I came up with an idea a while back – that of ‘autistic culture.’ I am sure I wasn’t the first person to talk about this but it was an epiphany when I came to the realisation that such a thing exists.
To illustrate this, let me get in my metaphorical TARDIS and go back in time to 2005… I had just had my first book accepted for publication and was finding my way around the autistic community – or the part of the autistic community which lived in Melbourne and congregated around author and advocate Polly Samuel. I hadn’t been in touch with many autistic people prior to meeting Polly and suddenly I found myself surrounded by fellow autistics. I noticed a few things about my new peer group. The first was that we were all very much individuals. The second was that there were two main approaches people took to understanding our communication differences from others. The first group said something along the lines of ‘People don’t like me or understand me. What am I doing wrong?’ And the second group said ‘People don’t like or understand me. They must be idiots!’ I was definitely in the first group but it got me thinking about communication and understanding across neurotypes.
It also got me thinking about how we interpret the wold and our place in it as neurodivergent folks. I figured that we can view being autistic as like being residents in a strange country where the locals don’t speak our language. We learn some words in the local language but it never comes naturally and we long for our fellow expats. The cultural model goes further than this. If we imagine autistic people as being French speakers and neurotypical folks as being German speakers this gives us a lens through which to understand communication across neurotypes. It is not that the neurotypical ‘German speakers’ understand that we usually speak French and that because of this our ‘German’ isn’t so fluent. It is more that the neurotypical German speakers don’t even understand that there is a French language. Neurotypical people frequently have no understanding of neurodiversity and simply assume autistic folks are inept at communicating.
It is actually not the case that autistics communicate poorly. We don’t. We communicate very well but just differently. Prior to COVID I often attended big autism conferences. There was a quiet room at these events. If you went into the quiet room during the lunch break you would see a group of people having a fantastic conversation. The people would all understand each other and know where each other was coming from. The people in this group were all autistic. Social skills and communication were going on very well and if a neurotypical person entered then they would be at a disadvantage in terms of their communication. Autistics don’t communicate badly, we simply communicate differently. Put a bunch of us together and you will see that communication at work. Our ‘French’ is perfectly fine and we ca understand each other. Just because autistics don’t communicate like neurotypicals does not mean we cannot communicate.
The cultural model of autism allows for greater respect and inclusion. It is also more accurate than saying we communicate badly, lack empathy or have poor social skills. There is a lot of time, money and effort spent trying to make autistic people seem more neurotypical. Not only is this unhelpful it can actually be traumatising for autistic people and it doesn’t really archive anything. Autistic people are not communicating badly we are just communicating differently. This model is one of inclusion which enables us to understand the value of autistic people. Int also makes it easier to communicate with us and understand we are different, not less.
Autistic people re constantly being encouraged – and sometimes coerced – to seem less autistic and more neurotypical. In the not so distant past left-handed kids were forced to write with their right hand. We now understand that this is unhelpful and damaging for those kids. Could we maybe do the same with autistic communication? Autistic are speaking another language – a language which is valid and beautiful and perfectly OK. So maybe rater than forcing autistic people to ‘speak neurotypical’ maybe people could learn to speak Autistic? That would be so good.