Autistic Future
January 24th, 2018

Listening Before You Speak

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.