• Madeleine Ryan (Supplied/Hector MacKenzie )Source: Supplied/Hector MacKenzie
As someone with Asperger's, I found Don Burke's claims of having the 'undiagnosed' syndrome calculated and offensive.
Madeleine Ryan

28 Nov 2017 - 5:04 PM  UPDATED 28 Nov 2017 - 5:04 PM

Anyone is capable of anything. People of all kinds commit crimes. We are all equipped to behave in destructive and abusive ways regardless of nationality, religious belief, income bracket, sex or disability. The determining factor is whether or not we choose to do so.

And when one person commits a crime, it doesn’t speak for everyone of that same majority or minority group. Don Burke can go on A Current Affair and claim that he has “undiagnosed Asperger’s” in the face of sexual misconduct allegations, and it neither reflects badly on those with Asperger’s, nor does it even mean that what he’s saying is true. He is “undiagnosed” after all.

I received a relatively late Autism Spectrum Disorder Level One diagnosis, aka Asperger's, along with alexithymia, anxiety and Pragmatic Language Impairment (Asperger’s rarely turns up to the party alone) and I could never conceive of going on national television within 24 hours of being accused of harming others.

It takes me an hour to gear myself up to go to the coffee shop, order a soy cappuccino and find a spot to sit and drink it. I’ve had years of acting training and therapy and I’ve absorbed shelf after shelf of self-help books and it hasn’t changed the fact that maintaining eye contact, listening, speaking, thinking, sensing and absorbing all the stimuli - even in the simplest of social interactions - requires an exponential amount of effort. Not to mention that I haven’t been accused of violating others, nor are the eyes of the nation upon me as I dare to check whether or not the establishment uses Bonsoy.  

There is a common misconception that those on the spectrum lack empathy. However, part of the reason why we can become so overwhelmed in social situations is because of our capacity to empathise amidst the chaos.

I am more likely to become a victim of abuse than a perpetrator of it.

The emotional contagion that I experience, combined with the fear that I have of saying and doing the wrong thing, can be so powerful that I play social situations overly safe in order to compensate - to the point where I am more likely to become a victim of abuse than a perpetrator of it.

This doesn’t mean those with Asperger’s aren’t capable of harming others, but what it does mean is that we are likely to feel guilt and remorse. David Gillespie writes in his book Taming Toxic People: The Science of Identifying and Dealing with Psychopaths at Work and at Home that those on the spectrum “are often accused of being psychopathic in their lack of empathy. The reality is, however, that while both psychopaths and Asperger’s lack empathy, they are polar opposites. People with Asperger’s lack cognitive empathy, but have plenty of emotional empathy… They feel we are angry or hurt or happy but they have no idea why. They also feel these emotions intensely within themselves and have trouble controlling their expression. Psychopaths, on the other hand, do not feel these emotions at all.”

Mr Gillespie’s book provides a step-by-step manual for how to identify and deal with psychopaths. Things to look out for include getting irritated when confronted, blaming, trying to charm, lacking empathy and exploiting the vulnerable in order to gain sympathy. I leave it to readers to decide if Mr Burke’s conduct in his interview, or his reported conduct according to the allegations, appear to tick many of these boxes.

Mr Burke’s choice to reference the condition without certainty not only seems a tad on-trend and convenient, it is also, potentially, very exploitative.

Asperger’s is just coming into the zeitgeist and developing an identity. Barry Humphries spoke about being Asperger’s last week and Coles recently introduced Quiet Hour to help the autistic do their shopping in peace. People are starting to notice and care for this corner of the community, and it’s taken a long time and a lot of awareness and compassion to make that happen. So Mr Burke’s choice to reference the condition without certainty not only seems a tad on-trend and convenient, it is also, potentially, very exploitative.

Even if Mr Burke is on the spectrum, using a disability or sexual orientation to defend abusive behaviour - or as a strategic move to gain public sympathy when you have lost it – is definitely a no-no. It brings to mind Kevin Spacey’s sudden homosexuality in the face of sexual harassment allegations, and it reeks of calculation and manipulation whether Mr Burke has Asperger’s or not.  

How a person deals with a tarnished public image and negative attention can be very revealing. Nobody likes allegations of abusive behaviour being met with excuses, defences, a lack of empathy, blame, or the convenient appearance of disabilities - least of all, undiagnosed ones.


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