Stephen Hillenburg, the animator who created the hit Nickelodeon series “SpongeBob SquarePants,” has been diagnosed with ALS, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I wanted people to hear directly from me that I have been diagnosed with ALS,” Hillenburg, 55, said in a statement Tuesday. “Anyone who knows me knows that I will continue to work on ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ and my other passions for as long as I am able. My family and I are grateful for the outpouring of love and support. We ask that our sincere request for privacy be honored during this time.”

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ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, affecting the motor neurons that govern voluntary muscle control.

The children’s cable network Nickelodeon, on which “SpongeBob SquarePants” debuted in 1999, going on to become a multibillion-dollar marketing juggernaut with two spinoff movies, said in a statement, “Steve Hillenburg is a brilliant creator who brings joy to millions of fans. Our thoughts and support are with Steve and his family during this difficult time. Out of respect for their wishes for privacy, we will have no further comment.”

An Oklahoma native raised mostly in southern California, Hillenburg taught marine biology at what is now the Orange County Ocean Institute. He went on to earn a 1992 master’s degree in experimental animation at the California Institute of the Arts, and later worked on the Nickelodeon animated series “Rocko’s Modern Life.” Eventually wanting to do his own series, he pitched a sea sponge as its hero, he told The New York Times in 2001, because he wanted “a funny, nerdy, squeaky-clean square.” Hillenburg is married, with one child.

ALS affects approximately 20,000 Americans, including such prominent figures as scientist Stephen Hawking. The late Hall of Fame pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, New York Senator Jacob Javits, and jazz great Charles Mingus also suffered from the disease.