Senator makes grovelling apology after saying Ireland’s gay leader Leo Varadkar is ‘autistic’

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Irish senator Catherine Noone has apologised after calling the country’s premier Leo Varadkar “autistic” during an election canvass this week.

As the Fine Gael leader attempts to thaw his stalling numbers in the polls ahead of the country’s general elections, lawmaker Noone described the taoiseach’s performance on last week’s head-to-head debate.

She criticised Varadkar for lacking “empathy” in the debates, The Times Ireland reported, and added: “He’s autistic, like, he’s on the spectrum, there’s no doubt about it.

“He’s uncomfortable socially and he doesn’t always get the in-between bits.”

Catherine Noone apologises to Leo Varadkar: ‘I am sorry.’

Noone, an election candidate in Dublin Bay North, has since apologised for her comments, which became a lightning rod for criticism.

Charities and activists accused Noone of being “ableist”.

The 43-year-old initially denied the comments. But after The Irish Times informed her of a tape in which she was recorded saying the remarks, she issued an apology.

(L-R) Fine Gael leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald and Solidarity People Before Profit politician Richard Boyd Barrett, during the seven way RTE leaders debate. (Niall Carson – Pool/Getty Images)

In a subsequent statement issued Tuesday morning, Noone said she wanted to “unequivocally apologise and withdraw all of my remarks […] which were completely unacceptable”.

She added that her “choice of language was inexcusable and wrong.

“I am truly sorry.”

‘Autism is absolutely not an illness,’ stress activists. 

But the apology did little to tamp down outrage, with autism advocacy charity AsIAm‘s CEO Fiona Ferris slamming Noone and decrying her defence.

In a statement, Ferris said the stereotyping of autism “unfortunately leads to many autistic individuals feeling stigmatised”.

“Autism is a complex, invisible condition that has an extensive clinical diagnostic process. We need to be careful not to engage in ‘doorstep diagnosis’ because we cannot definitively tell whether or not someone is on the spectrum without a full assessment,” she said.

While health minster Simon Harris criticised Noone’s comments, rallying for people not to use “casual stereotypes”, he wrote in a Twitter statement.

Other activists hounded her comments, accusing the politician of being “ableist” and for re-enforcing harmful stereotypes on those living with autism.

The controversy around Noone’s comments cut into a vicious election campaign, where current polls project Varadkar’s party trailing a distant second behind opposition Fianna Fáil and the 8 February election day looming ahead.