By: Michael Huber
On October 11, 2011, Comedy Central aired an episode of South Park titles “Ass Burgers”. The outlandish episode created a narrative that had Eric Cartman, a child in the small fictional Colorado town of South Park, hatch a scheme to create the product of hamburgers more desirable to consumers by putting them in his anus for the sake of “adding” flavor. This idea comes from the misunderstanding of the autistic spectrum disorder Asperger’s Syndrome, where he believes people with the disorder have hamburgers come from their anus, as opposed to what it is.
This seemingly benign and crude joke in the usual style of South Park writers taking a current topic and satirizing it had latent and unfortunate consequences for people such as me with Asperger’s Syndrome, often referred to as “aspies”, which I have adapted to call myself. It became a common refrain to quote the show and add snide comments such as “Would you like fries with that ass burger?”, “What restaurant do you go to get those ass burgers?” and so on. Personally, I highly doubt that Comedy Central executives and the writers of South Park had any true malcontent toward those with autism or Asperger’s, but their content became a commonplace reference to taunt and bully those who suffered from the disorder, and twisted the views of many viewers to become incredulous and diminutive of those with autism.
For those who may be familiar with the changes to the DSM IV and V where Asperger’s Syndrome has been lumped into the broad spectrum of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I respectfully disagree with the decision-making process to make those the diagnostic standard, as the science of genetics of ASDs shows difference between not only the symptomology and pathology of individual disorders on the spectrum. I do not have the same symptoms or genetic makeup of either a person with autistic Savantism or those with non-verbal, low-functioning autism. So throughout the course of this piece I will specifically refer to Asperger’s as its own disorder contingent with the DSM at the time of my diagnosis before the controversial decision in the DSM IV and V. You are more than welcome to dismiss my beliefs on this subject, but they are not the point of this piece, and I ask that does not cause you to detract from the statements of personal and autobiographical reflections that I am writing.
I am writing this as a sort of treatise and autobiography to show the discrepancies between the public perception and the facts of autism, so I may dispel the idea that autism being those unable to function in society, or those who are violent, unable to socialize, and being creatures of quiet, dark bedrooms in need of a shower. In an age of vast informational access, social media saturation of personal opinions, memes, and misinformation, and the constant culture wars of civil rights for all, the idea that someone who has autism is profiled and discriminated against simply due to misconceptions is unacceptable.
I am also aware that there is an acceptance of those with autism that I was not awarded in my youth. People always seem to have a family member, friend, or colleague who are are “on the spectrum” and there are tests effective enough to diagnose autism at age three or even blood tests to show the increased possibility in blood tests during pregnancy. As such, there is awareness and understanding of autism that I could not even have hoped for 10 years ago when I was being relentlessly tortured for something completely out of my control: being “weird” due to my genetics.
However, despite this awareness of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, it is quite apparent that misunderstandings of the symptomology and pathology of the illness run rampant in the media and, thus, the minds of the average American who may have no direct access or knowledge of the nuances of this incredibly complex genetic disorder that we still have very limited understanding of, 24 years after Asperger’s was introduced as a legitimate mental illness in 1994. I was also born in 1994, making me roughly as old as this disorder that has had a greater impact on my life than any other factor that I have exhibited in my life thus far.
A perfect example of this is the coverage of men who have done terrible acts of violence against innocent civilians, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary gunman, the Parkland Florida Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School gunman, and the Toronto “incel” van driver who attack and ran over dozens of civilians without warning.
There were many similarities between these attackers who made a point of mass casualties of victims who had no direct reason for their problems or malcontent towards society. However, a common connection that is frequently made between these types of mass attacks on civilians is mental illness. The first one that was quickly made in all three of these cases was Asperger’s Syndrome. The media often tried to paint this as a reason for their isolation, violence, and anger towards society, women, and their peers. I can absolutely attest that those who are on the spectrum have less control over their emotions than their average peers without autism, or “neurotypicals”. Those with Asperger’s also are usually diagnosed with clinical depression or Bipolar disorder under what is often called the “umbrella” of mental illnesses that accompany the disorder. This can also cause an increase in impulsivity and short-temperedness. However, more commonly a person with Asperger’s is misunderstood, isolated, bullied, and depressed individual than they are angry. Also needed to be noted is that over 80-90% of those diagnosed with Asperger’s are male, and there have been even fewer case studies of Asperger’s on women and how they react to autism completely different from men. As such, there are few cases of violence caused by women with Asperger’s on the scale as men.
However, there is absolutely no conclusive scientific evidence that shows that those with Asperger’s or autism are inherently more likely to lash out or attack their peers. Those with autism are often incredibly loyal to their friends, often to a fault, and do not display outwardly angry or violent behaviors more than their neurotypical peers. Yet, as often is done with mental illness in the wake of tragedy and seeking answers for something that makes no logical or emotional sense to us, we have begun to brand those with Asperger’s as being violent due to their genetic disorder as opposed to being products of their environment and development.
When I was in 7th grade, there had been some kind of news that had passed around the school that I had become more angry and despondent. The reason for this was that I had been a direct caretaker for my mother as she was battling breast cancer for the past year, while also being bullied and mistreated by my peers for rumors and speculation. I had been acting out and as such been branded as a “problem child”.
One day, a boy who I knew and considered at least a friendly acquaintance came up to me and said, “You wouldn’t shoot me if you shot up the school, right? I’ve been nice to you, right?” I was completely shocked. I had no access to firearms or weapons of any kind. I had never been in a fight or assaulted anyone physically at the school, and I mostly kept to myself. I simply asked him, “Do you actually think I would shoot up the school? Why would you think that?” He told me that basically everyone in my grade thought I was going to shoot up the school “like Columbine” because I was the weird quiet kid everyone bullied. Ironically, none of this actually led to them not bullying me or being nicer to me, it became more of a tactic to treat me with less compassion, which only shows the lack of emotional empathy and maturity that those during puberty exhibit towards those they find less favorable to their beliefs.
I had been bullied my entire life. When I was at my Catholic elementary school, I was blamed and taunted for my parents divorce when I was 8 years old. I had always been known as the weird kid who didn’t fit in, and was treated more like a leper in biblical times than an actual human being at a school that was supposedly preaching kindness and compassion towards your neighbors. It hadn’t stopped at my new middle school in my hometown. It only got worse as puberty kicked in. But even after all of the terrible things that had been said to me, being equated with a school shooter in one of the worst school shootings in American history, I had never felt so dejected and unloved in my entire life. I went to the bathroom and cried. I was reprimanded by my teacher for taking as long in the bathroom until I explained what had happened. Nothing actually came from me explaining this to one of the guardians who was supposed to protect their students from the horrors of bullying, but that is how most cases of bullying are addressed in “zero tolerance” schools. The fear of lawsuits by proud parents in search of a payout or ego trip scares schools more than their students being ostracized and rejected.
I still think about how I felt on that day, and I am always glad when I hear stories of students banding together to bring a smile to a friend who needs the support. People with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism are often able to feel immense compassion and caring for friends and their peers, but in the media we are shown as cold, logical people with no capacity for empathy beyond themselves, and unable to understand emotions of even those who they deeply care for.
The facts are that people with Asperger’s or ASDs want to be loved and accepted as much, if not more, than their peers. We have emotions, we just don’t understand how to control or regulate them. We are humans, not monsters. We love and care just as much as any other human. We may be crude, crass, or unrefined, but we are not the violent people you see in the wake of some terrible attack in the news, or some cold, heartless sociopath depicted in mass media. We deserve more recognition and representation than niche Netflix series or armchair diagnoses on TV of public figures or violent offenders.
Asperger’s occurs about as frequently as twin births do, so there is no reason to treat us as some kind of sideshow attraction or scapegoat when we’ve accepted twins as common and normal. I am a proud Aspie and have absolutely no wishes to change that, despite all of the problems and issues that have plagued me since I was a child. I put effort into working on my issues and have become a functioning, productive, positive member of society. There are many more like me who deserve to be treated with more respect and compassion than either a school shooter or Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. This article may not actually solve any of that, but maybe seeing something like this being published may actually show a side to Asperger’s that is not seen as often.