By Damian Smith
So here we are again.
Yet another celebrity accused of rampant sexual predation and the excuse of “the Asperger’s made me do it”.
Don Burke’s claim of recently self-diagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome is dubious at best. Not that I doubt his claim – the man has made a career out of talking passionately and exhaustively about plants and soil compositions, he’s certainly ticking a couple of boxes. It isn’t for me to cast Asperger’s as it were.
No, it’s the timing of this revelation that evinces suspicion. “Recently diagnosed Asperger’s Sydnrome”, as though he had seen the impending storm clouds of controversy and tried to head them off with a trip to Dr Nick Riviera’s Hollywood Upstate Clinic of Excuses.
As if the first step on the mitigating sexual harassment fallout flow-chart is “claim to have high functioning autism and that you don’t know any better”.
But that’s the thing isn’t it? As someone on the spectrum, speaking on behalf of those on the spectrum, we do know better. It seems to be the rest of society that doesn’t.
There’s a constant societal misconception that people with Asperger’s are social buffoons, misreading the cues of interaction and not knowing when they’ve offended someone. Don Burke has seen the hideous caricatures of The Big Bang Theory and The Good Doctor and thought that he had found the perfect excuse for being overly hands on with women.
“Oh I just like touching people’s naughty bits, I didn’t know it was wrong”. Sure, Don.
Whilst for most the experience of autism is a subjective one, there are some commonalities where I feel I can express a consensus. Such as touch.
Being touched. Touching others. Feeling skin-to-skin contact with another human being can be difficult. The social obligation of handshakes and hugs are tiring, visits to the hairdresser and the dentist can be nothing short of an agonising hell akin to something by Hieronymus Bosch.
No one, and I mean no one – not even my mother – can touch my neck. Doing so will send me into a meltdown that could take days to recover from. That’s the kind of thing we’re talking about here. Does it make sense? No. Is it completely arbitrary? Absolutely. Does it sound like something that would specifically predicate you towards inappropriate sexual behaviour? I don’t think so.
In fact rather than giving me sexual superpowers my autism has made sex and sexuality quite difficult. I am 33 years old, I work in show business and even had a brief stint as a model, and although I can recite Pi to a hundred places, I can count the number of sexual partners I’ve had on one hand.
I’ve not once initiated a relationship. I’ve never even asked anyone out. Having Asperger’s means that you’re never quite sure of the rules of social interaction. You never know if you’re crossing a line or accidentally offending someone. So you tend to withdraw. You don’t dance across that line with abandon, you’re exceptionally careful. Rather than blithely barrel through life offending people without fear of consequence, you instead exercise great care and play it safe. You try and be polite, non-confrontational and boring.
Like how an alcoholic won’t have a single drink, I won’t make a flirtatious comment. Because I’m not sure where the line is.
I’m good with numbers, but I can’t count the times I’ve missed out on a chance with an exceptional woman because I was too frightened to make a move. Because I didn’t read the signals she was sending me, or wasn’t certain enough to risk acting on them.
I’m not complaining. The women I have been with have been amazing people. They are the ones who have noted the issues I have due to Asperger’s and realised that they would need to be extra overt in their courtship. That they would need to make the first move, that they couldn’t be subtle about it. I will be eternally grateful to them for that.
Even the act of sex itself, when it does happen, is a trial. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy it immensely. But for the entire time you can’t immerse yourself fully into the experience. There’s a constant nagging voice in the back of your head critiquing your performance. Is she enjoying it? Is she comfortable? Are you doing it right? You’re not doing it right. Maybe you should be more vocal. No, be less vocal. Maybe you should make more noise? No that’s weird, don’t do that. Should I have my eyes open? No that’s creepy. Closed then? No, she’ll think I don’t find her attractive. I’ll just look at the wall. She just closed her eyes – that’s bad right? It’s bad. You’re bad. You’re doing it wrong. She’s not enjoying herself. Maybe you should just stop. Wait she said don’t stop. Does that mean keep going? Or is she just saying that to make you feel better?
If we have a reputation for lasting longer in bed, there’s your reason.
That’s a brief insight into what it’s like living with Asperger’s. Into how we view relationships, sex and personal space. I ask you, does this sound like Don Burke?
Are we the kind of people that would, to quote a world leader, “grab ‘em by the pussy”?
Is Don Burke autistic? That’s not for me to say. Is he a sex offender? That’s also not for me to judge, though the outlook isn’t great.
Is autism an excuse for sexual harassment? Absolutely not. Don Burke can no more claim that as a reason for his actions any more than the Beatles can be blamed for the actions of Charles Manson.
His comments were ignorant and grossly offensive. They reveal a man perpetuating a negative stereotype in a desperate attempt to salvage his dignity.
In my 33 years I have never, not once, sexually harassed a woman. Or a man. Or anyone of any gender they choose to identify with. Since the Don Burke story broke I’ve been inundated with Aspies sharing similar stories and the same outrage. Perhaps that is the true superpower of Asperger’s Syndrome – being immune to the compulsion towards sexual predation that seems to be have reached epidemic proportions.
Or maybe after having worked with manure for so many years, Don Burke is full of it.
Also by Damian Smith: The curious incident of the bigot in the Senate