The Asperger’s Defense

I read Coble’s post today and then I took the dog for a walk and her post was all I thought about on the whole walk.  I couldn’t shake that there was something important I could almost see. And then it dawned on me.

Throughout this whole fiasco, you never see anyone arguing that Valentine might have undisclosed Asperger’s Syndrome as a way of calling for people to have more compassion for her.

Now let me be up front that I’m trying to thread a specific needle here. I don’t actually think it matters if anyone involved has Asperger’s. I especially don’t think that it’s relevant to try to decide if Valentine might have it in order to argue that she was just misinterpreting matters. And most of all, dude’s behavior was completely inappropriate, no matter what, and he knew it.

What I want to argue is that we are trained, constantly, to do all kinds of emotional work for people and who those people are tells us a lot about our priorities in a culture.

The undisputed facts are that Russo Walling harassed Valentine. He doesn’t deny this. And so here we are in a situation where one person has done another person wrong and who is the one who garners the excuses and compassion? The armchair diagnoses of Asperger’s–which leads to the calls for compassion for him because of his disability, which has been diagnosed not by a doctor, but as a way of excusing his behavior?

Here we are, as a whole community, teaching that, when someone we respect, who has contributed to the community, does something wrong and admits it, it is our job to protect him as much as possible and to justify why, though his actions might be wrong, maybe they weren’t that bad.

Let me be clear, I think it’s problematic (to put it mildly) to speculate on whether he has Asperger’s. And I think it doesn’t matter if Valentine has.

But I want you to consider this. Why, when there are issues of harassment, do we reach for Asperger’s as a way of excusing harassers or potential harassers instead of pointing out to harassers and potential harassers and their defenders that the people they pick on may have added challenges that aren’t readily apparent? No one should have to face harassment. But why should someone with Asperger’s, who is just trying to enjoy him or herself at a convention and share his or her love for something with other huge fans, who maybe has to do real work to monitor to make sure he or she doesn’t get way overstimulated and thus ruin his or her time there, have to have the added worry in the back of his or her mind that he or she–in the midst of their own community–be the victim of sexual harassment?

Why is Asperger’s always trotted out as an armchair diagnosis of people who clearly and admittedly know better and never as an actual factor for some folks attending cons which might make them more vulnerable to harassment?

People with Asperger’s are far, far more likely to be the victims of harassment than they are to be harassers. They are far more likely to have their condition used against them rather than have it used as an excuse for their behavior–“Oh, he didn’t mean anything by it. You’re just not good at picking up on social cues,” or whatever bullshit people might use to justify why someone with Asperger’s is “misinterpreting” harassment.

Why are we constantly taught to flail around for any reason to have compassion for the perpetrator of whatever bullshit than to have compassion for his victims?


Edited to add: I fucked up dude’s name, which caused Johne Cook to come up with the best idea for a movie EVER in the comments.

18 thoughts on “The Asperger’s Defense

  1. B, over the past couple of years the geeky/sciency community has seen any number of apologists for creepy behavior use one or another variety of “but I’m socially awkward!” to condone bad behavior towards women and relieve men of responsibility for shaping up. It seems to me to be a variant on Nice-Guy(tm)-ism, but one more tolerant of rape culture than Nice Guys(tm) usually have been in the past.

    The good news is that I think it’s a measure of how much this approach is being condemned that the ante is now being upped — now being clueless isn’t a big enough excuse, and an actual diagnosable syndrome has to be suggested.

  2. Jeff Rosso was the name of the the guidance counselor on _Freaks and Geeks_, which may be where you got the name Russo. For some reason I loved that character.

  3. I used the name “russo” because I initially was trying to keep real names out of it then I realised that real names were all over the place so when I went back hours later I used Valentine’s real name. Sorry about the confusion.

  4. Yes. People with *real*, diagnosed Asperger’s are more likely to be victims than perpetrators. I too am tired of it (and “sexual addiction,” but that’s a whole other story) being cited as an excuse for sundry misbehavior.

    “He/she has an ILLNESS. You should FEEL SORRY FOR him/her, not draw attention to the bad shit he/she just did!”

    Also, as ever, nm is spot-on.

  5. Coble, yes, but I knew you were making a joke and it still got stuck in my head. It was totally my bad.

    nm, I think you’re exactly right. I just hate that, in doing so, it reinforces this idea that people with Asperger’s are some kind of special danger to others.

    txmere, I could get completely sidetracked by this discussion but I agree. “Sexual addiction” is an overly-broad term that lets jackasses shield themselves behind people with terrible, self-harming compulsions. Some people want to sleep with whomever they can without having to be held responsible for the harm it can cause and other people masturbate until they bleed because they have OCD that manifests in that way. They’re just not the same thing.

  6. Yes, and… except I have no “and”. You pretty much said it all. Oh wait…I do have an And. That is–how great all this must be for actual diagnosed Asperger’s-havers. Not only do they have to contend with that particular hurdle, but now they also get to see that hurdle used as a a label for some really egregious behaviour. It makes it sound like Asperger’s has some sort of “may be a creepy rapist because s/he can’t control themselves” side-effect.

  7. I agree. And, sadly, because people with Asperger’s have genuine problems it’s not all that appropriate to tell them that they need to do some reaction/policing of the people using their name to get away with things. Because both recognizing the issues and speaking up to deal with it are behaviors they have problems with. But I do think it’s telling that simply being a nerd is no longer seen as an excuse.

  8. Rachel, that is brilliant.

    nm, especially because it’s not even like the perpetrators are claiming to have Asperger’s. It’s not like you can say “Oh, John Doe here claims to have Asperger’s when he’s just an entitled ass” or even “John Doe here is an entitled ass. The fact that he has Asperger’s, too, doesn’t negate that.” Other people are claiming that diagnosis for him in order to excuse his behavior.

    That’s a harder thing to get at. I think you’re right that it’s, one the one hand, a step up. But it’s also trading on some really ablist tropes and turning all of the ways people with Asperger’s are fucked over into almost superpowers that let them prey on others. It’s really insidious. “You have trouble reading social cues, therefore I will do this hugely inappropriate line-crossing and then claim it was just a misunderstanding” is ignored for “You have trouble reading social cues, thus you are a harasser, but we forgive you, because we’re so generous.”

  9. Sigh. Once upon a time, my oldest child was 20-years-old and he liked to play D&D at a local gaming/comic book shop. He LOVED going and doing something where he understood the rules. One woman in the group told the shop owner that my son laughed inappropriately and acted weird. Neither the GM, nor the woman, nor the store owner ever said “cut it out” to my son. They just gritted their teeth and hated him.

    Have you ever played D&D? Those of us who have, know that we are socially awkward and quirky. How awful did my son have to be that the other people couldn’t tolerate him? We’ll never really know, because the store owner called ME and asked me to tell my adult son that they didn’t want him there any more.

    Just maybe, we should treat all human beings with respect and tolerance. If someone bugs you, say it to them instead of accumulating hate. When they continue, don’t excuse it. Be honest and direct about the offensive behaviors and the consequences for not finding more appropriate ways to express themselves.

    NT people are much bigger jerks than any of the Aspies that are in my life. Aspies are honest, trusting and funny. They constantly feel like they are breaking the rules and desperately try to conform. If they labeled themselves hipsters or artists, people would adore their quirks.

  10. Cathy, that’s terrible. But it goes exactly to my point–for some reason, it’s okay to hate and shun your son, who actually has Asperger’s, instead of trying to be understanding and working with him so that he can continue to enjoy playing D&D

    But this guy? Who understands and acknowledges that what he did was predatory and wrong? Folks are so ready to give him the diagnosis and the kindness and understanding people who actually have Asperger’s have difficulty finding. I find that very frustrating.

  11. What @txmere said, and I’ll go further and add that I’m over people using “asperger’s” when what the person actually *suffers* is “asshole syndrome”

  12. Thank you for writing this. There does indeed seem to be very little consideration for any condition affecting the victim — for example, there are many people for whom being grabbed from behind will produce a full-blown panic attack. Somehow it is only behaviours that people are being expected to tolerate, not boundaries.

  13. Cathy, speaking from experience, I know it’s hell to be 20 years old with Asperger’s and I feel for your frustration for your son.

    But the good news is at least they gave some concrete feedback, which when you’re young with Asperger’s is pure gold. Laughing inappropriately is even a relatively easy thing to tackle, because all you have to do while learning a new group is wait to see what everybody else laughs at until you’ve been there long enough to know what’s okay.

    The crucial thing is that nobody owes you an explanation as to why they don’t want to hang out with you. It’s easy to say people should just speak directly about behavior that bothers them when you’re the one who would benefit from that, but it looks really different when you’re the one who is confused and frightened by a situation and asking someone else to step in is the best you can do. As you said, gamers are often socially awkward themselves, often have Asperger’s, so coaching your son may have simply been beyond what that group or those individuals could manage.

    Which gets back to Aunt B’s point. Nobody has to cut you social slack for having Asperger’s, not once you’re an adult anyway. People mostly won’t care one way or the other — they care about your behavior, not your neurological status. If you’re pleasant to be around or unpleasant to be around, nobody cares if you’re neurotypical or what, only about the effects. There are plenty of people with Asperger’s who are quirky but pleasant, so most people really don’t care about the quirks.

    I’ve also run across some of the few who give Asperger’s a bad name (just to be clear, I’m in no way talking about Cathy’s son here) — the entitled Nice Guys (TM) who declare they don’t have to clean up their act because they caaaaaaaaaaaaaaan’t (insert epic whine here). Uh, yeah you can. The rest of us manage. If you’re into adulthood and you’re not learning how to not make others miserable, it’s not Asperger’s that’s the problem, it’s that you’re an asshole. They’re not mutually exclusive conditions.

  14. I got sexually harassed/assaulted by a guy on the Autism scale. He knew what he was doing. He waited till the teacher left the room and master bated to me, in front of me. The teacher said “the autism” did it, but he was a grown ass man who simply didn’t know or care about making women feel comfortable and safe!!!

  15. Most autistic or otherwise non neuro typical people (including myself) care about how they come off, if those around them are comfortable and at least a good simulation of friendship and emotional understanding and reading the vibe/social cues of the room and being kind to everyone! The autistic guy was one very very very rare (dear God I hope) exception or noisy minority!

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