A while back I had a realisation based on gatherings of autistic people at conferences and other events. There is usually a ‘quiet room’ at such events where people – most often autistic people – can go if things are getting to be too much. Often lunchtimes and breaks at events find the quiet room full of autistic people. I have been told all my life that autistic people don’t ‘do’ socialising and communication, that we have deficits and gaps in these areas. However, this has not been my experience when groups of autistic people get together. I noticed at conferences that autistic people were anything but lacking in social skills. We tend to socialise with each other easily. If a lone allistic person entered the quiet room it was them who lacked social skills, them who had deficits in communication.
This made me think firstly that autistic people aren’t doing anything wrong, we are just doing things differently. I moved from there to imagining that Autistic was a language and neurotypical was a language too. The issue here was that few people realised that Autistic was a valid language. If you imagine you are speaking French and someone else is speaking German. Then imagine that you are unaware there are any languages other than French. Your firmly believe that the way you speak is the only way to communicate. How would you react to someone speaking German? You would probably think they were really bad at communication despite the fact that they are fluent in a different language. This seems to me to be one of the main issues of being Autistic in the neurotypical world. It isn’t just that we speak a different language, it is the fact that our language is not considered valid and many people are unaware there even are languages other than neurotypical.
Autistic being viewed as a culture opens many doors to understanding Autistic experience – and about being Autistic in the predominantly allistic world we live in. We are expats in a strange land, migrants in a foreign country. What do migrants and expats seek out? Their compatriots. This is also true for Autistics – we talk of ‘finding our tribe’. Being around members of our ‘tribe’ enables us to speak freely and be ourselves, to communicate with the customs and language which come naturally to us. I have seen this countless times with Autistic kids meeting another Autistic for the first time and in my own personal experience too.
While I am on the topic of culture I want to also talk about power dynamics and imbalances. If Autistic is a culture them it is not generally a culture afforded the same respect as allistic culture. If anything we are an an oppressed minority. Our culture is rarely recognised. Autistic people even feel they have to mask and learn the customs of the majority and do not embrace their own culture. We are on the receiving end of prejudice and hate and sometimes we feel and seem invisible. One way to address this is through promoting and embodying Autistic pride.
Part of Autistic pride is about owning and promoting our Autistic culture and countering views that we are all the awful things that people say we are. We need pride. It counters the negative thinking, deficits focus and assumptions of incompetence which so frequently are levelled at us. Pride is inclusive of all neurodivergent people as well. I don’t want cliques or statements on online groups saying ‘only Asperger’s accepted’. I really struggle when people in our community do that separatist thing and say ‘don’t lump me in with those autistics’ and imply that they have more right to be heard than others due to some unhelpful functioning label.
I was at a conference once where I followed a speaker with very poor autism politics. Cures were mentioned. I was so horrified by what she said that I had to listen to music for much of her talk. When I got up to give my presentation I started with ‘I am a proud autistic person. I do not socialise wrongly, I socialise differently…’ and went on to represent for Autistic pride. It is important to counter such statements, both for anyone observing the problematic thinking but also for ourselves. When we state our pride it has an impact on others but possibly even more so on ourselves. I’m for more pride and more liberation. Autistic is a valid culture. I’m happy to teach interested allistics the language and some useful phrases. I just hope they are willing to learn as I have been taking lessons in speaking allistic for forty-four years and I think its about timely efforts were reciprocated!