Channel 4 chose to call their documentary on a group of people with various disabilities in search of love The Undateables. As a title this is grossly offensive and unfair – and paradoxically, it is the diverse range of personalities who appear over the course of this first episode in the documentary series who establish this point excellently.
As I’m interested in autism, naturally, I will focus on Richard, who has a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome. Richard openly showed self-awareness of his own needs, admitting that he can find change of routine stressful and that he can occasionally do “the wrong thing” in social situations – so in his own words he requires patience.
The show also gently appreciated Richard’s needs and the naturally occurring humour and hurdles they present in his search for a partner. For example in one case, he playfully stole some of his date’s chips from her plate. Of course, this is behaviour which would probably normally be acceptable among established friends and family, but not on a first date. In this regard, these scenes fit with the challenges that many of the people with autism I have met struggle with.
Whilst these needs are relevant, when Richard did go on his two dates, he often did rather well. He was interested in what his date had to say, showed great empathy for the person at appropriate times, and showed all the components of an excellent conversationalist. He also comes across – like many people with autism – as a man with unique interests and perspective. One of his dates enjoyed spending time with him to the point of expressing interest in seeing him again. When Richard realised that this person wasn’t for him, he acted with great dignity and respect for the person.
These points are not made because Richard has a disability. Rather, they are made as his positive characteristics are not to be taken for granted in any person. You just need to watch one episode of Take Me Out to see that we are populated with numerable homogenous men and women who are driven almost solely by superficial, materialistic factors… You are left asking, who is more undateable?
My wife is not really interested in the fact I have autism, or for that matter, autism as a whole. She is interested in who I am, and whether or not this is related to my autism is for her, irrelevant. Ultimately, as human beings we are both the same. Disability or not, we have the same need for companionship. As Frances Ryan in The Guardian rightly notes, The Undateables demonstrates this perfectly.
A link to the documentary series: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/the-undateables/4od
In Britain, football is not a trivial matter. This was reflected in the extensive debate on 5live’s Monday night club on the sacking of Chelsea football club manager Andre Villas Boas. Early on we’d ascertained that Villa Boas had been sacked as results were not good enough, and that this was probably due to a poor relationship between the manager and players. But the debate delved deeper as host Mark Chapman tried to question why the relationship between the players and manager had failed, with a specific focus on the manager’s behaviour. Then journalist Ian McGarry attempted to explain Villa Boas’s behaviour by stating that he had heard him described as: “borderline Aspergers” (a form of autism).
Now, I can appreciate the humorous side of my having autism and its description of my behaviours. My friends and family regularly make jokes about my autism, I’ve heard and laughed at them all, we have a relationship built on respect after all. Of course, tone is key, but I have seen many funny jokes or character portrayals of autism in mainstream television and radio.
But McGarry wasn’t respectfully mocking; he was in the midst of a negative tirade about a man who had the temerity to leave one of his friends out of a football team (Frank Lampard, who McGarry helped write an autobiography detailing his dislike of his previous club, West Ham). The statement by McGarry suggesting that Villa Boas was “borderline Aspegers” was constructed as a trivial insult and detrimental personality trait.
The problem with referring to Asperger Syndrome as an insulting adjective for someone’s personality is that Asperger Syndrome (or autism spectrum disorder) is actually a serious and often debilitating neurodevelopmental disorder. Aside from the difficult characteristics of the team’s players (Cole: Shot a member of staff with an air gun; Terry: accused of racism; Lampard: fell out with several players and ex-club) it is also obviously absurd for McGarry to suggest that Villa Boas in some way fits the criteria for Asperger Syndrome because he could not get on with a few football players.
For the reasons I have stated I think McGarry’s comments were disrespectful to Villa Boas and anyone affected by autism. Of course, it’s important to keep perspective (he probably did not mean to offend anyone), but it is important that autism and other disorders are not portrayed inaccurately or insensitively, and McGarry was guilty on both counts here.
Maybe McGarry would say that I am being “borderline Aspergers” by bringing up such a brief flippant comment. But his comments are symptomatic of a recent worrying trend towards trivialising psychiatric disorders by inappropriately using them to negatively describe someone’s personality (Moody: Bipolar, Grumpy: Depressed, Organised: OCD). As a result I think it’s important to recognise that McGarry has been “borderline ignorant”, and should probably apologise.
I hope you like my two pictures (in my header).
The photo on the left represents me in my professional role.
The photo on the right represents me personally. This photo is from my wedding day and I am doing the robot.
Both pictures are relevant to the theme of this blog, which is autism. For me autism has not only played a central role in my professional development, but my personal life too, since I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome when I was 12 years old.
My hope is that I can use my personal and professional experience to contribute to ongoing discussions on a range of issues in autism.
Thanks for your attention, and I look forward to hearing your views too.