We cannot let Don Burke weaponise autism. Stereotypes hurt
Towards the end of his interview with A Current Affairon Monday night<Italic>, </Italic> disgraced host of Burke’s Backyard Don Burke dropped an unexpected bombshell. He told the interviewer, Tracey Grimshaw, that he is “an Asperger’s person” who has difficulty looking people in the eye and reading body language. He admitted that he has not been diagnosed by a medical professional: he simply “worked it out”. He then referred to Asperger’s as a “terrible failing”.
The morning after, my older brother Peter, who has Asperger syndrome, quietly shared a link to an Asperger’s advocacy website that states facts and dispels common myths about the syndrome. I know that sharing this link to his Facebook followers was a silent protest against Burke’s erroneous claim that having Asperger’s is an acceptable excuse for predatory behaviour. Burke’s claim is not only laughably uninformed, but it is extremely dangerous for the autism community.
With unscrupulous anti-vaxxers looking to latch on to any bad press about autism spectrum disorders, it is clear that autism cannot afford to be misunderstood any longer. Burke has painted a target on the back of the Asperger’s community to soften the backlash against him. We cannot allow this man to perpetuate the belief that Asperger’s is a genetic failing.
Social media has rightly erupted with outrage at his attempt to shield himself from culpability. The founding director and CEO of Autism Awareness Australia, Nicole Rogerson, said she was furious, that his comments are “incredibly hurtful to those people on the autism spectrum and their families”. Burke has dragged the Asperger’s community into the whole spectacular trash fire of victim-blaming and sexual harassment pardoning.
This is not Asperger’s but a calculated attempt at deflection. Playing the autism card may as well have been a direct lift from the Weinstein playbook: man uses his power to intimidate, harass and belittle others. Man then gets caught after years of abusing his power. Man then leans on an “affliction” to explain said behaviour. It’s a dance as old as time.
Harvey Weinstein’s representatives attempted to arouse sympathy for a powerful man who was apparently “fighting demons” and seeking sex addiction therapy. Kevin Spacey attempted to deflect scrutiny by coming out as soon as allegations emerged that he molested an underage male actor in the 1980s. Spacey’s coming out did no favours for the gay community, a group that already contends with the abhorrent notion that gay people are sexual deviants with a flair for pedophilia.
Now, representatives from autism spectrum communities have to remind the public that having the condition does not lead to a pattern of predatory behaviour, bullying tendencies or a lack of regard for language used.
Asperger syndrome affects one in 100 people in Australia and is essentially high-functioning autism. Most people are diagnosed during childhood through standardised testing by specialists, however it is increasingly common for people to be tested in adulthood (my brother was diagnosed at 25). Common characteristics include low social interaction functioning, an inability to pick up on social cues, slower developmental rates and, yes, a decreased ability to make eye contact with people.
People with Asperger’s often have difficulty identifying emotions, but these traits have been amplified and become synonymous with having no feelings at all. Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan recently demonstrated a shocking ignorance about autism by stating that the banking sector holds an “almost autistic disregard” to the law. There is a damaging, ableist stereotype circulating popular culture that all people with autism lack empathy, which is untrue.
Popular culture has clung to these character traits and perpetuated the idea that people with autism spectrum disorders have received a free pass to say what they want, when they want. Larry David has done this in the latest season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which his romantic interest puts her 10-year-old son’s rude, obnoxious behaviours down to having the neurological disorder without an official diagnosis. These stereotypes are hurtful and untrue but continue to be played for laughs.
Burke has certainly shown evidence that he has a “no filter” approach at times. The allegations against Burke show that he has no qualms about making women feel uncomfortable in a calculated manner. Burke’s lack of filter is not a sign of Asperger’s but a wanton disregard for the feelings of others.
Burke has arrogantly asserted that he can self-diagnose himself. I highly doubt he is using any standardised metric to place himself on the autism spectrum. He is simply using a flimsy understanding of a complex neurological disorder to explain his inappropriate behaviour.
Whether or not he is actually on the spectrum does not matter. He has delivered a gut-punch to an already marginalised group, with haunting stereotypes that need extinguishing.
As a person with Asperger’s, my brother has certainly had difficulties that include picking up on social cues and identifying emotions in others. However, he is also confident, cheerful man who loves music, travel and pizza. He also happens to hold an endless ability to empathise with others. He is one of my favourite people.
In the words of Nicole Rogerson, having autism does not make one “more or less likely to be a sexual predator, anymore than having red hair makes you more likely.” We cannot let Burke weaponise autistic spectrum disorder. Let the record show this before more people get hurt.
‘Don Burke’s lack of filter is not a sign of Asperger’s but a wanton disregard for the feelings of others.’ Photograph: Channel Nine, A Current Affair