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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.


( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 30th, 2012 05:45 am (UTC)
Doesn't sound like autistic to me either
My autistic son is turning 20. Yes, he has personal space issues we've worked on since he's been 5. Yes, he'll charge up to you and being 6'5" probably scare the shit out of you and then loom over you, but its full steam ahead about what's on his mind. He does NOT play mind games in front of an audience -- he be too focused on what he wanted to say because he's sure you see things exactly the way he does. Who doesn't want to know EVERYTHING about the Titanic and the movie DUEL and the Santa Fe train?

Touch another person? Omg, his grandmother has to chase him around to get a hug. Once in a blue moon it will occur to him that the proper thing to do is hug his mom -- which he kind of appears behind me, touch my shoulders lightly with his hands and rests his head for a second on my shoulder -- and the bolt away.

Look someone in the eye? Not really. Everything is more important in the room that maintain eye contact. If you hold his head, trying to force to look at you, he'll roll his eyes back into his head.

Unfortunately, yes, people are over using the whole autistic thing to excuse failures in life.

Edited at 2012-07-30 02:14 pm (UTC)
Jul. 30th, 2012 06:06 am (UTC)
I'm glad to hear you weigh in on this question.
I've always thought it seemed pretty bogus - if someone's difficulties lie in following subtle or covert social cues, it seemed odd they would then in turn use them against others.
Which is what this behavior sounds like, much more than a difficulty in perceiving such cues.
Jul. 30th, 2012 08:18 am (UTC)
It's hard when you hear so many people using AS as an excuse for behaviour like this. As an adult with AS I find it slightly offensive as neither I nor any of those I know with AS behave in any way like that. In fact one guy I know who is probably one of the least socially adapted AS people I know can be very uncomfortable to talk to, but would never behave like that. I myself make sure to educate people in how to relate to me with regards to behaviour that I know can be a touchy point.

Plus using AS as an excuse here belittles times when it really is valid and important. One boy I used to work with was picked up by police and held for questioning simply because of his "suspicious" behaviour despite the fact that he wore a medic alert bracelet identifying him as having AS.
Jul. 30th, 2012 08:55 am (UTC)
I've been on the sharp end of this. I can cite you incidents in which I was handled, followed, persistently approached, backed into corners, stalked, bullied or coerced into contact I did not want, emotionally blackmailed and, on one occasion, forced into a car. Most of these men were just a-holes, though they probably wouldn't admit that. Two pulled emotional blackmail stunts on a huge scale. Two used the 'ASD' defence, wielding it as a weapon into trying to force me to comply with their wishes -- they were *special*, I owed them, because women are so rare in their lives that they had a right to me, I was hurting them with my nasty, inconsiderate behaviour...
They did not get what they wanted, though they did probably get more of my time and attention than they deserved. I was accused by mutual friends of callousness and cruelty when I finally cut off contact -- because didn't I understand that these two were different and had a right to me?
Neither one has Aspergers or Autism. I've been clear on that since the ASD defence first appeared over here. I went and researched the conditions, given that they were being cited at me to defend and excuse truly objectionable behaviour towards me.
I think you are wonderfully moderate about this. I'm not a little bit tired of seeing self-diagnosed ASD used to bludgeon people their own way. I'm furious. These self-centred b*stards are making life unnecessary difficult for others (especially women). They are using the problems of real people as a smokescreen for their behaviour, and adding to the difficulties those real people already face. They can, frankly, go and take a long walk out of the nearest airlock and stay out in the vacuum.
It's one of the geek fallacies, I think: to someone who does not have ASD and doesn't know someone who does, it looks like a way to make themselves more interesting, to justify bad habits and to avoid working on improving their public behaviour. I've seen self-diagnosed 'bipolar' used in the same way. (The ASD self-diagnosers are usually male, the bipolar self diagnosers are usually female.) I know several people have genuine diagnoses of ASD (and one person who has high-functioning autism) and two very close friends who are genuinely bipolar. None of them use this in the way the fan bullies do.
End of rant: apologies. I have had so much harassment over the years that it's beyond funny and my tolerance ran out a long time ago.
Jul. 30th, 2012 11:35 am (UTC)
I have been that extremely clueless person who really wanted to talk to someone and didn't pick up on subtle 'not now' signs, so I can kind of understand how such a situation might come about _with someone you know_ (there's a different protocoll for strangers!), but a clear 'go away' is a clear 'go away'.

I expect an otherwise intelligent grownup to understand that, to accept it, and to remove himself from such situations if he has such poor impulse control.

As for the readercon board, who put the harassers's comfort over the perceived safety of attendees, well....
Jul. 30th, 2012 02:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Michelle. I'd hoped you would comment on the Asperger's portion of the ReaderCon issue.
Jul. 30th, 2012 03:36 pm (UTC)
Well and inspiringly said. (I'm helping raise the boy in my icon, and we're working on boundary issues right now; among the other valuable aspects of your post, it gives me encouragement that we will be able to impart this important information to him.)
Jul. 31st, 2012 02:08 am (UTC)
(I'm helping raise the boy in my icon, and we're working on boundary issues right now; among the other valuable aspects of your post, it gives me encouragement that we will be able to impart this important information to him.)

You will. ASD children have strong developmental delays, and those delays make it more difficult, because they're not in lock-step with their same-age peers. But they do develop, and they do, from experience with my own child and other ASD children, reach a stage where they can evaluate social situations. Often, they treat it a little like math - and that's helpful.
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.
Jul. 30th, 2012 06:15 pm (UTC)
Good for you for posting this!

People can have poor social skills for a variety of reasons. Having poor social skills is not the same as having no empathy for another person, or inability to control one's impulses, or selfishness.

My own experience is that when I communicate clearly and directly with a person (with a spectrum disorder) who's not responding to subtler cues that they not only respect my boundaries, but want to understand what they did wrong. It's important to me that I set those boundaries with courtesy as well as firmness. I may be exasperated because my earlier attempts to fend them off haven't worked, but this is the first time they've understood.

Then there are people who want what they want and are happy to exploit tolerance or timidity. They know perfectly well that what they're doing isn't acceptable. The challenge then becomes how to enforce those boundaries so their cooperation is not required. That's easier in a group culture that is committed to a safe environment...and, alas, often involves raising one's voice so that the entire roomful of people knows what's going on.
Jul. 30th, 2012 06:47 pm (UTC)
Also parent of child with autism - I think if he and his adherents are going to pull the Aspie card, they have to show that he has a clinical diagnosis.

Edited at 2012-07-30 06:47 pm (UTC)
Jul. 30th, 2012 08:33 pm (UTC)
I like this. A lot. If you want to claim ASD (or anything else), obtain a clinical diagnosis, show evidence of therapy undergone to develop compensating strategies so you no longer threaten or harass female congoers, and then, sure, you can return to the con. If you're not willing to obtain a diagnosis and work with a professional to find ways of mitigating your behaviors, then you can follow the same policies that those who aren't claiming to have clinical behavioral issues.

This is going to be my response to anyone claiming bad behavior is the result of ASD from now on, I think. "Come back once you've gotten a diagnosis and started treatment."

Edited at 2012-07-30 08:33 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - karadin - Jul. 30th, 2012 09:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rosefox - Jul. 30th, 2012 10:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - karadin - Jul. 30th, 2012 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - msagara - Jul. 31st, 2012 02:11 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2012 09:14 pm (UTC)
As an Aspie myself, I agree wholeheartedly, and have a simpler way of putting it:

Sorry, buddy, "asshole" is not on the autism spectrum.
Jul. 30th, 2012 09:41 pm (UTC)
Well said.
(no subject) - karadin - Jul. 30th, 2012 11:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mme_hardy - Aug. 1st, 2012 03:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - juniperus - Aug. 6th, 2012 01:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 30th, 2012 09:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this, Michelle. As the parent of a teen on the spectrum, I have always made it crystal clear that AS wasn't an excuse for bad behavior. I totally understand not getting social cues clearly, but 'don't touch me' and 'go away' aren't ambiguous social cues.
Jul. 30th, 2012 11:08 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this post :)
Jul. 31st, 2012 01:07 am (UTC)

My son is much lower-functioning than these people claiming ASD as an excuse, and yet, he is definitely able to learn that there are things we Do Not Do to strangers. So I am unimpressed by anyone claiming ASD as a reason for someone's being a harasser.
Jul. 31st, 2012 02:40 am (UTC)
Fucking this. Being that I probably have Aspergers myself, and that I have a LOT of friends who do... sorry, there is a HUGE difference between missing some social cues, and being a total creeper. Most of the Aspergers people I know are very aware they don't "get" social cues and are extra cautious as a result.
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