The 80s And My Autism Spectrum Disorder: Some Reflections On My Life
I've lived all my life with an autism spectrum disorder that was previously classified as Asperger's Syndrome. In some ways, it's been a blessing. For example, one aspect of the disorder is an intense focus on a certain subject. For some, it might be dinosaurs. For others, it might be closing logos or trains. For me, it's the pop culture of the 1980s, and that intense focus has allowed me the chance to make friends with people who saw the decade first-hand and, in many cases, made the pop culture of the 80s so memorable.
There is a downside to my autism spectrum disorder, though, and that's having difficulty understanding figurative language, as well as things like irony, teasing and sarcasm. How has that played a part in my 80s fandom? I would like to discuss some aspects of that today. I had previously tried discussing this in an article for my former writing base, RetroJunk, that was written in the late 00s, but I lacked the understanding of my ASD back then, so I wasn't able to properly explain myself. In the years since then, I've come to know more about it, so this article will reflect that understanding.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, I have difficulty understanding irony. I don't get how quite a few popular memes are supposed to be funny, and an example of that comes with the concept of Rickrolling. I first heard Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up in the late 90s, and I loved the idea behind the song. It was a song that expressed the unconditional love one person has for another. Is it romantic love? Is it platonic love? Is it brotherly love? It could be all of those things. The point is that the devotion is there, and always will be.
When Rickrolling became popular in the mid-to-late-00s, I didn't understand what the joke was, or if it even was a joke. I'd heard plenty of wiseguy remarks about Rick's voice not going along with his appearance, and I could understand those, but where was the joke in sending someone a link to the music video for Never Gonna Give You Up? Wouldn't sending someone a link to a shock site be a more interesting way to disarm someone's expectations? Is the fact that you're being sent to a clean and wholesome song, as opposed to something graphic, the joke in question?
Me? I'll gladly listen to Never Gonna Give You Up at any time, and I don't need to be redirected to it. I'll seek it out myself. Granted, the Rickrolling meme did earn Rick Astley a new generation of fans, and after initially having become what TV Tropes would call a discredited meme, it looks like it's come back again in recent years. I'll always be puzzled, though, as to whether the affection for Astley and his song is a genuine one, or an ironic one. Some say it could be both, but that leads into the next part.
Around the same time that Rickrolling came into prominence, we also saw the rise of Chuck Norris Facts. What do they have to do with the 80s? Well, that was the decade that saw Chuck Norris' greatest film successes, as well as some of the only movies he did that got excellent reviews from critics, titles like Lone Wolf McQuade and Code Of Silence. Chuck Norris made some of the most memorable action movies of the 1980s, and these are movies I enjoy to this day, even though I disagree with Norris' politics.
However, I never got the humor of Chuck Norris Facts. Looking back on it, they basically took the concept of the late 90s/early 00s Bill Brasky sketches from Saturday Night Live, and just put Norris' name on the deeds. Was that the whole point of the joke? If so, it strikes me as rather unoriginal. Of course, it's quite possible that the Bill Brasky sketches might have taken a cue from an older concept. Perhaps they're the spoken equivalent of songs like Big Bad John or Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, or maybe tall tales like Paul Bunyan given a sketch comedy sheen, but the humor has always been lost on me.
Rickrolling and Chuck Norris Facts are examples of my not understanding irony. Examples of not understanding teasing and sarcasm when it come to 80s-related media come through VH1's I Love The 80s trilogy. I watched all three series because I was desperate to seek out any 80s-related material I could, but it seemed that, for programs with love in the title, there wasn't much love for the 80s in any of those series. I was very puzzled by that. I watched them all, sure, but I felt a sense of confusion.
Here's a good example of that misunderstanding. In the 1985 installment of 2005's I Love The 80s 3-D, there was a segment on "Weird" Al Yankovic. This was about a year or so out from his career and reputation revival with Straight Outta Lynwood, so even though Yankovic himself participated in the segment, I was more taken by what Michael Ian Black said. He said, "Was I a fan of 'Weird' Al Yankovic? (Beat) Not really". I assumed that, as Mr. Black was part of The State, a show that helped define 90s humor, he was being genuine in his disdain for Yankovic.
Years later, when looking up Misters Yankovic and Black on Google vis a vis I Love The 80s 3-D, I was stunned to see that Michael had written a heartfelt tribute to Al, and the impact Yankovic's music had on him. If Michael Ian Black had these genuine feelings about Al's work, why was he so snarky about it on I Love The 80s 3-D? It then got me to thinking about whether the comedians who commented on the I Love programs were genuine with the comments, or if the comments were written for them to deliver.
When it comes to teasing and its' relation to my enjoyment of the pop culture of the 1980s, in the early years of my 80s fandom, I was taken aback by the sheer venom that was reserved for discussion of the decade's fashions and hairstyles. As I've come to say, these discussions of 80s style had the same disgust one would reserve for images of murder victims and war atrocities. The way so many people react to 80s fashions and hairstyles, you would think that legwarmers and mullets (a term actually coined in the 90s) were as horrible to look at as images of 9/11 or The Rape Of Nanking.
I chose to utilize a picture from the series Dynasty to illustrate what I'm talking about when it comes to 80s fashions and hairstyles. These all look fine to me. Are they really THAT offensive and disgusting? Even TV Tropes, a website about celebrating pop culture and its' storytelling devices, uses words like "suffering" and "grotesque" to describe 80s hairstyles and fashions. For that matter, the Useful Notes Quotes section on the 1980s is top-heavy with mean and crude remarks about the decade from both within and without it. Compare that to the Quotes section on their 90s Useful Notes page, and you'll see the 90s being described with a rewritten version of Those Were The Days, the theme to All In The Family, that celebrates the 90s. Where's that similar celebration for the 80s?
As to figurative language and its' relation to my understanding and enjoyment of 80s pop culture, I have a tale to tell about that. From 2002 to 2006, I wrote reviews of 80s movies for a website devoted to that topic. I was also active on their forums as well. After several 10 minute retirements that led me to become something of a joke on there as I kept coming back because of both spinelessness on my part and having difficulty finding 80s-related websites I could join, I finally left for good and without any announcement in 2006. Language played a big part in that.
I had written a review of a movie called Valet Girls. I enjoyed it, but in the review, I dubbed it "cheesy" because, although I enjoyed it, I said it wasn't going to be a classic. On the forum for this website, I saw a thread about Cheesiest Lines From 80s Movies, and I saw people using the word "cheesy" to describe movies that they were also calling classics and saying they genuinely loved. When I used the word "cheesy" to describe Valet Girls at the time, it wasn't with affection because I didn't see it as an affectionate word.
One of the dictionary definitions of cheesy is "shabby and cheap". They were using those words to describe well-produced, high-budget movies, many of which had critical acclaim to some extent or another, and that puzzled me. "Cheesy", to my ears, is not a word of love or affection. It's a word of disdain and disregard. It's the same with another word they often used to describe the pop culture of the 1980s, "corny", one dictionary definition of which is "simplistic and sentimental". Again, those aren't compliments.
I now genuinely enjoy Valet Girls, as I do so much of the maligned pop culture of the 1980s, and I stopped using the word "cheesy" myself after an enemy from that review website tracked me down to RetroJunk in 2006 and said, "Hate to break it to you, dude, but lots of stuff from the 80s was total cheese. I'm sorry you still don't understand that concept". It would take me seven years to explain why I get offended by words like "cheesy" and "corny" as they relate to the pop culture of the 1980s.
My old psychologist, whom I saw from 2007 to 2009, didn't understand my autism spectrum disorder any more than I did. I would try to explain why I was upset by words like "cheesy" and "corny" when it came to the pop culture of the 1980s, but to her, they were just words. She would even greet me in some sessions by saying things like, "That's a cheesy shirt, John". She thought she could get me to see that words are words and nothing more. My mind isn't wired like that. It's why I always pay attention to the words and their meanings. As INXS once sang, "Words are weapons sharper than knives". Dealing with my autism spectrum disorder, I sometimes feel like those knives are being plunged into me.
It's said that there's always snark about the previous decade when a new one starts, so the 90s had to make fun of, the 80s. The 80s have never stopped being made fun of, though, and the pop culture of the 90s is full of sacred cows, entertainers and entertainments that people are reluctant to joke about. I mean, we're over thirty years out from the end of the 80s, and people are still making jokes about the fashions and the hairstyles, and the sounds of the music and the looks of the movies and TV.
It's not uncommon for people to make jokes like, "Everybody was on cocaine in the 80s", but how come nobody ever says, "Everyone was on ecstacy in the 90s?". How come you hear people making jokes about male 80s pop-rockers looking like women, but you never hear anybody saying that 90s grunge rockers sound like they're trying to get a painful bowel movement out? How come legwarmers and shoulder pads are still being joked about, but nobody makes wisecracks about flannel or the Kinderwhore look? Why do people make snide remarks about the movies of The Brat Pack, but never make jokes about Quentin Tarantino sampling movies the way rappers sample vinyl records?
As I've said before, the pop culture of the 1980s played a large part in helping me to mature and become a better person. I've learned lessons on both how to behave and how not to behave from the 1980s. The entertainment of the decade got me through a very dark period of a little over 21 years, from September of 1991 to December of 2012, and I'm lucky to count many talents who were active in the 1980s among my dear friends and trusted advisors. Put succinctly, the pop culture of the 1980s made me the man I am today, and without it, I would've lost my mind and much more a long time ago.
To end this article on a positive note, I have been able to utilize my autism spectrum disorder to help my life instead of hinder it. I mentioned that one aspect of my ASD is an intense focus on a particular subject. For me, it's the pop culture of the 1980s, and at first, I had difficulty trying to figure out how to get it to help me. In the early 00s, I had a lot of people thinking of me in an odd manner for my 80s fandom, saying things like, "You're too young to be an 80s fan", or simply finding it to be a hilarious quirk. It was very rough sailing for me.
From 2006 to 2013, I wrote 85 articles for RetroJunk, and with many of those articles, I did something a little different from most of the other writers. I started doing e-mail interviews with entertainers, most of whom were active in the 1980s, and a few of whom wouldn't achieve fame until after the 80s, but spent much of their youth in the decade. These interviews got a decent response, but in 2012, they took a new direction, a direction that would ultimately lead to the intense focus aspect of my ASD becoming a tremendous help.
Samantha Fox, whom I've written about twice for the 80sxchange so far, was a talent I was hoping to do an e-mail interview with. Her manager told me that she only did phone interviews, so I purchased a recorder off eBay and invested in an international calling plan. I dialed the number that was given to me, and I called Samantha Fox in England for what would be my first successful phone interview. In 2019, I met Samantha Fox at the Chiller Theatre convention, and had the chance to thank her in person for the interview that changed the game for me.
Pictured above, me and Samantha Fox at the Chiller Theatre convention in 2019.
My second and third phone interviews were done with, respectively, Julie Michaels, the actress and stuntwoman who first came to prominence in the 1989 cult classic Road House, and Jewel Shepard, a versatile talent who has been, among many other things, an actress, a model and a writer. Jewel Shepard was one of the first talents to compliment me on my questions and the research that went into them. I had never really gotten feedback like that before, and Jewel's compliments greatly heartened me.
Although I stopped writing for RetroJunk in 2013, in part due to the site's overhaul the year prior leading me to lose a lot of my readers and supporters, I would carry the intense focus on the pop culture of the 1980s to my current primary writing base, Pop Geeks. I'll soon be reaching my 200th article with that website, and the response I've gotten because of my intense focus has been very inspiring. That intense focus has helped my life with ASD to be a blessing and not a curse.
My interviews are a way to thank talents who were active in the 1980s for making the pop culture that got me through some very dark times, and led me to a brighter, more hopeful day. Many of these talents have become dear friends of mine whom I can call if I need some advice, or simply want to say to hello. I'm probably the only person in my hometown who has these connections to the entertainment world, but they're more than entertainers. They're my friends. They're allies and advisors who understand where I'm coming from with my autism spectrum disorder, and support me in my life. It's an amazing feeling.
I hope you've found this article to be an interesting one. These are only my experiences, though, with my autism spectrum disorder and its' impact on my 80s fandom. Remember always that if you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism. The spectrum impacts everybody on it differently. For some, the challenges are mild. For others, the challenges are severe. At the end of the day, though, we have a lot in common with the neurotypical. We have a lot of the same hopes and dreams. We just face different pathways to get there.
Have you had any similar experiences with your own 80s fandom, or with a fandom of a different kind? Feel free to leave a comment below. Be well, my friends.