Growing up, my family watched Burke’s Backyard. It was the background noise on Friday night as our family of six went about fish n’ chip dinners, sports and social events. I recalled all of this when hearing my mum’s distressed reaction to Don Burke implying his undiagnosed Asperger’s was an explanation for the allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
We’re an ‘autism family’ and we’re outraged by Burke’s remarks.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a mild area of the autism spectrum, in 1992.
My mum has weathered lots of misconceptions around autism conditions. It started with my actual diagnosis. She sat there in Eastern Melbourne’s Maroondah Psychiatric Unit and listened as a psychologist parried the ‘deficits’ of Asperger’s.
“Lisa, your son will have lifelong social difficulties, crippling anxiety, obsessive tendencies, all of which you will need to change your expectations of what he can achieve,” she was told.
Mum becomes emotional when she remembers standing up and walking out on the psychologist, saying: “Chris can do anything he puts his mind to.”
When Don Burke made his implications – including his inference that Asperger’s was a “genetic failing” – to A Current Affair on Monday night, my mum was for a moment that vulnerable parent again.
This time it wasn’t the medical professional nailing down their thesis on autism. It was a hugely influential public figure who had been part of our family’s weekly ritual.
Don Burke has offended thousands of autism families and their communities with his inaccurate implications. I am relieved the outrage has been loud. I am disappointed that he could think autism would shield him from any alleged impropriety.
Autism isn’t synonymous with any form of behaviour. Technically, autism is just a different mental processing style.
My autism just means I process my surroundings differently. By extension, an autistic student will process a teacher’s instructions differently, sometimes discovering something the teacher hasn’t noticed.
An autistic employee will problem solve a project differently, sometimes making a process more efficient. Sure, there can be moments when an autistic person might miss the meaning of a phrase, but it rarely continues to any great degree after one’s schooling. Certainly not into a TV career spanning decades.
The autism community has worked hard to change community perceptions.
The Victorian Parliament has just published a set of 101 recommendations into improving the health, education and social inclusion of autism families. The Queensland government is implementing a review of schooling, with a view to improving conditions for students.
We now have organisations like the one I founded, I CAN Network, to employ autistic adults to mentor the next generation of autistics in schools.
We are gradually winning the battle, but it remains a hard fight. Health systems, misdiagnosis, public misconceptions, rigid school curriculums and tertiary and workplace barriers are all still to be reformed.
My mum was a soldier through our fight for me. Her emotion this morning shows she still is.
Despite what the textbooks say, autistics feel things deeply, sometimes more so than the typical individual. Our sensitivities can make us great in music, art and animal care. They can also make us vulnerable to bullies.
Burke has admitted he is a bully. In that nationally televised interview, he tried to hide behind our purported ‘failings’ in an effort to recast himself as a victim.
The game is over Don. We are no shield for you.
Chris Varney is Chief Enabling Officer of I CAN Network, Australia’s first social enterprise founded by people on the autism spectrum.