It is difficult to keep up with even major developments in American politics and policy today. It can be easy to lose sight of apparently small changes. One essential thing to keep up with in the coming days and weeks is the likely demise of net neutrality. This is a grave threat to the kind of Autistic community most of us consider worth having. The possible short-term impact on the best sites catering to us could be extremely damaging. The long-term implications, while more insidious and harder to predict, may be far worse. If you value a diverse, vibrant Autistic community in the United States, it is in your interest to spend some time this week protecting net neutrality.
Net neutrality is the idea that one’s internet connection treats content from different sources the same way. It is telecom companies providing access without trying to dictate what their customers see, just as power companies provide the same energy at the same rate regardless of the brand of laptop, microwave, or dryer plugged into the wall. It helps new voices be heard and new companies gain traction in ways which might be impossible if those who are already rich and powerful can essentially buy a monthly subscription to hobble competitors. This issue should be of concern to everyone who values innovation and growth, a point of unity and agreement for people who emphasize civil liberties and people who emphasize the free market.
It is particularly important to the Autistic community. If some sites can pay to be more reachable than others, that will change the game of success on the internet. There will be new winners and losers, and the odds aren’t in our favor. Nothing in the Autistic blogosphere has the money to compete with the likes of Facebook. The more Autistic people have to pay to compete in the marketplace of ideas, the less we will be heard.
If that happens, the best case scenario is that our sites are slower, more clunky, and, consequently, less professional- and authoritative-looking than before. Maybe readership declines slightly due to the hassle. Worse, internet might come to work like cable channel bundles, where people would have access to content depending on what plan they buy. The chances that our particular niche, not especially popular with the general population, would be part of affordable bundles are low.
If we lose net neutrality, some blogs and sites may go under in the short run as owners decide that the effort to write what fewer people read or the cost of hosting is not worthwhile in this new reality. Autistic speech and expression may lean more heavily on platforms that don’t belong to us, such as Facebook and Twitter. Those sites exist to turn a profit, and that objective may not always align well with our needs, agendas, and norms.
The largest social networks are not workable methods of communication for everyone and have mixed records in their dealings with minority groups. Facebook is notorious for trying to insist that users operate under their real names, something not everyone active in the Autistic community on the internet is willing to do. That will take voices out of the conversation and raise the odds that good content will just disappear if an executive at a large social network finds it objectionable.
Those changes may be rapid, and they are likely to be palpable and disturbing. Autistic people will be aware of it when much-loved blogs go dark. The worst changes, though, may be the ones we probably won’t notice, the voices we will never hear. Pro-neurodiversity spaces are spreading, but they haven’t reached every American community. Outside of the largest, richest, and, often, the most progressive towns, there may not be an ASAN chapter or unaffiliated, local equivalent. There may not be an Autistic-run space, a community rather than a support group, for people who want to gather.
If Autistic people living in Smithfield, North Carolina, Post, Texas, or Elijay, Georgia find us, they usually find us through the internet. The same may well be true of people in the most marginalized neighborhoods of large cities, where there is little access to formal diagnosis, and the vagaries of the public bus lines may make a social or advocacy group based across town seem as distant as the surface of the moon. If net neutrality ends, the Autistic internet will almost certainly shrink. The beacons lighting the way home for people in the parts of the country which are already the most under-served will dim. Fewer of them will find us.
Fewer of them will find the liberation of the alternative to negative views of autism and disability that we have to offer. There will be more internalized ableism, more self-hatred, and, probably, more of the untimely deaths which seem at least partly attributable to those things. There will be less camaraderie, less mentoring, and less good advice. More people will have to reinvent the wheel to find ways to compensate for their deficits instead of borrowing good ideas from others, but individual Autistic people won’t be the only losers if net neutrality ends.
The community will, collectively, also suffer a grievous loss because net neutrality would worsen the barriers to participation for Autistic people who are poor, not geographically mobile, or tend to lack access to formal diagnosis. That will diminish the diversity of voices in our community. If our presence on the internet shrinks, we will lose rural people, people of color, people from flyover country, immigrants, LGBT people, and women. The Autistic community in the United States will become whiter, richer, less nuanced, and less able to represent and advocate for the many Autistic experiences existing and overlapping in this country.
If you think Autistic people who happen to be born in the most rundown, overlooked parts of Flint, Michigan or unincorporated hamlets in Appalachia could conceivably have something worthwhile to contribute, if you aren’t ready to categorically give up on them, net neutrality is important to you. If you want an Autistic community which draws on many people’s backgrounds, generates the kind of vibrant art and culture that only arises from diverse influences, and advocates effectively for many different people, you want a free and open internet. There may or may not be hope for that now, but it is too precious to give up quietly.