Part 87: You Can’t Do That, (Autistic) Son.


Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I’ve mentioned recently in this blog that I’ve not been well. While there have been some physical health issues to deal with, I’m also struggling badly with depression, and I’ve found I have withdrawn from life somewhat. I’m burned out by the neurotypical world. It feels really odd being able to stand back from myself and make the dispassionate assessment that, yes, I am both depressed and burned out. I can see it, I can understand it, but I don’t feel able to do anything about it, and understanding the situation in no way makes me feel any better. Virtually all the interaction I am having with other human beings right now is online, and while I value being part of the online autistic community more than words can express, there is a nagging part of my mind telling me I should be out there more, whatever that means. The only real pleasure I have found in life recently has been my reignited interest in football. I love football, although I have fallen out with it a couple of times in my life. But recently, I have been reading football biographies, watching football on TV, watching football documentaries and so on. I’m fascinated by football tactics, and also by the mental strength of top players and managers who get to the very pinnacle of a demanding yet hugely privileged profession. But football, the fans, and the players, can be a bit shitty at times. And when discrimination against autistic people overlaps with the nastier side of football, it’s bound to get my goat…

In January of 1995, footballing genius Eric Cantona lost his shit, and assaulted a fan with a flying kung fu kick that has gone down in history as one of the most notorious events in the game. It wasn’t a straightforward situation. Cantona claimed the Crystal Palace supporter called his (Cantona’s) mother a whore, along with hurling several other insults. Some people thought Cantona’s response was understandable; that fans shouldn’t be able to get away with anything. But most people agreed that even if Cantona was severely provoked, it didn’t justify a violent assault. The fan ended up in court, and so did Cantona. As his manager, Alex Ferguson, reportedly said to Cantona afterwards, “Eric… you can’t do that, son.”

How would I have reacted if some oik had shouted to me that my mother was a whore? It wouldn’t have been pleasant, let’s say. But you can’t just go around assaulting people because you’re upset. Top-flight football stars are always under the spotlight. They are scrutinised relentlessly. It comes with the territory, as they are in high-profile jobs, earning obscene amounts of money, and enjoying all the trappings of fame. Abuse from fans is not justified by this fame, but unfortunately, there are too many fools in the world, and footballers have to accept their profile, and respond to provocation in the correct way.

What does all this have to with autism, you might ask. I’m getting there. You see, a few days ago, the once-mighty Manchester United travelled to struggling Everton for a Premier League fixture. Everton won. You can imagine the Manchester United stars, already frustrated with their underperformance throughout the season, would be unhappy with this latest humiliation. And it seemed some of that frustration boiled over when superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, on leaving the pitch, saw a child apparently levelling his phone’s camera at him. Ronaldo, no stranger to petulance, slapped the kid’s phone out of his hand. This was a pathetic, petulant and childish reaction. There is nothing to suggest that anyone insulted his mother. There was just some of the usual jeering from opposition fans. Ronaldo overreacted – you can’t do that, son. Although in the big scheme of things, it was fairly minor – certainly not on the scale of a king fu kick – it does still constitute an assault on a child. I don’t want to demonise Ronaldo, so let’s cover off a couple of things about him before we go any further…

Ronaldo was born and raised in a poor area of Portugal. His early life was poverty-stricken. He escaped the poverty trap through his footballing talent. He went on to play for some of the biggest football teams on the planet. His achievements and stats in football are staggering. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest sportsmen of all time. Football has made him immensely wealthy. He has used some of his wealth to make considerable charitable donations, including helping children. He’s not all bad. His sportsmanship has been called into question, however, particularly after the infamous wink incident (google it).

So… back to Ronaldo slapping a phone out of a kid’s hand. Ronaldo made a public apology (well, an Instagram post…), and invited the kid to Manchester United to see a game and be made a fuss of. The would have been a hell of a treat for a football-mad kid, and you might expect he would have jumped at the chance, and soon the assault would all be forgotten about. However… the child’s mum refused Ronaldo’s offer, and it was revealed that the kid was autistic. And it is at this point; the revelation that the kid is autistic, that the shit hits the fan and everything goes ballistic, in a way that is all too predictable for any autistic person. All of a sudden, the inevitable social media debate was no longer about a world-famous sporting star petulantly assaulting a child, but about how the child’s autism is irrelevant, but maybe the autistic kid should behave himself. I became embroiled in a Facebook thread about this, and was left dismayed, but not in the slightest bit surprised, by the reaction of commenters. There are some thoughts that can be drawn from the comments, and that’s where the rest of this blog post is going. First of all, I want to share with you a few screenshots of comments on the thread. I could have chosen many more, but this will give you a flavour of the mood:

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Don’t take my word for it – visit the Facebook thread yourself to see that the comments I’ve just shown you are a pretty accurate reflection of the majority opinion. The gist of it all is that people think the mother of the child is trying to get some money out of Ronaldo by way of compensation, and that the kid’s autism is irrelevant to the situation, and he must have provoked Ronaldo anyway, with some bad behaviour. Now, this “autism is irrelevant” thing is something I’ll come back to. I want to briefly address the other points, first, though:

The idea that the mum has approached the media as a starting point for getting money from Ronaldo is ridiculous. This incident was so high-profile, that the media have beaten a path to the family’s door to try to get some reaction. As for getting money from Ronaldo… well, maybe the mum will pursue him through legal means, maybe not. Who knows? But one thing is for sure; if Ronaldo hadn’t assaulted the kid, she wouldn’t be able to. It is simply victim-blaming to try to shift focus from Ronaldo’s behaviour to the kid and his mum. To use a suitably childish argument that these commenters might understand: Ronaldo started it.

Did the kid provoke Ronaldo? The football match was the first time the kid had ever been to a football match, so he’s not exactly a hardened hooligan. Also, he’s an Everton fan, but was also a great fan of Ronaldo, so it’s unlikely he was having a go at the superstar. Mainly, though, he’s just a kid. Ronaldo was completely out of order. But now let’s move to the crux of my point: Is it really irrelevant that the kid is autistic?

Many people commenting on the Facebook thread insisted that the kid being autistic had nothing to do with the incident, and that the mother was wrong to bring it up. There were two prongs to these comments. The first prong seems to be incredulity: Why is the mother mentioning the child is autistic? That’s got nothing to do with what Ronaldo did! And to be fair, that’s true as far as it goes, but there is a little bit more to it than that, as you will see. The second prong is that the only possible reason the boy’s mum could be mentioning his autism is as a way of extracting money from Ronaldo – there can’t possibly be any other reason, right? Well, I’m going to show that both these prongs are grossly mistaken, and reveal the underlying bias against autistic people. Sometimes, that bias comes from people you might not expect – for example, parents of autistic children. But many, many autistic people will be painfully aware of the anti-autism bias and discrimination of some (not all) parents of autistic kids. So, let’s look at some more screenshots from the Facebook thread, including some of my own responses…

The next comment is from a different person, interjecting:

Now, back to the first person I replied to…

Following the above, I had an interaction with another person, who I had said seemed to be badly informed:

I think my last comment here really carries the main point: The mother of the autistic kid refused Ronaldo’s offer of the trip to Old Trafford, etc. Her reason appears to be twofold: Firstly, as she said, why would a “blue” (Everton fan) make this trip to see a “red” (Manchester United player)? She might not have phrased it particularly eloquently, but the point is; surely Ronaldo should have made the effort to go and see the kid, rather than summoning him. Secondly, and autism becomes relevant here: The boy has already been shocked by the incident, and will react differently to it than a non-autistic kid. In light of this, the idea of going to Old Trafford to see the guy who slapped his phone out his hand might just be too daunting. As an autistic person, I can understand this, and empathise with the boy all too well. This is why his autism is relevant. Autism is always relevant to autistic people; always, always, always, in all areas of life.

The most disturbing thing about the discussion on the thread, though, is the bias; the assumption that the autistic kid must have done something wrong, and that his mother was negligent by taking him to the match. I’m autistic, and I’ve been to loads of matches; loads! Who are these neurotypicals to decide whether it’s okay for an autistic person to go to a football match? Why do they get to decide? Who do they think they are? There’s the accusation from one commenter that the autistic boy was hurling abuse at Ronaldo. There seems to be zero evidence of this, but that doesn’t stop one commenter insisting the boy’s mother shouldn’t have let him do it if he was so (autistic) “sensitive”. This particular commenter wouldn’t let it drop; for all her agreement that Ronaldo was in the wrong, she had to keep adding that the autistic boy must be in the wrong, too, even though there is no evidence of him being a provocative hooligan.

The bias, then, is twofold: Saying the fact that the kid is autistic is irrelevant is wrong: Autism is always relevant where an autistic person is concerned, and it goes a long way to explaining why the kid’s mum refused Ronaldo’s invitation to Old Trafford. The assumption that the kid must have done something wrong is also a bias, because it depends so much on what these commenters have, in a previous breath, said is irrelevant; autism. The talk of teaching an autistic kid to be “kind” in response to that child being assaulted by an adult is mindblowing. It simply draws on the hurtful myth that autistic people are emotionless and unempathetic, and is hardly the same as saying autism is irrelevant. To insist the only reason the mother would make it public that her son is autistic is to get money from Ronaldo is disingenuous on two fronts: Firstly, if the assault is worthy of financial compensation, surely that would be the case for any child, autistic or not? Secondly, as already stated, the kid being autistic is the explanation for the refusal to accept Ronaldo’s offer. If no explanation had been given for the refusal, people would no doubt have still insisted the mother was looking for financial compensation! You literally cannot argue with people who have abandoned reason.

Interlude: A brief message

I will never put this blog behind a paywall. I want anyone, anywhere, to be able to access this content at any time. There are costs incurred running this website, however. So if you like what I’m trying to do here, please feel free to show your support with a small contribution via Okay, back to the blog.

None of the attitudes displayed by these people in the thread surprised me at all. It upset me, for sure, but none of it was surprising. This bias against autistic people is pervasive. In any conflict between an autistic person and a non-autistic person, the general assumption is that the autistic person must be to blame. I see this daily, either in my own interactions, or those of other autistic people I know. Autism might not have been relevant to Cristiano Ronaldo when he stuck out his bottom lip and slapped that phone away, but it was certainly relevant to all the non-autistic commenters when this boy’s mum had the nerve to actually mention that the reason her son was so upset was that he is autistic.

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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.


Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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