I’m not in the habit of writing down my conversations but I really enjoyed one I had last night with the manager of a Hero Burger at Yonge and King. I stopped in for a sandwich after a short work shift and he looked exhausted while serving an oddly large number of security guards in their white shirts and ridiculous gear.

“They’re all coming from the convention centre,” he said, “That big nerd thing. They’ve been coming in nonstop all day.”

“The security?” I asked. “No, the freaks,” he said. “Aww, no,” I laughed, “Those are my people! What did they do to you?”

He sighed and explained that he’d spent a day serving burgers to people with absolutely no social skills and dressed in lunatic costumes. It had obviously been taxing for him. “It’s like they have no idea how to deal with real people,” he moaned.

“Well, some of them kinda don’t,” I said, “That’s the problem.” I explained how autistic people can’t read the feelings of others–a terrible handicap, in my opinion–and what a relief fantasy and roleplay can be. Most people love all that for providing a temporary escape from the pressures of the real world but yes, there are some who might stay too long in a fantasy world that’s happier than the real one that is confusing or cruel to them. But having lived in Toronto for two decades now, I’ve endured enough boorish Maple Leaf hockey obsessives with faces painted blue to ever disparage anyone in a Klingon suit.

I fell back on an old joke: “Just think of it as Gay Pride for weirdos.” He just frowned but admitted that some of it did seem fun and started talking about one of his employees who, he says, went to FanExpo in some kind of anime costume. “It figures. She has that thing, that…Asperger’s?” he said, but went on to say how much he liked her and what he called her bluntness. “She tells it like it is, you know?”

“Oh, I do,” I laughed and now enthused, he began to tell me about a younger cousin of his with the same issues (as you’ve guessed by now, Hero Burger takes a whole lot longer than McDonald’s but their delicious salmon burger is really worth the wait).

Before his story though, I feel compelled to wedge in this great clip of autistic author Temple Grandin being interviewed by George Stroumboulopoulos:

The Hero manager told me what seems like the classic Asperger’s story, describing his young cousin as having “come a long way. He just enrolled in university and he’s studying to become a paleontologist.”

“Lemme guess,” I said, “He really likes dinosaurs?” He laughed and said, “Oh God, you’ve no idea. We couldn’t shut him up! He was crazy about them, like…crazy!”

“But see,” I gushed, “now he’s channelling that obsession into something real. You didn’t all try and beat it out of him and now he might end up being a good scientist.” Handing me my sandwich, the manager said, “I hope so. I remember one day I offered to take all the kids to the theme park but he seemed totally uninterested. He was always like that. No feeling, just cold, you know? So I came over in the car and took the other kids and we left but later my sister told me he was really upset at being left out.”

“Of course!” I said, a little more loudly than I’d intended, “He’d have no sense from the other kids of being excited nor be spontaneous enough to say he would be either. But he must have been devastated.”

“Yeah, he was,” said the manager, who then went quiet and once again, I realized too late that I’d probably just rubbed salt in an old wound. “But yeah, he’s really doing well now,” he said brightly. “We’re proud of him.”

Now unlike this gentleman, I obviously love going to the big nerd convention but one thing there has always irked me: as geeks gather to enjoy their shared passions and repair the self-esteem left fragile from their high-school hell, you hear a lot of people calling the so-called ordinary people “mundanes” (or, if you’re around the Harry Potter fans, “muggles”). It’s a typical reaction to oppression, no different than gay people calling the straights “breeders,” but it’s frustrating to see people who clearly need more understanding sealing themselves off from it in some linguistic ghetto. We need less labels, not new ones, however helpful they might be in the short term.

But all that said, I was weirdly pleased by this sketch comedy bit I stumbled across. Depending on where one might fall on the autism spectrum, it could be considered offensive but, like the Community clip up top, I laughed at it because Asperger’s jokes are still new and I think a little teasing is healthy for “aspies” and “mundanes” alike, struggling to understand each other. Making fun of autistic people is uncomfortable but it beats silence. I’m hoping it’s like the classic Gandhi quote: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” I’m hoping we’ll go from the laughing part right into a win:


About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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