Autistic Future
November 24th, 2016

The Internet Is Ours!” Autistic History Month Part 2

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?”
‑William Blake


My grandfather’s life just overlapped with the flowering of the Neurodiversity movement. I had joined Wrong Planet by the time he died. I remember when those kidnapping ads ran, though I wasn’t personally involved in the response. My memories of how I became more deeply immersed in Autistic culture are fuzzy. It was a gradual slide. Maybe the loneliness I felt when I lost a kindred spirit pushed me in deeper. The loss of the only with whom I could identify in certain ways also forced some maturation. This may have deepened my sense of responsibility for nurturing and protecting our community. Maybe it didn’t. I’m not sure what happened, just that I started to help tell the story of an Autistic people, and the story swallowed me up.

I thought about my grandfather, sometimes, when I had to make hard, moral decisions. He was careful to be hopeful, generous, forgiving, and brave in front of me. I did my best to follow that example. When neurotypical parents threatening to kill Autistic bloggers who were still children, when I encountered Autistic adults so consumed by their suffering that they could not live in community with others, I thought of him. I remembered that he got through the war with a gentler temperament than mine. I did the things that seemed like matters of duty as best I could and tried make that time more bearable for others. I tolerated rough handling as best I could from the people life had fundamentally broken. I reminded myself that bad actors within the community hurt others out of pain and fear. I thought about proportionality when I had to deal with bad actors within our community or external threats. I did my level best to take care of children, parents new to disability issues, and delicate adults. I made myself available, day and night, to anyone with questions.

I did­n’t think dif­fer­ent­ly about my grand­fa­ther’s mem­o­ry in the con­text of Neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty oth­er than the way I always do. I took exam­ples from it. I wore it, and one oth­er’s, like a suit of armor. No mat­ter what hap­pened in the course of my advo­ca­cy, or my life, I’d seen peo­ple like me who were respect­ed and wor­thy of respect. They nev­er con­ced­ed their own infe­ri­or­i­ty, and they loved me. This kind of love dead­ens blows. It’s a light in dark places. Too many Autis­tic peo­ple die too young. I’m con­vinced that this is why I did­n’t, how I came to be alive.

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?”
‑William Blake


My grandfather will have been gone ten years this Christmas, but death so rarely gets the last word. People say I look like my father’s people, mostly, but I have the eyes he did in an old, colorized picture. I also have his hands. Within a year of getting my first car, engines started making sense to me. I kept mostly-dead cars running and built a computer mostly by instinct and YouTube videos. I learned enough of some machine languages to build websites. The toolbox in the back of my truck ballooned to 150 lbs of hammers, wrenches, assorted cables, and screwdrivers. An old Buick gave me the creased, warped fingernails of someone who has worked hard. As I started to pull together an Autistic community in Atlanta, I drove everywhere and carted other people around. In the end, the best way to take care of them was to drive away.

When I went to law school, the inter­net was my life­line to the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty. Liv­ing among neu­rotyp­i­cals, I some­times go weeks with­out see­ing anoth­er dis­abled-iden­ti­fied per­son. A glance up and down the law library is a sober­ing reminder of how few peo­ple like me make it this far. Law school has been lone­ly both because of my sep­a­ra­tion from the com­mu­ni­ty and because few oth­er Autis­tics will be my peers as work­ers, as pro­fes­sion­als, and espe­cial­ly as legal pro­fes­sion­als. There are a hand­ful of Autis­tic lawyers but not many. Often, I will be the only one. The tran­sience of law school and the risks of stu­dent loans are com­plete­ly divorced from the nar­ra­tive of what Autis­tic peo­ple can and should do. Neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty activists heav­i­ly empha­size per­son­al com­fort and safe­ty and aren’t usu­al­ly inter­est­ed in acknowl­edg­ing the hard truth that per­son­al sac­ri­fices will some­times be impor­tant for mov­ing us for­ward. This some­times leaves me won­der­ing whether I can fit in anymore.

It was in that envi­ron­ment that I found Neu­rotribes. I saw my fam­i­ly in its pages, the rur­al South, the war, and the machines. I saw a lega­cy of wires and waves, an unbro­ken line from peo­ple who played with radios in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. I had heard rumors about our involve­ment in the ori­gins of the inter­net and nev­er gave them much cre­dence. I thought it was one of those things peo­ple do to feel bet­ter about them­selves, but here it was on paper. The argu­ment was sim­ple, ele­gant. It showed its work. Step by step, it traced a lin­eage from peo­ple who tin­kered with elec­tro-mechan­i­cal things in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry to the present. I had per­son­al­ly encoun­tered peo­ple who lived the chap­ters from WWII on. I had seen the home­steads and grave­yards in the moun­tains with my grand­fa­ther. He was teach­ing me Morse code when a elder­ly HAM oper­a­tors, princes of the air grown up and grown old, invit­ed him to speak about his time on the bomber. He brought me along to meet them. Neu­rotribes flowed through the ori­gins of com­put­ers and the growth of the net­works until it dis­ap­peared into the present like a riv­er flow­ing out into the sea. The names and dates near the end of the book are marked in my own memories.

From the ear­ly cables and radios to the sig­nals that crack­le around me and light up my phone this evening to the end of what I will be, it’s all one sto­ry. The strange grace of a way with the inter­net was prob­a­bly innate. It was easy to clothe myself in wires and light because this was a kind of birthright. The inter­net embraced so many of us because it was made for hands like ours. I fin­ished the book think­ing about a Neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty slo­gan from when from when I start­ed out: “The inter­net is ours!” The intu­ition behind the old bat­tle cry was right. The inter­net is unique­ly ours, and that makes us unique­ly respon­si­ble for it. We made some­thing like life, and it did what we hoped it would do. It gave us bet­ter ways to com­mu­ni­cate. It helped us form a com­mu­ni­ty and binds us togeth­er. As we come into our own, as our com­mu­ni­ty grows up, we need to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for this thing we put in the world.

The soul in the machines is ours to raise. We must lead it away from angry mobs and toward mea­sured, pro­por­tion­al respons­es. It’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty to keep our tiger leashed. It’s our job to be friends of the young, old, frag­ile, and clue­less and ene­mies of every­one will­ing to dam­age our inter­net for prof­it or use it to spread big­otry and fear. We are in the best posi­tion to do this because we use it inces­sant­ly. We’re good at get­ting it to do what we want. We’re not enti­tled to inject a pow­er­ful, new force into world affairs and let it harm oth­ers. The inter­net is ours, ours to use care­ful­ly and mer­ci­ful­ly, ours to play with, ours to pro­tect, and ours to train into a mod­el cit­i­zen of the world. I hope this is the next chap­ter of our sto­ry. We’ve bound that sto­ry up with the inter­net’s, so let’s take care of it in hopes of a good future for us all.

This is part 2 of a two-part essay for Autistic History Month. Click here to read Part 1.