Stranger in a strange land – The cultural theory of autism 

A while back I came up with an analogy for autism which I thought resonated well. The theory rested on the idea of autism being comparable to a cultural difference. It was like autistic people were from one culture and neurotypical folks were from another. I liked this idea and I use it a lot but I’m not sure if I have blogged about ti before, hence this post.

The idea has a few elements to it. The first is the concept of language. If you imagine that autistic people speak French and neurotypical people speak Spanish. The issue is not even that there are two seperate ‘languages’ –  although this is a challenge to communication in itself. The main problem that I see is that a lot of neurotypical people don’t realise that autistic people are speaking ‘French’. Instead they believe that autistic folks are speaking Spanish but very badly! Of course there is no problem with the autistic ‘French’. French is an equally valid language to Spanish but if people don’t realise you are speaking a different language it make communication very challenging! It also leads to assumptions around the competence of the person speaking the different language. We need to ensure that the neurotypical ‘Spanish’ speakers not only realise that autistic ‘French’ is a language but also to understand it is an equally valid language. It is awesome when neurotypical ‘Spanish’ speakers learn autistic ‘French’. I think I spend a lot of my time teaching people ‘French’!

The other concept around the autistic culture approach is  the concept of the Autistic expatriate. This involves autistic people feeling like we are in a different country to our native home. We have moved to a country which is strange to us. The neurotypical nation is not our home. We have learned the language and the customs but we are very much an expatriate, a foreigner. If someone from our autistic homeland comes to visit us it is a lovely thing. We speak the same language and know the customs of our homeland. This notion of being with our compatriots s something which is known as autistic space. When everyone in a place is autistic there tend to be no issues with social skills and communication. I often go to autism conferences and find that all the people in the quiet room are autistic and we get talking and it is amazing. I have been at events where everyone is autistic and it is really is like coming home to my own native land. Autistic space is my favourite thing ever! For neurotypical folks being aware that we are expatriates is a useful thing to be aware of. We may feel very uncomfortable in your ‘country’ and feel like we are not amongst our own people. 

These concepts around autistic culture make me happy. They are a way of understanding differences and the experience of autistic people. They form part of the idea of Neurodiversity – that our brains are wired differently and that is OK. The concept of ‘different not less’ also relates. Cultures are all different but all valid. Nobody’s culture is ‘wrong’ and this includes autistic culture. I’m not sure what others think but I find this approach very helpful, especially when I am talking to people who don’t have much knowledge around autism. 

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