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A Perfect World (A Father's Quest to Unriddle the Mysteries of Autism) by David Cohen


David Cohen's remarkable book is both a journey and a story of home. After his three year-old son Eliot is diagnosed with autism, he travels the world to meet leading autism researchers, educators and clinicians. But the heart of the book is his moving meditation on family and what really makes a good life.

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How Arie Smith-Voorkamp is helping us become a more inclusive and connected society

About two weeks after the destructive Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011, a newspaper report showed the badly bruised face of a young man they called ‘the face of looting’ who had been caught stealing light fittings from a damaged property and had been remanded in jail. The Minister of Police herself responded with comments that she hoped looters would feel the force of the law and be jailed with (all its negative implications) a cellmate. However, later media reports revealed that the young man had Aspergers syndrome and a particular interest in light fittings, and was allegedly beaten by members of the police or army before being remanded in jail without bail for 11 days. This didn’t stop one of the more odious talk back radio hosts and media columnists attacking Arie and his family with some autism hate speech and eugenic diatribes. The Asperger community rallied and a lawyer with lived experience of autism managed to get Arie out on bail;  generously Arie  declined to make an official complaint. It seemed it would all be quickly resolved and Arie allowed to get on with his life.

However, the process dragged on. Significant social media interest ensured that Arie was not forgotten, and a more experienced defence lawyer took on the case pro bono as the police continued to refuse diversion (which would have ended the case) at a series of hearings. At the beginning of July he was once again remanded. On 10 July the TV1 Sunday current affairs programme ran an item called ‘A tale of two light bulbs’, in which Arie and his friend Michael were allowed to tell their own story. (As a parent of another 25 year old man with autism I just loved its authentic portrayal of the condition, such as Arie’s temporary distraction by a train while they were filming, and his intense honesty.) The programme also revealed that the building owners (an elderly couple) were not aware of the ‘burglary’ until Sunday contacted them a couple of weeks earlier; they confirmed it was a building derelict even before the first September earthquake, the fittings had little value, and their main concern for anyone entering the site was safety. In the programme Arie was shown visiting and apologising to them.

The obvious solution is for a kind electrician to give Arie a job or apprenticeship opportunity to utilise his extensive interest and knowledge of electrical systems. This is just the sort of initiative that is needed to rebuild the city of Christchurch.

Arie’s ‘case’ has raised interest and understanding about autism and aspergers, and has seen, possibly for the first time, a young autistic man talk about his own life on prime time television without any of that hero/tragedy overlay stuff that is the usual default position of ‘disability’ stories. The ‘case’ came into the public consciousness and stayed there for four months largely because of the power of social media. The intense public and media interest have seen extensive discussion: on dedicated facebook pages such as the one for ‘Justice for Arie Smith-Voorkamp’ (on which Arie and Michael have both commented); advocacy websites including those for Aspergers, and gay rights; as well as the mainstream blogosphere such as Russell Brown’s Public Address;  and commentators Brian Edwards and Chris Trotter. Many websites contain comments from other people with autism and family members on their own, often similar, experiences.

Even though there have been the inevitable negative feedback and responses, and the police and the justice system seem currently stuck in finding resolution, my belief is that Arie’s ‘case’ is one of those seminal and symbolic events which significantly shifts our way of seeing and thinking about difference and inclusion. In the past the only direction for someone like Arie would be incarceration in an institution, or forensic unit, likely with chemical straitjacket as ‘treatment’ for mental illness. However, in 2011 he is a resilient individual with a face and a voice, and expectations of an ordinary life. Without wanting to sound too sanctimonious, it’s an opportunity for the rest of us to reflect on our own individual and collective attitudes to autism, ‘disability’ and humanity.

Here are some links about Arie (First thread from 7 March which had 41,000 views)   (Second thread from 11 July)

Here is the Sunday programme from 10 July Sunday programme

For those from outside NZ who may not be able to access this here are some notes posted on facebook

Arie, 25 years of age, partner Michael (both appeared on the Documentary segment)

“Arie Smith is a name under close Police scrutiny” (Commentator)
“I’m too scared to go outside now” (Arie – referring to the beating’s effect)
“2 light bulbs from a building condemned” (Commentator)
“feast on Christchurch’s Carnage” (Laws – the building was wrecked prior to all earthquakes)
“I ain’t no wild animal” (Arie – referring to Laws calling him “feral”)
“Arie was charged and paraded by Police” (Commentator – referring to how he was paraded before soldiers for abuse)
“kept on suicide watch” (Commentator – referring to Arie’s remand for a week)
“didn’t wear a bike helmet” (Commentator – extracting information about Arie’s only previous offence)
“I love trains” (Arie – atopping his thoughts while seeing a train pass before him as he was being interviewed)
“an old PDL box-type light switch” (Commentator – referring to the third item that took Arie’s interest that he was dismantling at the time after getting two light bulbs)
“passed (the site) over and over again”, “it drives me bonkers” (Arie – referring to how he became obsessed about the fixtures”
“draws complicated electrical diagrams” (Commentator – noting Arie’s obvious intelligence)
“I’m pretty smart” (Arie – assessing his own intelligence)
“foster homes, neglect, abandonment” (Commentator – noting Arie’s harsh past)
“I was diagnosed at 13” (Arie)
“targetted by bullies and left school at 15” (Commentator)
“did community courses” (Commentator)
“self-taught on electrical” (Commentator)
“fixes light switches from old building sites” (Commentator)
“ignored modern switches” (Commentator)
“saw light bulbs” (and thought) “these will look good on show, on the mantelpiece” (Arie – explaining what he was doing in taking the abandoned items)
“I lit up like a bulb” when I saw them (Arie – referring to what he was thinking at the time)
“they can deny it, but I saw it was” (an assault) (Michael – referring to Arie being beaten)
“common assault, they treated him like a common animal” (Michael – referring to what he thought happened”
“I repeatedly told him not to go in – the building’s unsafe” (Michael – stating why he stayed outside at first)
“went in after 10 minutes to rescue him” (Michael – stating his purpose for being in the building”
“michael did nothing wrong” (Arie – referring to his partner’s role)
“a female cop came in first” (Arie)
“two army guys put handcuff’s on michael” (Arie)
“Arie was hysterical, there were three on him, two holding him down and one” tightening the handcuffs. Arie was saying ‘they are too tight already’” (Michael)
“elbowed him in the face, I heard it, like ‘clunk’” (Michael)
“he was hysterical and cuffed at the time and his face was on the ground” (Michael)
“punch at the back of the head” (Arie)
“Blacked out a couple of times” (Arie)
“Police say any involvement of army is spurious” (Commentator – quoting Police news release)
“common animal”, “physical assault” (Michael)
“if Police had taken a calmer approach, they would have stopped the hysteria” (Michael)
“taking the piss out of him ‘you a bit funny are you?’” (Michael – giving example of Police making matters worse because of Aries stutter etc.)
“coz of the punishment what I got I’m even too scared to go out” (Arie – referring to the life he now leads as a result of the beating)
“I don’t ever want to go to jail. It was terrifying” (Arie – suggesting why he was not up to make a complaint against Police)
“Andrew and Irene Matsis have been the buildings owners for over 40 years” (Commentator – introducing a nice oldish couple who owned the pre-earthquake derelict structure)
“I realise I put Police in jeopardy” (Arie – referring to the harm of his actions in going into the dangerous building”
“nothing of value” (Matsis – referring to the items Arie was interested in, took)
“telling them off” (Matsis – referring to correct punishment due because the building was dangerous to enter)
“would not have pressed charges – of course not” (Matsis – referring to correct punishment due)
“he is welcome to them and you can tell the Police” (Matsis – referring to the two light bulbs)
“serious nature” (Commentator – referring to Police press release of how they considered the charges)
“unblemished record” (Commentator – referring to Arie’s past)
“4 months, 6 remands” (Commentator – referring to ordeal for Arie)
“long backlog of cases” (Lawyer – referring to legal situation in earthquake damaged Christchurch at present)
“a forensic enquiry that will be expensive and a waste of resources” (Lawyer – referring to what path the Police have chosen)
“I want to apologise for taking two light bulbs” (Arie – to the Matsis couple)
“they (Police) should have rung us up” (Matsis – not understanding why this was all being done in their name without any say so)
“a bright future” (Commentator – referring to Arie’s future in electrical work etc.)
“hopes to be an electrician” (Commentator)
“Police have visited the Matsis’ twice” (Commentator – referring to the sinister way Police have leant on the Matsis couple to retract any concern they had for how Arie had been treated)
“Police have told us that Sunday are under criminal investigation as a result of our story” (Commentator – ending with the most sinister part of all, that Police are trying to muzzle/prosecute Sunday for running the story)

Posted in Uncategorized by Hilary Stace on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011 at 12:55 pm. Follow responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

7 responses to “How Arie Smith-Voorkamp is helping us become a more inclusive and connected society”

  • Gravatar

    Hilary wrote on July 12th, 2011 at 1:02 pm:

    While I was writing this another thread popped up on a another popular website

  • Gravatar

    Hilary wrote on July 12th, 2011 at 2:00 pm:

    The building owners were apparently notified of the burglary first by the programme makers.

  • Gravatar

    Hilary wrote on July 12th, 2011 at 3:21 pm:

    Corrected now, thanks Sacha. How do we attach twitter and facebook links to humans?

  • Gravatar

    Leith McMurray wrote on July 12th, 2011 at 3:43 pm:

    Aspiehelp ( is a service set up last year to mentor and counsel adults with Asperger Syndrome. The two staff members have lived experience of Asperger Syndrome as well as qualifications in Social and Pastoral Work.

    The Aspire Trust has been set up to underpin the work of Aspiehelp and is a registered Charitable Trust.
    Please view our site for more information on what we provide now and what we aspire to do!

  • Gravatar

    Hilary wrote on July 17th, 2011 at 8:50 pm:

    What was not revealed in the programme was that Michael was also arrested, hit by a police woman, spat on by the army, and spent 6 weeks in jail for the same incident. All for protecting Arie. He and Arie both come up for sentencing on the 28th July. Michael has been warned he may get another six months jail.

    On a more positive note, there was a follow up to the Sunday programme tonight, 17 July, showing a nice electrician from Brighton Christchurch (incidentally one of those areas badly hit by the earthquake) bringing Arie some bulbs, wiring and switches, and offering him one day’s work experience a week. That’s a start. It was great to see Arie look so happy though.

  • Gravatar

    Hilary wrote on August 22nd, 2011 at 11:39 am:

    All charges against Arie dropped today after an ongoing campaign by friends and supporters

  • Gravatar

    Thi Lynn wrote on February 10th, 2013 at 10:57 pm:

    AS is stands for Aspergers Syndrome. It is neurobiological type disarray and it is found in each age group people like children, younger’s and adults. Aspergers Syndrome affects the basic life skill like communication, interaction with others and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. Aspergers is completely related to the autism spectrum on. Aspergers is well know pervasive developmental disorder and it is known to hamper or we can say that it hamper a person who are suffering from this syndrome form study, interaction with others, communication and frequently speaking. Generally it is characterized by communication problem with others difficulty in relating with other people, can’t avoid repetitive body movements hate changes in routine deep think about certain topics and strange play with. Many people are don’t know about the these type problem in earlier days, people usually emphasized more on health instead of wealth in their life, and like to live a healthy life. But nowadays people are not aware about their health and running behind money. .

    Head to our personal webpage as well