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As the mother of an Asperger child

I want to talk around the edges of the events at Readercon. I've never attended; I've only -- until now -- heard good to great things about it.

But in the wake of the events that occurred there, I've seen a few comments that crop up from time to time - always as an excuse or a defense of harassment: It's Aspie behaviour. He probably doesn't know any better.


This is, imho, garbage.

It is true that Asperger/ASD children often parse social signals incorrectly. The biggest indicator of this is their ability to monologue with great enthusiasm about their current obsessions. They glow with that enthusiasm and frequently fail to notice the way the eyes of their audience slowly (or not so slowly) glaze. This is not always fun for people who don't share their interests. It is not, however, threatening. I believe that most women can easily tell the difference between harassment and boredom.

Failing to notice boredom, however, is not the same as failing to notice that they are harassing someone. In the case of Genevieve Valentine and Rene Walling, Ms. Valentine made perfectly clear that she did not want to interact with Mr. Walling - at all, in pretty much those words. That clarity? Would come through loud and clear to any Asperger child I've met. She told him in no uncertain terms not to touch her or talk to her.

There is no way that my ASD child would fail to note this. Period. If Ms. Valentine had been polite, cheerful, smiling -- and had avoided Mr. Walling by adroitly disappearing behind a wall of friends without a single harsh word, it's possible that an ASD person might not understand just how unwelcome he was. But she told Mr. Walling to leave her alone. She used those words.

My oldest is now nineteen. It is true that he fails to notice things like flirting or active female interest in him. He tends to treat all of the people he meets the same way, regardless of gender. This can change, depending on their interactions, but he doesn't cross the boundaries of "stranger" or "friend" easily - and he has to be lead. I am certain he didn't initially notice that his girlfriend was interested in him as more than a friend, because she was always friendly and cheerful to everyone. He would not consider himself in any way an exception.

When he was five years old, he didn't understand personal boundaries. When he was seven years old he did. He learned them more slowly than other children, it's true - but he is no longer a child, and he did learn.

At nineteen, he would never do what Mr. Walling did. He hates to see people pressured. If his girlfriend says No to something, and the person to whom she says No fails to respect that answer, he can be a bit biting when he explains what that single syllable word actually means to the person who clearly doesn't understand it the first few times. This pressuring behaviour is one of the few things that makes him angry. Because he is sensitive to the application of pressure. It's not something he applies to people he's never met and doesn't know.

I get a little bit tired of having Asperger's brought up as an excuse for harassment. It's not. My son is fully aware that he doesn't always parse or notice social signals - so he is at great pains to observe, to try to understand; he errs on the side of caution in interactions with strangers. If my son is uncertain about social cues - he asks. There is no pejorative, to his mind, in asking directly. Holding someone else responsible for the "wrongness" of his thoughts would never even occur to him.

I would never, ever, ascribe the behaviour Genevieve Valentine was subject to to Asperger's or ASD. And it pains me greatly when people who aren't familiar with Asperger's or ASD do so, as if they are somehow exhibiting a greater and necessary tolerance. They are not. They are muddying waters; they are (unintentionally) condescending; they are (unintentionally) diminishing. I know this is not their intent--but that's the spillover effect.

Asperger children are often more careful about boundary issues, not less.


Jul. 30th, 2012 04:34 pm (UTC)
What I hear when I hear "he can't help it" is not a case of ASD but a case of fandom engaging in the enabling behavior it's been engaging in since I started congoing, when men would act badly an other women would say, "Oh, that's just X, he doesn't mean anything by it ..." As if someone's cluelessness and lack of bad intent somehow made bad and uncomfortable behavior okay.

What's changed, IMHO (and to my grateful relief) is that great numbers of younger women get that they don't have to put up with this behavior, and so are speaking out, sometimes to the bafflement of older men and women alike who were raised to believe cluelessness and lack of bad intent were excuses, and that it was up to those at the receiving end to put up with them, who don't get why being asked to do so is suddenly unacceptable.

Even though it was always unacceptable.

This happened socially outside of fandom, too: "He can't help it" and "he means well" were classic excuses for bad behavior made by women for men in my family, too.

Sometimes, it's easy to get frustrated with all these older women who left me to figure out for myself that no, bad behavior isn't okay, and whatever the reason, even if someone truly couldn't help treating me badly, rare as I think that actually is? That would put me at no obligation whatsoever to put up with bad behavior, and in fact, my right to be protected from it trumps the perpetrators right to remain comfortable and clieless. Even though I know, if I think about it, that older women no doubt were coping with bad situations as best they could, knowing that then, unlike now, no one would back them up if they did speak out.

Still, it's time and past time for this to change.

And the words "It's only X, he doesn't mean anything by it" hit my rage buttons these days. I don't care if X is a big name fan or a big name writer. No man has earned the right to bad behavior or the expectation women put up with it, no matter what they've written or done, no matter how wonderful they are one on one with their personal friends.

Even in the day, there were counter-examples that got conveniently ignored, men who did know better and who acted like utter gentlemen even though they could have gotten away with acting far worse. Which only makes all the above worse, because knowing better was nowhere near the impossibility it was made out to be.
Jul. 30th, 2012 10:46 pm (UTC)
sometimes to the bafflement of older men and women alike who were raised to believe cluelessness and lack of bad intent were excuses

I was describing the situation to an older (85+) gentleman of my acquaintance. He said, "Was the guy drinking?"

"Not that it's relevant," I said, "but no, he wasn't."

"Then he REALLY doesn't have an excuse."

I stared at him and exclaimed, "Drinking is not an excuse!" It was completely astonishing to me that I had to explain that to anyone. But apparently I did, and I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the rest of this needs to be explained too.