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.