Casual Apologies

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.

It’s been an odd week. The UK is back in full lockdown as Covid-19 cases surge and the death toll rises alarmingly. America is in meltdown as someone enables irony mode on the democracy menu.

I’m typing this on Saturday morning, feeling, if I’m honest, rather low. It’s partly the pandemic, it’s partly the political situation in the UK and USA, it’s partly back pain. But the sky outside is clear, the sun is shining, and hopefully later today, I’m going to take a walk over to the park and get some fresh air.

I’ve been back at work this week for the first time since I was hospitalised in the run-up to Christmas with a horrible back problem. I was rushed into A&E, and admitted for a few days, during which gas and air, morphine, diazepam, codeine, and paracetamol were used side-by-side to get my pain under control. An MRI revealed a problem with a disc, but surgery is not currently an option. The consultant expects the problem to get better gradually, and meanwhile I have been referred for physiotherapy.

It’s been good to be back at work. The concern from my colleagues was very touching, and it meant a lot to me. There are a number of aspects to my job that I get a lot of satisfaction from. Some of that is from working in a not-for-profit setting, and being a tiny, tiny cog in a big machine that genuinely helps people. It was good being back in the saddle, but my back pain went up and down through the week. By Thursday, I was struggling somewhat, and then someone showed me the weather forecast for Friday, which predicted heavy snow, traffic disruption, etc, in my city, Sheffield. I didn’t fancy getting stuck in snow while dealing with severe back pain and reduced physical mobility, so I booked a day’s annual leave at short notice. And what happened? Friday came with a light rain shower, and a little mist. Not a single flake of snow in my area. Still, it was probably the right decision to have an extra day away from the office, and give my back a bit of a rest.

Something else happened this week. I got a reply from Sky TV regarding the Casual Insult which was the subject of last week’s blog. The short recap is that on New Year’s Eve, I switched on the TV in the middle of a Sky One show called Football’s Funniest Bits, in which a c-list celebrity described goalkeepers as, “shall we say, on the spectrum”. It was a way of saying goalkeepers are a bit weird. It annoyed the hell out of me, as I am sick and tired of hearing phrases like on the spectrum used as casual insults, and so I complained to Sky TV about it. I predicted nothing satisfactory would come from the complaint, as I have had previous experiences with Sky that led me to conclude they are neither an ethical nor customer-focused outfit. (I should point out I don’t have a Sky TV subscription; I was watching a family member’s Sky box.)

Anyway, the response from Sky has arrived, and I want to talk about it here, because I think it tells us something about how autistic people are seen by the general population, and it tells us something about Sky, and how seriously they take this kind of thing. So, first of all, let’s have a look at the emailed reply they sent, and then I’ll tackle some of the issues it raises.


Dear Darren,

Thank you for taking the time to contact SKY regarding ‘Football’s Funniest: Best Bits’ (11am:31/12/20: SKY 1) and your patience while we investigated.

‘Football’s Funniest’ is a light-hearted, irreverent compilation show originally produced in 2017 looking back at more comedic moments of football coverage featuring various contributions and comments from celebrities including footballers and comedians.

Firstly, we would like to apologise. We are genuinely sorry to hear that you were unhappy with comments made during the show. Sky is a responsible broadcaster and it is never our intention to upset or offend our viewers.

We have now reviewed the section of this programme that includes the comment about the possibility of goalkeepers being on the spectrum. We note that this programme was filmed a number of years ago, at a time when this phrase may have been more widely used, and we do not believe that Tom Davis, who made the comment in a light-hearted manner, intended any offence to the Autistic Community. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that this comment has the potential to cause offence.

As such, we thank you for bringing the inclusion of this comment to our attention, and assure you that should this programme be aired again, this comment will be removed from the programme.


As you can see from the text of the email, Sky seem to have apologised: “Firstly, we would like to apologise” is the exact quote. Of course, the apology was not “firstly” at all, it was in the third paragraph, which could sound like I’m being incredibly pedantic and petty, but bear with we, because there’s more to this than meets first glance.

As I have previously blogged about, words have power. As a species, we function via language. Our words, whether spoken, written, or encoded in memes, disseminate ideas which affect attitudes and behaviours, and help create, sustain or disperse social trends. When I say “words have power”, I’m not just referring to instances such as Churchillian speeches designed to inspire a nation to war, but also to the subtle drip-drip effect of ideas disseminated hour by hour, week by week, year by year, in books, on TV, and at pubs, cafes, restaurants, and in living rooms. Our society is pretty horrible at times. I think of the awful situations that have led us to the Black Lives Matter movement, and #MeToo. I think of the long years in which gay people had to hide their sexuality for fear of prosecution, and some of the horror that could come with that, as people like Alan Turing famously discovered. But despite progress made, we still find people using the N word and P word as insults, and we still find people victim blaming women who have been sexually attacked, and we still find words like gay and queer being used as insults. And yes, we still find autistic and on the spectrum being used as insults, casually. Oh, so casually. If you haven’t heard, at some point in recent times, phrases such as, she was asking for it, or totally gay, or on the spectrum used in derogatory ways, sometimes with a laugh or chuckle, you’ve either led a sheltered life, or you haven’t been paying attention. The casual manner of these abusive terms, used daily across society, are part of a powerful drip-drip of ideas that maintain the notion that anyone who doesn’t fit a narrow definition of normal or average is in some way lesser; not quite a full human being; not due the same rights and respect as others.

So with all this in mind, let’s go back to Sky’s emailed apology to me, and see what ideas it contains, shall we?



I’m okay with the first paragraph; it’s just a cookie-cutter opening, thanking me for raising the issue. Bu then before going on to apologise, (which is falsely claimed to be firstly) it slips in a nasty second paragraph:

‘Football’s Funniest’ is a light-hearted, irreverent compilation show originally produced in 2017 looking back at more comedic moments of football coverage featuring various contributions and comments from celebrities including footballers and comedians.

In a short paragraph of only thirty-two words, there are five references to humour. Why did the Sky representative feel the need to write this paragraph? What was the purpose of the appeal to humour? And more importantly, what subtle biases does it reveal?

Let’s start with purpose. When an organisation or business receives a complaint, often they will try to trivialise it, even when an apology is forthcoming. This is because the business wants to admit as little liability or culpability as possible, in order to protect the reputation of their brand. The exceptions tend to be for complaints regarding something that the senior management of the organisation recognise as a sensitive subject, in which case, occasionally, unreserved apologies are forthcoming. Clearly, Sky TV do not yet see the interests of autistic people as a sensitive subject, as this paragraph which precedes the apology is basically saying with its five references to humour, Yes, we’re going to apologise, but come on Darren, it was just a bit of fun! Lighten up! It is trying to trivialise the grounds for complaint. (It also sneaks in another trivialising factor, which I’ll come to shortly.)

But let’s move on to what biases the appeal to humour encodes. There’s a long-standing stereotype of autistic people that we don’t have a sense of humour, and can’t get jokes. It’s entirely false and untrue, and Joe Wells, a comedian who happens to be autistic, gets some good material from this (look him up on YouTube). The autistic people don’t have a sense of humour trope is so ingrained into common belief that autistic people regularly joke about it and share memes about it on social media.

But Sky clearly don’t need facts in the way of their unconscious biases which, believe me, is exactly what this paragraph of their apology reveals. The bias revealed here is one that says, Darren, if you had a sense of humour, you wouldn’t have raised this complaint. The attitude of it stinks.

Okay then, let’s move onto the actual apology from Sky, and see what that tells us:

Firstly, we would like to apologise. We are genuinely sorry to hear that you were unhappy with comments made during the show. Sky is a responsible broadcaster and it is never our intention to upset or offend our viewers.”

I think just about anyone reading this can see the obvious two problems. They’re so obvious that it’s almost embarrassing having to discuss it, but – sigh – I will because autistic people are incapable of leaving any task unfinished*.

Sky have not actually apologised for causing any offence, here. They’re just saying they are sorry if I’m upset, and then, secondly, telling me what a wonderful company they are who would never do anything to upset anyone. But it gets worse. This complaint isn’t about me being offended (although the comment was offensive) – it is about the propagation of unfair and unhelpful stereotypes of autistic people, disseminated via casual insults. That is what Sky should have apologised for. When you look at it, this isn’t even an apology at all. This mock-apology tells you all you need to know about how seriously Sky take autistic people. If Sky were the responsible broadcaster they claim to be, editorial control would have meant that the show would never have been broadcast with the comment included.

Moving on to the next paragraph:

We have now reviewed the section of this programme that includes the comment about the possibility of goalkeepers being on the spectrum. We note that this programme was filmed a number of years ago, at a time when this phrase may have been more widely used, and we do not believe that Tom Davis, who made the comment in a light-hearted manner, intended any offence to the Autistic Community. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that this comment has the potential to cause offence.”

Oh boy. Here we go. The first problem here is one I alluded to above; a second attempt at trivialising the grounds for complaint. This time, it’s with an appeal to history. You’ll remember that in the first paragraph, Sky kindly explained to the poor autistic boy who’d complained that this show was originally produced way back in 2017, when it was, apparently okay to say stuff like this. And now we have this: We note that this programme was filmed a number of years ago, at a time when this phrase may have been more widely used. Another appeal to history – all of three-and-a-bit years!

Let me be clear – it has never been okay to use the phrase on the spectrum as a casual insult, not even in the Jurassic prehistory of 2017. Furthermore, I don’t accept that the phrase was more widely used back then. If anything, autism awareness has exploded since August 2018, largely due to Greta Thunberg entering the public consciousness. The phrase on the spectrum is now used more frequently than ever before.

In this paragraph too, we finally get the name of the celebrity who used the phrase: Tom Davis. I haven’t a clue who this guy is, and I know nothing about him. I have no idea whether he intended to cause offence or not, but the offence thing is almost irrelevant when you look at the wider picture I’m attempting to illustrate here. Once again, Sky use the term light-hearted to trivialise the issue with an appeal to humour. The more you look into their short email, the less it seems like an apology, and the more it seems like a complete dismissal of autistic people, doesn’t it?

We’re nearly finished now, but there’s a little more to cover. That final paragraph:

As such, we thank you for bringing the inclusion of this comment to our attention, and assure you that should this programme be aired again, this comment will be removed from the programme.”

That’s a victory for autistic people, and for my complaint, isn’t it? The comment from Tom Davis will not be aired again. I’m so happy, I might have to stim**. But there’s something sneaky going on here, isn’t there? Up until now, Sky have done everything to trivialise, mitigate, and protect their brand, with appeals to history and humour, and outright deception about frequency of the use of the term on the spectrum. And they are sure Tom Davis meant no offence. So why are they removing the comment from the show, then? Why are they upholding that part of my complaint? Because someone, somewhere, at Sky knows that the rights of autistic people will at some stage become a sensitive issue. They know that a significant group of people will understand that the comment made by Tom Davis was out of order, and that it was out of order for Sky to broadcast it… but Sky don’t like that. They don’t want to admit to me they are in the wrong.



I can’t help thinking that this blog post would have been much shorter if Sky had responded with something like this:

Dear Darren. We’ve reviewed the programme. The comment about autistic people was in poor taste, and it shouldn’t have been broadcast. We’re disappointed in our editorial controls. We’re going to make sure that comment is never aired again, and we unreservedly apologise. If a response like that had been received, not only would this blog post have been much shorter, but I would have been forced to rethink my opinion of their brand, and even champion their enlightened response. Instead, I’ve had to spend yet another morning writing about why it’s not okay to use on the spectrum as a casual insult.


That’s all for this time. I’m sorry this post has been so downbeat, but sometimes it’s difficult to be humorous and lighthearted about being part of a community that is so regularly and casually dismissed and insulted.

Have a great week, I’ll see you next time. Oh, wait… there’s just this…

*As an autistic person who apparently has no sense of humour, I’m not sure whether I made a joke here, or just perpetuated an unfair stereotype, so any advice or help from neurotypical persons, especially comedians or celebrities, would be appreciated.

** See above.

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