November 1, the anniversary of the successful disruption of a neurotypical-run day of silence -because no Autistic people communicate- by Neurodiversity activists. This is my fifth Autistics Speaking Day and this site’s first.
We are winning the existential struggle over the narrative of what autism is and what should be done about it. This has been true for at least a couple of years. People and organizations are realizing that they have to at least pay lip service to the idea of inclusion, rather than elimination, to stay relevant. Eugenics is one of those tenacious ideas that won’t go away overnight, but there isn’t momentum in that That makes me less inclined to write on one of the traditional themes of Autistics Speaking Day posts, i.e. anti-cure, stop harassing us when we form our own communities on the internet, the autistic life can be a pretty good one, etc. It looks more and more like we have a future, so I want to talk about that. What is our community going to be? How do we make it a good one?
Growing numbers of people are finding us and choosing some level of involvement with our community. What can we do to help newcomers integrate successfully? I ask this question at a time when events in the wider world are making the internet angry and erratic. In the ambiance of disquiet, segments and factions of our community largely driven by anger are more active. Vulnerable individuals’ moods may be significantly altered by the tension in the air. There are experientially better and worse ways to be part of our community. There are Autistic spaces where warmth and collegiality predominate, where people want to get along, make friends, and figure out how to live well together. There are Autistic spaces that exist, basically, as ongoing ideological purity contests. Anyone who fails the political litmus test of the week is branded ‘problematic’ and cast out like scapegoats, as if they can carry all human flaws away. I’ll reserve moral judgment, for the moment, and simply aknowledge that the latter way of interpersonal relations is unpleasant.
No one is perfect. An environment in which a single mistake, no matter how small, typically leads to permanent social exclusion has a climate of fear by definition. A community like that doesn’t add much value in people’s lives because the sense of belonging doesn’t necessarily outweigh the fear. Anger can be a healthy motivator for change, but Autistic spaces that are consistently dominated by anger are a drain on our community. The constant shouting makes them extremely visible. They may be the first thing a new person sees. Some people may turn away from the Autistic community immediately simply because they don’t like it. Others, often people who want to advocate for acceptance and inclusion, are drawn in. Once assimilated into a social norm of explosive anger, their energies are diverted into angry rants and bickering instead of the mix of carefully targeted online activism and community organizing that usually works for us. They don’t become the capable activists they could be. Often, they are eventually excluded because they say or do something ‘problematic,’ or they burn out and leave our community altogether. People, with or without an activist bent, feeling pushed out or getting fed up and leaving doesn’t bode well for our future. The models of community we have to chose between, and which newcomers find, are very different from each other. The friendly one that leaves room for imperfection is inherently better because it leaves room for flawed human beings. It’s the kind of community most people want, but it may be harder for newcomers to find.
It can be hard for those of us in healthier parts of the community to reach out to newcomers precisely because the anger-dominated factions are out there, always looking for someone or something to try to tear down, never actually doing much to make things better for Autistic people. Being visible tends to mean exposure to slander or outright harassment, but we have to do it. Some of the existing outreach and introductory efforts are a good start, but our community will best grow through relationships. Autistics Speaking Day seems like a good time to commit to talking to someone, anyone, who is new in the coming year. Comfort someone who is struggling with Autistic identity or a tough day. Celebrate good things that happen in someone’s life. Add new people to your Facebook group and make a point of actually talking to them. Help a new advocate make plans and learn the ropes. Tell someone that [affiliate link] Loud Hands is well worth a read. Handle new people’s mistakes gently. Remember that they’re trying to figure out how an entirely new culture works. Online or IRL, a little effort to help someone assimilate in a positive way isn’t just a kind thing that you do for one other person. It’s one of the best things you can do to make our community a welcoming place, something to which people want to remain connected throughout their lives. It’s one of the best things you can do for the longevity of our culture and community.