young autistic woman who adores Mad Men. She also believes that both Peggy and Pete reside somewhere on the autism spectrum, a concept that didn’t exist in the 1960s. And as a fellow autistic adult (albeit one not diagnosed until well into adulthood), I am inclined to agree with Amanda.
Back then, very narrow, specific diagnostic criteria for autism existed — no or extremely limited interaction with other people, no or extremely limited speech — and very few children met them. I certainly didn’t. But the diagnostic criteria that exists today for autism, including that for Asperger syndrome, does cover people like me and Amanda — those of us who are much less obviously autistic, but who have the social and sensory and monomania issues that separate us from our peers once they get to know us a little bit better. (And in case you’re wondering what the difference is between autism and Asperger’s, the most succinct way to explain it is this: Everyone with Asperger’s qualifies as autistic, but some autistic people don’t qualify as Asperger’s because of speech delay and/or intellectual disability. But most clinicians diagnosing clients from late childhood on will use the Asperger diagnosis.)
And very possibly, it would cover Peggy and Pete, also, especially there’s also a diagnostic designation known as PDD-NOS, or Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified, which is used for people who have some autistic traits, but not enough to make a formal diagnosis of autism or Asperger’s. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter whether they hit all the markers; they hit enough of them to make a difference, to give people like me and Amanda plenty of “hey, maybe they’re one of us” signals that the other characters don’t give off. I don’t know if they presented differently as children, had more of their autistic traits “punished” out of them per Amanda’s suggestion, but I’m not going to claim that’s impossible; I, too, learned again and again to squelch, although I don’t pass for nonautistic anywhere near as easily as they do.
Of the two of them, Pete probably hits the most markers. He has odd bits of speech that he repeats continually (“a thing like that!”), and many of his choice words or phrases (“donnybrook,” “Hell’s Bells!”) seem to belong to a man decades older than he is. He’s far more stiff and formal than his brother or his father, even when there’s no need for it. And while all the MM characters have Problems Reading People (heck, isn’t that what bedevils most fictional characters?), Pete is flummoxed about how he’s “supposed” to handle entire situations. Unlike the “normals” who surround him, he can’t even successfully fake knowing what he’s doing — and boy, can I relate. In Flight 1, the defining moment was when Pete looked pleadingly at Don and asked, “What does one do?” right after his father, with whom he was never close, perished in a plane crash. What he meant was, where is my Normal Person script? I don’t feel anything for this man. Am I really supposed to act like I do?
I even think Pete’s horrible act of sexual harassment/rape against Gudrun in Souvenir was born of a desire to do what he believed other men would approve of. I shot! I scored! I’m actually a stud! The sad part is, he’s not entirely wrong about that; Vincent Kartheiser, on the DVD commentary track for Souvenir, said he thought Pete was sexually harassing Gudrun “on behalf of all the men in New York,” and it’s very true that Pete’s behavior was sadly consistent with what plenty of “normal” men would consider studly, even today. But Pete doesn’t get away with his manipulations; people see right through him, and it backfires on him. (When he tells Trudy he doesn’t want her going away any more without him, what he’s really telling her is, I need you to be my Normal Person’s eyes.) Unlike Bert Cooper, who knew exactly what to do with the information he had about Don’s identity theft and picked the perfect moment to execute it, Pete fired his Howitzer at entirely the wrong moment, in exactly the wrong way, and for exactly the wrong reason, and got treated like a nit for Bert Cooper to pick unceremoniously off his jacket.
And very likely, he wasn’t hired as Head of Accounts at the old Sterling Coo despite his excellent job performance, because he had to work so hard at being liked — unlike Ken Cosgrove, who never betrayed losing five seconds of sleep over it. It’s exhausting, feeling like all you do is study people and trying to figure out what they want and how they want it, and in the end, people aren’t fooled that you’re actually one of them. They know something is up with you; they just don’t know what, exactly, just that you make them itch. It’s hard to watch Pete in The Grown Ups, grousing to Harry about the snub, and not think that yes, despite Pete’s protests to the contrary, maybe market research would be better suited for him than being the Schmooze King of S-C.
This is what is stunning about Pete’s winning the corporate chess game against his controlling father-in-law, Tom, in The Rejected; for once, Pete manages to successfully checkmate someone, which is why he merely shrugs when Tom calls him a “son of a bitch.” Yeah. I did it. I busted my ass for 30 years to learn how to do this shit. And now they love me. A thing like that.
I do think that in the case of both Pete and Peggy, their neurological wiring gives them the ability to perceive things the more “typical” people around them don’t notice, or at least won’t admit to noticing. That’s the other side of being autistic; freed from the need to not notice things that will further separate you from your peers and bosses (because you already know deep down you don’t fit in anyway), you can draw lines between points that they wouldn’t dare to. Of course Pete would think, as he demonstrated in The Fog, Black people have money! They buy clothes and shoes and televisions and cars! Their money is as good as anyone else’s! Why aren’t we advertising to them? That his efforts to put this knowledge into practice turned into embarrassing gaffes — like cornering poor Hollis in the elevator about his choice of television sets, or springing his “Negro market” plan on Admiral without running it past Roger and Bert first — doesn’t make him any less prescient. All he needs to do is get a handle on his impulsivity and learn the chess game inside and out before he sits down behind the board. And in The Rejected, he shows that he’s learning how to do exactly that.
Next week: Peggy, and Peggy and Pete together.