Autistic Future
February 12th, 2018

On Organic, Autistic Space

There are unique joys to gath­er­ing with oth­er Autis­tic peo­ple in a set­ting that isn’t run by neu­rotyp­i­cals and isn’t designed with change, improve­ment, or growth in mind. Autis­tic chil­dren, youth, and adults who have only ever encoun­tered oth­er Autis­tic peo­ple in sup­port groups, social skills train­ing, or sim­i­lar set­tings are miss­ing out on friend­ship, a greater sense of self-deter­mi­na­tion, knowl­edge of com­mu­ni­ty norms, and an oppor­tu­ni­ty to divorce the idea of gain­ing real, func­tion­al social skills from that of try­ing to be indis­tin­guish­able from neu­rotyp­i­cals. These are safe places for peo­ple who may be tired of pass­ing to prac­tice being open­ly Autis­tic before they come out to the world.

For peo­ple expe­ri­enced with Autis­tic cul­ture and com­mu­ni­ty, the impor­tance of organ­ic, Autis­tic space goes with­out say­ing. It is one of the assump­tions on which the whole com­mu­ni­ty’s exis­tence is pred­i­cat­ed. There is noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with sup­port groups or oth­er orga­nized meet­ings of Autis­tic peo­ple who want to gain new skills, with or with­out neu­rotyp­i­cal help. These groups can be ableist depend­ing on how they are run, but they aren’t inher­ent­ly ableist. Some Autis­tic peo­ple find them use­ful. The con­text of neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty is not inher­ent­ly at odds with gain­ing skills, try­ing to improve and grow as a per­son, and bend­ing a lit­tle to meet the world.

That said, time and space that aren’t about self-repair or self-improve­ment are cru­cial parts of a worth­while life. Autis­tic adults fre­quent­ly express con­cern about chil­dren who are in var­i­ous ther­a­pies for the equiv­a­lent of a full-time job every week and get birth­day and hol­i­day gifts select­ed from lis­ti­cles of toys with per­ceived ther­a­peu­tic val­ue. The think­ing is that rest and at least some amount of real time to play are prob­a­bly good for chil­dren. What is less dis­cussed is the way in which autis­tic adults, par­tic­u­lar­ly those whose expo­sure to the Autis­tic com­mu­ni­ty and neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty par­a­digm has been lim­it­ed, strug­gle to break out of sup­port groups and into organ­ic, Autis­tic space.

Many Autis­tic peo­ple who have been in the com­mu­ni­ty for some time have encoun­tered some­one whose social life cen­ters on sup­port groups or who turns up at a gath­er­ing ori­ent­ed toward social­iz­ing or advo­ca­cy look­ing for a sup­port group or try­ing to turn the meet­ing into one. Again, there is noth­ing wrong with a giv­en per­son decid­ing to use some tools which arise from the med­ical mod­el of dis­abil­i­ty. If there is real, autonomous choice and those tools are fur­ther­ing the Autis­tic per­son­’s goals, there isn’t a prob­lem. How­ev­er, peo­ple becom­ing trapped in the med­ical mod­el, unable to imag­ine a social life beyond sup­port groups or a life that isn’t a con­stant habil­i­ta­tion or reha­bil­i­ta­tion project, is a painful con­se­quence of ableism.

For most of us, becom­ing indis­tin­guish­able is either a los­ing bat­tle or a Pyrrhic vic­to­ry. To spend all of one’s spare time try­ing to become indis­tin­guish­able is to waste one’s life. For all of us, rest and recre­ation are healthy, whole­some, and prob­a­bly nec­es­sary activ­i­ties. We need friends, not just fel­low patients. The way to a good life is to learn skills that actu­al­ly make life eas­i­er to the extent that learn­ing them isn’t so tax­ing as to be not worth­while and oth­er­wise enjoy life. 

For that rea­son, it is impor­tant that those of us who have found a more free­ing idea of what an Autis­tic life can be to help spread the word. We need to help oth­ers avoid spend­ing their entire lives in ther­a­peu­tic set­tings, wait­ing to be ready, to per­haps, even­tu­al­ly, become indis­tin­guish­able enough to be wor­thy of hav­ing fun. We owe it to these lost souls to point the way to some­thing bet­ter for any­one brave enough to embrace it. We also owe it to our­selves. Sad­ly, there are peo­ple who are too com­mit­ted to ableist ways of think­ing to accept that lives like ours can ever be worth­while, but there are also neu­rotyp­i­cals who are mere­ly igno­rant, on the fence or not much giv­en to con­sid­er­ing whether an Autis­tic or oth­er­wise dis­abled life can be a good one. Liv­ing well helps us win that argu­ment where it can be won.