We can­not let Don Burke weaponise autism. Stereo­types hurt

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Rachael Crouch

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.