Not long ago, Orange County, NY, dismissed a man from a volunteer position he had held for many years. The grounds for dismissal? Another employee complained that James McElwee, age 35, “violated her personal space” and made her feel uncomfortable
No details are available on what constituted that violation. All we know is that McElwee has Asperger’s Syndrome and many people feel uncomfortable, even threatened, in the presence of someone who’s a little bit different. Aspergerians have limited social skills and don’t always realize the effect they are having on others. McElwee himself has no recollection of any problems with that coworker. He was warned to stay away from her, and he did—by not going to work for a week. At the end of that week, they dismissed him.
Even though the job was volunteer, it meant a lot to him. He was a custodian and general helper at a nursing home and he liked interacting with the residents there. The work made him feel useful. It validated his existence. He had been there nine years. He felt so much a part of the home that he returned a week later to sing Christmas carols with the group. A security guard barred his way. He was no longer allowed on the premises.
In a suit against the county, attorney Stephen Bergstein pointed out that its action violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. It failed to take into account the fact of McElwee’s Asperger’s syndrome, and how it can affect a person’s perception and behavior. The incident is especially ironic because the job came under a countywide program designed to assist “disabled volunteers in that it improves their self-esteem” and allows them to be part of the community by providing valuable services to elderly and infirm persons. The suit is still pending.
At the same time, in a neighboring county, another James with Asperger’s syndrome lost his job for essentially the same reason. He made someone “uncomfortable.” The charges against him did not state this specifically but that was how it all began.
His name was James Ryo Kiyan. He was usually known as Ryo, a Japanese name. His paternal grandparents came from Okinawa.
Ryo worked as a cartographer with the Sullivan County Division of Planning and Environmental Management. He did his work well and his maps can still be seen in various parts of Sullivan County. But because he had Asperger’s, he failed to grasp how other people saw him. The other people, in turn, couldn’t understand how he saw things. As many Aspergerians have said, it’s as if they’ve been set down on the wrong planet. If Planet Earth seems strange to them, theirs is all but incomprehensible to Earthlings, otherwise known as neurotypicals, or NTs.
Because NTs are in the majority, they get to make the rules. As we pointed out in a previous post, this all too often works to the disadvantage of Aspies. It’s sort of like a culture clash, with neither side able to understand or relate to the other. Like James McElwee, Ryo was warned to stay away from the complaining coworker. He asked for details on how he could avoid someone he saw every day, with whom he had to interact in his work. Instructions for those with Asperger’s must be clear and concrete, but no one understood that. To them, his asking seemed impertinent and was another strike against him.
He was shocked and humiliated one day when two sheriff’s deputies came to escort him out of the office in full view of his coworkers. The show of force was unnecessary. He was a peaceable man and would have gone anywhere they asked. They sent him home on suspension.
They said there would be charges and a hearing. He still didn’t know what he had done that should call for such a reaction, but he retained the services of a civil rights attorney. Little did he know that the complaining coworker had built up such a tale of terror that she took to carrying a knife and pepper spray, and watched every day to see where he parked his car. She may have had issues of her own. He would never know. But those who followed the case suspect there was more to it than met the eye.
For more on this case, how it developed, and how it inspired a young adult novel currently in the works, stay tuned.