Running Into Walls

On a recent blog post of mine, a friend said she was no longer going to visit the blog of a minor public figure because he kept making sleazy, objectifying comments. I won’t name that figure or the friend here because it’s not really the point of the post, but it’s not hard to find out who it is.

I agree with her – the person in question does, quite often, say things that make me feel angry or exasperated. I quite understand and agree with my friend not wanting to visit his blog. I want to make that very clear before I go any further – this is *NOT* me saying my friend is overreacting – I think the reaction entirely justified given the comments in question. But unlike with many, many other people who make comments like that, I don’t, myself, get a feeling from that person’s posts that he is ultimately a bad person. In order to explain why, I have to talk a bit about Asperger’s Syndrome.

Which I have.

I really, really, *REALLY* dislike talking about having Asperger’s on the internet – or even at all. Partly because there is such a huge stigma attached to it that by writing this I am severely damaging my employment prospects, but also because of what my friend Jane terms ‘Arse-Purger’s Syndrome’ – the tendency of people on the internet to say, whenever they have caused offence, “I have Asperger’s Syndrome, so I can’t help being insensitive, and it’s just your problem so deal with it!”

That is not the way someone who *actually* has Asperger’s will generally deal with things (it *is* the way a misdiagnosed sociopath might behave, but it’s not the way someone with Asperger’s behaves). Once they realise they’ve caused offence, and why, someone with Asperger’s will be absolutely mortified.

The problem is, they’ll often not realise they’ve caused offence at all.

Before we go any further, please go to the TV Tropes page about Asperger’s and read that. Despite a couple of problems, it is *FAR AND AWAY* the most accurate thing I’ve ever read on what having Asperger’s is really like.

Now, having Asperger’s is not, I repeat *NOT*, *N-O-T NOT* an excuse for bad behaviour, for racism, for sexism, for sexual harassment, for any of those things. I know this because I don’t do those things myself, and I have Asperger’s. If I can manage to be a more-or-less reasonable human being for the most part (I have more than my share of faults, but not those ones), then so can anyone else.

BUT (and you knew there was a but coming, didn’t you?) there is a difference between not being an arsehole and not acting like an arsehole, and the latter is somewhat more difficult.

Because when you have Asperger’s, you *can’t tell* when you’re saying something wrong, or something upsetting, or something offensive. You can often tell afterwards that someone’s been upset, because they’ll punch you, or stop talking to you, or something along those lines, but you won’t know *why* – unless they explain to you in a calm, detailed manner, exactly what it was you did wrong.

I don’t like to think of having Asperger’s as a disability as such – it’s a cognitive difference, and it has definite positive sides as well as negative ones. In my case I have a great ability to see rather abstract patterns, which gives me a good mathematical intuition and enables me to understand music on a deeper level than most (but not all) people I know.

But it has a downside, too, and that downside *is* best modelled as a disability. Not so much because of the problem itself, but because of the way the rest of society is structured.

Imagine you’re blind, but you appear perfectly normal to the outside. You’ve been blind from birth, and while you know there’s a sense other people have, you can’t ever really understand it. But you have a few other advantages – you have good hearing, and maybe a good sense of touch – and so you can cope. In a controlled environment – in your own home, or at work – you can seem exactly like a sighted person, and many of your friends have never even guessed you are blind.

But every so often you run into a brick wall when you’re somewhere unfamilliar.

And all the people around you, rather than offering sympathy or even just ignoring it, start attacking you. Asking why you couldn’t see the brick wall. They could see the brick wall – it was right there in front of their eyes. The only other people who ever run into the brick wall are bastards who are doing it deliberately to get attention, so you must be one of them too. If you tell them you couldn’t see the brick wall you’re either asking for attention or just a liar – everyone can see the brick wall. It’s right there.

And then psychologists start making up stuff about you. They say you ‘lack theory of wall’, that you don’t believe walls exist. Nobody bothers to check what you think before doing this – if they did you’d be likely to say that you have rather more belief in walls than most people, because you get very personal proof that they exist on a regular basis, you just *CAN’T SEE THEM*. But your opinion doesn’t matter, because you’re one of those people with wallrunner syndrome, and everyone knows they’re a bunch of arseholes – you just have to look at all the people on the internet saying they’ve got it. This ‘blindness’ thing is probably not real anyway.

Except it’s even worse than that, because the majority of the time when you run into a wall, while you’re lying there on the floor with blood running out of your nose, one of your friends will say “what did you do that for, you bastard?” Even the ones who believe you on a conscious level when you say you can’t see walls will think you really must be able to – after all, you don’t bump into walls in your own house (where you know where you are) so if you bump into walls in *their* houses it must be because you’re insensitive. Because you just don’t *care* about the damage your nose is doing to their plasterwork.

And you *are* damaging their plasterwork – and you don’t want to upset your friends, and you know your friends just *don’t understand*, they really don’t *GET* that you can’t see the walls. So it’s not their fault when they get angry, and when they stop inviting you round, and when they tell other people to avoid you. It’s your fault, for not being able to do this *simple, obvious, easy thing that even babies can do*.

And I get the impression that the public figure in question (who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, and who doesn’t seem to me like a bad person), is feeling like that when he’s making tasteless, offensive jokes. I see someone banging into the wall far more often than he should be – or at least banging into a wall that I can always avoid myself – but I *don’t* see him doing so deliberately. That doesn’t make a difference if it’s your plasterwork he’s ruining, and if it’s you who’s got to pay for it – you still want him out of the house before he also knocks over the table and breaks all your china – but I can’t help but sympathise with him as well, and to put him running head-first into a brick wall into a different category than the people who are trying to smash the wall down with sledgehammers…

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7 Responses to Running Into Walls

  1. pillock says:

    Ha, “theory of wall”…

    I know very, very, very little about Asperger’s, so I enjoy being told things about it that I can trust…and it’s good inoculation against whatever weird communication prejudices I may unsuspectingly have, too. Hey, did you hear the one about the guy who was allergic to fish? He went out to a restaurant and carefully explained to the waiter that he was deathly allergic to fish. And then the waiter went away thinking “he thinks he’s so important with his fake fish allergy, I’m going to bring him some fish and when he says it’s delicious I’ll say IT’S FISH HA HA, and then he won’t be lording it over anybody anymore…”

    Twenty minutes later: sirens in the street outside.

    A little education’s never a bad thing.

    • Andrew Hickey says:


    • Holly says:

      I know very, very, very little about Asperger’s, so I enjoy being told things about it that I can trust

      This is why I wanted Andrew to write this post. (You may remember he was very unhappy about doing so and holding me responsible for suggesting it.) I think there’s so much nonsense out there about things like Asperger’s and other neuro-atypicalities, and so little to point to should one want to refute this (especially someone like me, who can’t speak from personal experience; it quickly devolves into “Yeah well I know a guy that said this”, and it’s much worse if that guy is your husband because you’re presumed to be so BIASED to his PRETEND FISH ALLERGY then).

      I know someone who actually had a version of that allergy story happen to her, though it was a different food and it was a member of her own family doing this to her when she was a kid. :/

  2. Emily says:

    Thanks for the information on Aspergers – I know somethings about it but not a lot.

    The only thing I’d disagree with in your post is this. Assuming your friend only knows the public figure via their blog, it’s questionable how much your friend can do to educate the public figure into not making sleazy comments. It’s possible (but not easy) to do this with a friend without making them defensive (which is likely to be counterproductive.) As a blog commenter, it is much harder to get your message across effectively, and there’s a risk that other commenters will attack you for disagreeing with someone they like.

    Given the choice between a) putting up with it, b) starting a fight you can’t win or c) quietly leaving a blog that makes you unhappy, I would go for c unless I was really involved in the blog and/or knew the blogger personally or it was an issue I felt so strongly about that I couldn’t leave it alone.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I agree with every word there, and if I didn’t make that clear I apologise. I was trying to say that my friend is *entirely right and correct* not to pay any more attention to that blog, but also trying to explain why I don’t have the same emotional reaction to that behaviour that I do when, say, David Cameron makes patronising sexist remarks to Angela Eagle.

      • Emily says:

        No need to apologise and I didn’t mean to misrepresent your response to your friend. I was more musing on alternate strategies and when it’s worth investing your energy in trying to change someone’s behaviour.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      (Also, as a point of fact – the public figure in question does not allow comments on his blog, and the reaction elsewhere on the internet when he posts is pretty much uniformly negative – so much so that I’ve had great difficulty in resisting the peer pressure to behave likewise. You’d be far, far more likely to be attacked for defending this person than for attacking him. Much of the reaction to his posts is also ableist in the extreme…)

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