“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?”
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 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?”
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.