Field of Science

Who is the Elevator Man? For me, he's someone I know


Oh, the brouhaha over a simple observation that being addressed by a total stranger in an elevator at 4 a.m. with an invitation to his room for coffee is creepy. Apparently, many, many men do this or want to do this or identify with doing this and just can't understand why invading someone's personal space verbally in an elevator at an ungodly time of night (or morning) with an invitation to *your room* might be construed as creepy. It seems beyond some folks to do a little perspective taking, as we call it in the autism community, to put themselves in the other person's shoes, and try to understand why "creeped out" might be a reasonable response. I assume, then, that were I to fail to do the same and simply pepper sprayed the next possibly well-intended person who accosts me in an elevator or anywhere else, that would be OK as I'm only being myself and disregarding how the other person felt.

As fascinating as all of this has been to watch unfold--especially when Richard Dawkins stepped in it with a shoe that presumably never belongs to another person--one thing keeps pestering the corners of my mind: Who was that guy?

I'm wondering about it because of a comment I read on one of the many blog posts covering the encounter. In spite of the swaths of the male population that seem to identify with this fellow in some way, I can think of only two examples of males I know who might offend in that way under those circumstances. I know a lot of men, but these two stand out for one reason: their autism.

The comment that I read stated that being socially awkward is not a permanent disability. Indeed, for many people, it is not. But for some, it is. It's a problem that persists through a lifetime, even as it may improve somewhat with time. It's there under all circumstances--job, school, conferences, elevators. It's the inability to grasp the nuances of a moment, to know intuitively that at 4 o' clock in the morning, one does not address a total stranger in an elevator and invite them to your room for coffee. The vast majority of men (and women) I know understand that instinctively. The vast majority would have shut up in that elevator and stayed shut up for the duration of the ride.

But not these two whom I know. I can easily envision either of them seeing this woman, who'd just presented at the conference. I can, yea verily, put myself in their shoes and imagine their excitement and enthusiasm over her talk. I can completely visualize their blowing off factors of time, space, and place and simply blurting out something along the lines of "Wow, I'd love to talk with you some more! Let's have coffee!" And you know what else? They'd stare as they did it. Probably without blinking. Much.

That's not to say that this fellow in the Dublin elevator was someone like these two people I know. I have no idea who that guy was, and it sure would be interesting if he'd speak up, speak out. What I do know is that it is just such situations that have me edgy and concerned, that keep me vigilant and always alert, that have me hammering like Thor on one of the two people I know who might behave like this in such a situation, blindly, unknowingly, out of enthusiasm and yes, a permanent disability when it comes to social interactions. I do this out of a core anxiety that he could one day be the Man in the Elevator. I do it because he is my son, and I don't want him to grow up and innocently freak women out, no matter how great that talk was.