The case of Sullivan County vs. James Ryo Kiyan might have ended differently if Ryo’s Asperger’s syndrome had been taken into account.
Those with Asperger’s experience the world in a way that is hard to describe and almost impossible for others to understand. Ryo knew he was incurring disfavor, but he couldn’t stop. All he wanted was that treasured friendship with Miss M. He wanted her to like him, to understand him, and his persistence only made things worse. It might have helped if he had had someone, call it an advocate, who could have explained at the hearings how Asperger’s feels and how it works. At one point this was suggested to the family, but they had no idea how to find such a person. All Ryo had was his attorney, Michael Sussman, who mentioned Asperger’s only once during the hearing and who had stopped Ryo from submitting proof of his diagnosis to the hearing officer, Lynda Levine, Esq. In that void, Ms. Levine could only give a negative report with the recommendation that Ryo’s employment with the county be terminated. The grounds were sexual harassment (for upsetting Miss M), as well as insubordination (for not obeying the rules laid down by his superiors).
He knew he had done wrong, but hadn’t realized it was that wrong. Not wrong enough to bring down his whole world. Until then, he had clung to the hope that they would realize he meant no harm, despite Miss M’s assertion that she had been terrified into carrying a knife and pepper spray. To those who knew him, that was almost laughable. Miss M wasn’t laughing. Apparently she didn’t know him, or didn’t know any other way of getting him off her back. Nor did Ms. Levine, Esq. The last tenuous hope was that Luiz Aragon, the new Commissioner of Planning, who had never met Ryo, might relent.
In December of 2009, the axe fell. Ryo was formally dismissed.
All during the hearings, Mrs. Kiyabu was forced to stay quiet. Now she felt compelled to speak up, and wrote the following letter:
Dear Ms. Levine:
As you can probably tell by my name, I am Ryo Kiyan’s mother. I attended all four sessions of the hearings about his case at the end of last summer. At that time I heard Mr. Sussman ask each witness a series of questions as to whether they noticed anything that could be construed as harassment of a sexual nature. All but one (regarding an oblique reference to Miss M’s physical appearance), were answered in the negative. In your report, however, you mentioned sexual harassment several times. It is a stigma that could follow Ryo all his life. That stigma, and the loss of his job—the first he ever really enjoyed—have him so despondent that he feels his life is over.
On the minus side of Mr. Sussman’s performance, for reasons of his own he chose to downplay the fact that Ryo is afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, which was the chief cause of his obsessive and persistent behavior. It is a known fact that people with Asperger’s, in their loneliness, tend to assume a friendship where there is none. That is exactly what happened. When Ryo received a formal diagnosis last July and wanted to submit the proof to you, Mr. Sussman discouraged him. He also never brought in the severe depression that Ryo suffered as a result of his year-long battle with cancer and the ravages of chemotherapy, which gave him a fragile emotional state. Having faced death, he was eager to live again and have friends.
I am not expecting anyone to change the decision. What’s done is done, and the job is gone now anyway. Ryo knows he made a mistake in pestering Miss M, and he kept trying to apologize to her and repair the friendship that he (mistakenly) thought existed. Because of the Asperger’s, those efforts were too much and too many. He realizes that now. Considering his disability—and it is a disability—the whole mess could have been avoided with a simple mediation session. He would have understood. He is extremely intelligent, as many people like him are. They only flunk when it comes to social situations. By the way, this letter is my own. Ryo knows nothing about it.
As fully expected, Ms. Levine never responded. With its work done, and the oddball successfully eradicated, the county was ready to move on.