Guest Post: Mark Engleson on When Lack of Social Grace Crosses the Line

When Lack of Social Grace Crosses the Line

An autistic responds to “The Shealy Logs” (Burgin Mathews, No Depression, Spring 2020)

In “The Shealy Logs,” Burgin Mathews relates the story of John Shealy, who created decades of logs of performances at the Grand Ole Opry. There’s a wrinkle: in 1999, police found that he’d “stalked, harassed, or bothered” 89 women. His lawyer obtained a psychological evaluation, and Shealy was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Engleson with three-time Grammy Award-winner and alt-country hero Steve Earle, after his performance at the Birchmere, 2018.

At the time, Asperger’s was diagnosed as a developmental disorder distinct from, but related to autism; the most recent edition of the DSM collapsed them into a single category, Autism Spectrum Disorder. As opposed to autism, in Asperger’s, per the Autism Society, “there is no speech delay.” The diagnosis also excludes intellectual disabilities. Some individuals with Asperger’s are profoundly gifted: Bill Gates, musician David Byrne (lead singer and songwriter for the Talking Heads), and the late Derek Parfit, one of the most prominent philosophers of the contemporary era, are prominent cases.

Recently, in an online forum for adult autistics, a young man posted about being kicked out of places for making women uncomfortable. As it turned out, this young man was looking up women he’d met on Facebook to make romantic overtures to them. I explained to this young man that what he’s been doing is cyberstalking.

This man found little sympathy from his fellow autistics. The responses, many of them from women—and female autistics, though less visible, very much exist—emphasized that it was his responsibility to understand what he’d done and correct his behavior. He protested that he can’t figure that out if no one will tell him what he’s doing wrong. Again, little sympathy: we emphasized that he just had to figure it out. I went so far as saying that, if he didn’t correct his behavior, he needed to curtail his interactions—up to the point of locking himself in at home.

“The Shealy Logs” also mentions that John would not accept his diagnosis. The article quotes him as writing, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” He then violated the no-contact list that was part of his release, trying to make personal apologies for his behavior.

Neither of these is acceptable. Refusing to take advantage of his diagnosis meant that Shealy also refused to investigate the resources that were available to help him learn about and improve his behavior. No disability, including autism, can excuse a failure to meet basic obligations to treat others in a respectful manner that recognizes appropriate boundaries. If autism makes it more difficult to do that, then the answer is that you work harder and find a way.

When I shared Shealy’s story in the same online forum, one response was that this stalking behavior can’t be related to his autism, that it would have to have been due to a comorbidity. I wish this were true, but it’s not. While this behavior is unusual and deeply aberrant even within the autistic community, autistics—especially autistic men—can be prone to violating social boundaries. Combined with the intensity of interest that autistics tend to develop, this can lead to some ugly outcomes.

As a child and teenager, I crossed that line three times. In grade school, I biked over to the house of a classmate in the next town after looking up her address in the phone book. My freshman year of high school, I put a friend up to calling a neighbor girl who I had a thing for. And my senior year of high school, I badgered a girl’s friends to give me her phone number.

The last two resulted in blowback that shaped me permanently. The neighbor girl’s mother came to my house and gave me a severe verbal lashing. The second incident followed a two-hour phone conversation that, had I not screwed up, was probably headed to me dating a girl I had a years-long crush on.

I learned hard, and I learned well. Like any other group, people on the autism spectrum have different capacities for learning. Mine is pretty good, and once a lesson is hammered into me, it sticks.

Even when I’m not violating social norms—and I’m pretty good about that—I can still make people uncomfortable at times during interaction. I speak too loudly, or I stutter, or I laugh like a hyena, or I am “making a face,” as my mother likes to say. My affect tends to read as “a coiled spring that did a giant line of coke.” Especially now that I’ve met other people like this, I realize just how very unsettling that can be. (I’m not sure if it counts as irony, but autistics can be put off by other autistics just as much as neurotypicals can.)

Engleson with author Lev Grossman at George Mason University, 2018.

I know that, despite my best efforts, I will make a mistake, and it will be some degree of spectacularly cringeworthy. I have a memory like the subject “The Shealy Logs,” so I know that, after it happens, I will never forget. This, as one might imagine, leads to fairly severe social anxiety. I’ve gone to parties and even spent entire days at conventions without having a conversation. I’m not good at knowing when people are approachable, and if I’m not certain it’s acceptable to approach, I don’t. For a few years, I came back from Capclave with many of the books I’d lugged around in my backpack unsigned, until I finally—maybe someone explained it to me—learned the etiquette around signing requests. (As it turned out, that there was a “mass signing” did not mean I couldn’t ask in other circumstances!)

There are books I may never get signed because I wasn’t willing to go out on a limb. I’m fine with that. I’ve accepted that I will miss some opportunities because I’ve chosen to act with an abundance of caution. I exclusively try to meet potential dates online, because I don’t trust myself to work out what’s acceptable IRL (in the last 13 years, I’ve broken this rule once, but only after a woman clearly indicated her interest by striking up a conversation). The equation here is I’m that losing out on far fewer real opportunities than I am preventing someone being made uncomfortable.

Most people on the autism spectrum will never engage in any kind of stalking behavior, and we overwhelmingly do not accept autism as any kind of excuse for that behavior. Unfortunately, like autism itself, there is a whole spectrum of bothersome behavior, which can range from barraging people with undesired (but, honestly, mine are HILARIOUS) puns to genuinely creepy behavior (had I gone through with my idea of hiding in the dark basement outside my roommate Gennady’s room, waited for him to come out, and hissed, “I’m the leprechaun, don’ ye steal me pot o’ gold”). These can be hard things for some autistics to get their head around, because they inherently rely on someone else’s subjective state of feeling bothered or threatened. But—to hammer home a point—the autistic community overwhelmingly believes that it’s on us not to make others feel bothered or threatened.

Author cuddling with his sister’s dog Ollie, who is objectively the best doggo ever.

BIO: Mark Engleson is a hunchbacked, autistic aspiring fiction writer and former stand-up philosopher who works as a technical writer/government consultant in Arlington, Virginia, leeching off the bloated carapace of America. He regularly posts on Twitter as @MarkJEngleson, providing updates on his life, which he describes as “a stack of flaming tires in a trolley in a collapsing mine shaft.” His music criticism can be found at ParkLifeDC and Lyric Magazine.

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