By Dan Satherley
Broadcaster and commenter Michael Laws' recent Sunday Star-Times column about a young man with Asperger's syndrome who was caught stealing light fittings in the wake of the Christchurch quake has ignited a firestorm of criticism – some of it from his own editor.
In the column, Mr Laws argued that 25-year-old Arie Smith-Voorkamp's condition was no excuse for his actions, saying he was "bloody lucky that he received only a black eye" whilst in police custody.
"Smith has Asperger's. Big deal," wrote Laws, an attitude which has shocked parents of children with Asperger's.
Mother-of-four Marilynn McLachlan owns parenting website mumsontop.com. She has four kids, one of whom – nine-year-old Malachy – has Asperger's.
Last night Ms McLachlan wrote an open letter to Mr Laws, called 'Michael Laws Can Bite Me', posted on her website and sent to Michael Laws and the Sunday Star-Times.
In it, she wrote of, "the ignorance of people like you who make the day-to-day life of those with Asperger's and those who care for them all the more difficult… Because you can’t see someone's differences, doesn't mean they don't exist. Surely you are intelligent enough to understand this? Sigh…perhaps not."
Mr Laws emailed her back this morning, implying her parenting was to blame for her son's condition.
"I think the affliction has more to do with your son's mother, than your son," he wrote. "You obviously can't read nor comprehend. Try it; it will improve your understanding of life no end."
Ms McLachlan was shocked by his response, calling it "completely outrageous".
"Has he lost the plot?" she asks. "You can see how illogical his statements are. They're not sane statements."
She says the fact she has three children that don't have Asperger's is proof that her methods are not to blame. At first she calls them "normal", then backtracks – as not to suggest Malachy is abnormal.
"By his theory I'd have four children like this," she tells 3 News. "I've only got one."
That one – Malachy – was apparently amused by Mr Laws' email.
"I shared it with my Aspie son and we both had a giggle," Ms Lachlan wrote on her blog today. "As someone with Asperger’s syndrome, he takes things very literally and wondered why [he] would write to someone who couldn’t read."
In his column, Mr Laws also attacked "that great intellectual void known as the blogosphere" for suggesting Mr Smith-Voorkamp, who has an obsession with light fittings, required special treatment he would not have received when he was just known as the "face of looting".
He singled out blogger and host of TVNZ 7 show Media 7 Russell Brown, whom he called a "PC wet". Mr Brown has two sons with Asperger's, aged 16 and 20, and runs an autism awareness website, facts Mr Laws didn't mention in his column.
Mr Brown calls Mr Laws' comments "extremely unpleasant".
"The idea that parents, and mothers, in particular, are to blame for autism belongs in the 1950s. I'm not sure if Laws even believes it himself – he's simply lashing out," he tells 3 News.
He isn't fazed by being labelled a "PC wet" though.
"Mr Laws had some choice words for me in his column. That's of no concern to me, not least because I've probably said worse about him."
Which is arguably true - just last week Mr Brown wrote on his blog Hard News that Mr Laws is "just a piece of shit" for comparing Asperger's to paedophilia on his RadioLIVE talkback show.
Mr Laws' own editor at the Sunday Star-Times, David Kemeys, has distanced himself from the outspoken former Whanganui mayor. In an email to Ms McLachlan he said he had "taken a real kicking this week over running that column".
"I do not think we covered ourselves in glory over this one," wrote Mr Kemeys.
Mr Kemeys confirmed to Mr Brown on Media 7 (taped last night, screening tonight) that he didn't read the column before the paper was printed, which Mr Brown finds "extraordinary".
"His editors need to think carefully about what they are enabling," he says. "I do think it's extraordinary that a column that vilifies and mocks the appearance of a young disabled man, applauds the beating of that young man and then advocates further vigilante violence in Christchurch was published."
Veteran broadcaster Brian Edwards wasn't named by Mr Laws, but also put in his two cents, calling Mr Laws' column "an unambiguous invitation to subvert the judicial process in favour of violent vigilante justice" and a "blot on New Zealand journalism".
Mr Laws told 3 News there has been a "gross overreaction" to his column.
"Frankly I don't care," says Mr Laws. "These people need to go and get a life. If they don't like it, tough."
3 News asked him if he'd changed his mind about whether people with Asperger's should be treated differently by the law.
"Absolutely not," says Mr Laws.
He calls Ms McLachlan a "silly woman", and says he has nothing to apologise for.
Ms McLachlan says Mr Laws has no idea what it is like to know a person with Asperger's. She says Mr Smith-Voorkamp's odd behaviour – stealing light fittings – is wholly explainable by the extreme circumstances of the February quake.
"The routine changes too much, the more he clings to his obsessions," she says of her own son. "Logic doesn't play a part with children with Asperger's."
She says Mr Laws' unwillingness – or inability – to understand Mr Smith-Voorkamp's case is ironic, considering his plea for "exceptional circumstances" when he was caught driving a vehicle on Auckland's Southern Motorway with an unrestrained child on the front passenger's lap in 2010.
"No law is inviolable and there are always exceptional circumstances and extenuating circumstances," Mr Laws said at the time.
Ms McLachlan wonders what it would take for Mr Laws to accept that someone has different needs – would he treat a visible, physical disability any differently?
"If someone couldn't see, would you chuck them in prison without catering to their needs?" she asks. "Maybe he would."
But as recently as last month, Mr Laws caused outrage by suggesting disabled athletes' competitions such as the Paralympics are "ludicrous".
Ms McLachlan can do little more than laugh.
"It's quite bizarre," she says.
So in her latest blog entry, she once again addresses Mr Laws directly: "As it appears you are incapable of rational, logical discourse I can only laugh and shrug my shoulders.
"In fact, I think if you are so special that should you ever be arrested, I would argue that you also need special treatment."