January 24th, 2018
Finding the Autistic community is an experience like no other, especially for adults who grew up unaware of autism or unaware of people like themselves in organized groups. The strong emotions of homecoming, belonging or nervousness about finding a place to belong, pride in a new identity, and joy of a camaraderie perhaps never before known can be intoxicating. The number of people to meet and amount of information to absorb seem infinite, impossible. It’s as overwhelming as it would be to stumble through a mountain pass on a hike and find a lost homeland in the hidden valley below.
Finding other Autistic people for the first time is as intense as life experiences get, joyful but also potentially fraught. It’s an event most Autistic people experience, since relatively few of us grow up with access to the community, but relatively little advice exists for navigating this important transition. One thing persons new to the community should know is that they don’t need to join the clamor of voices you hear immediately. There are actually at least a couple of reasons that taking some time to get oriented before speaking out publicly may be best for you and the Autistic community in the long run.
First, there is the importance of thinking carefully before you speak on the internet, where everything you say will probably outlive you. The trick to life in Autistic blogosphere is remembering that you will continue to grow and change as long as you live, but past selves of yours will live on. Rubbing shoulders with yourself circa five years ago is unavoidable once you have had opinions in public for five years. There is no way to be certain you will always agree with these ghosts.
Having at least some differences with them is probably a sign that you’re allowing yourself a healthy amount of learning and personal growth. However, you do want to keep your ghosts friendly, to make them company you can live with and respect. Otherwise, you may be followed by something like an unpleasant, unwelcome haunting for the rest of your life. You’re almost certainly in the grip of strong emotions now, maybe some of the strongest you will ever have. These may cloud your judgement. You haven’t had time to learn much beyond the scope of your own story. Your odds of thinking something now that will embarrass you later are higher than they will be in the future.
If you start having very public opinions immediately, those first instincts, good or bad, will survive online even as you learn more. Even if you come to disagree with them, perhaps vehemently, they will keep speaking. People may continue to link or retweet them. Quotes may survive your best efforts to pull the original content down. You don’t want to find yourself constantly shouting down your ghosts or judged by others for things you have come to regret. Waiting a year or two will tend to make your opinions more fully-formed by the time you speak, closer to what you will think in the long run. If you wait, your ghosts may make you laugh, or even cringe a little, but they’re less likely to be a burden as time goes by.
The second reason it might be in your interest to wait is that taking time to absorb the Autistic community will help you perpetuate it. Communities are stories. They are shared history, narratives, values, and beliefs. They live so long as those things are passed along. They die when that transmission stops. Unless you learn something about what went on up until you arrived, collective hopes and fears, stories people tell, the big debates and what the different sides say, you can’t pass those things on. You may even misconstrue or misrepresent the community you seek to describe. You may waste time replicating things that have already been done.
You have nothing to lose by waiting, thinking through what you’re going to say, and engaging in discussion in smaller and more private forums before you start a blog or agree to speak at an event. Your engagement with the full range and scope of what is happening in this community is likely to increase as time passes. You will know more people and be exposed to more ideas. Taking your time is likely to benefit your reputation and the community at large. The confidence that you know what you’re doing and said what you intended to say will only make the experience better when the time comes.