What I Think about Autistic Criminals

In the news today was a story about a man who allegedly used malware to take over his victim’s computers and take pictures of them (particularly undressing in front of the computer, not knowing they were being watched), which he then used to blackmail his victims into providing more pictures or video.

As one can almost expect in this type of case, the man’s family has apologized and added that the man, Jared James Abrahams, was autistic.

Now, I’m autistic. I’m also a man. And I, too, know how to use computers. But that’s where the similarity ends. And I have no sympathy for Jared, if he did what he is alleged to have done (and, according to police, admitted to).

Autism doesn’t prevent us from knowing right from wrong. In fact, many autistic people have a very strong sense of right and wrong.

And, contrary to popular opinion, we can manipulate, lie, cheat, violate, and intimidate people. As Jared did. And as do many other people, both autistic and non-autistic alike.

Now, assuming Jared did this (he does have a right to a trial and innocent people have confessed before – albeit I see that as highly unlikely to be happening in this case), the problem I have is the attempt to use this diagnosis as an excuse. Autism should not mitigate sentencing or prosecution in the type of case Jared is involved in. He knew this was wrong. And he did it anyhow. Laws were written for people like him.

I also have fairly little respect for someone using computers for this purpose. It’s not “being good at computers.” Being good at computers is going and fixing the Linux IP packet scheduler so I don’t have 2 seconds of queuing on my wireless interface. If you want to impress me, go do that. But that’s a whole different kind of “good at computers” than downloading some easy-to-use hacker program and tricking your victims into installing it so you can take nudie pictures of them (hint: there are plenty of nude pictures on the internet that you don’t need to hack anything to see). If people want you to stay out of somewhere, then stay out. And, for creepy guys who violate privacy, you probably need to stay out of women’s bedrooms. This wasn’t an intellectual crime – this was a crime not very far removed from that of a rapist. There’s plenty of things of intellectual interest in computing that don’t involve violating people’s privacy or bodies.

But I do think there are areas where autistic people do deserve special treatment: we don’t win in interrogations. It’s really important that an autistic person in particular have easy and early access to legal defense. It’s easy to manipulate someone who doesn’t follow all the normal social cues. That’s why we have lawyers – to protect our rights. Even if we are guilty or a creep.

Now, I have no idea if James had access to a lawyer or not, or if he was coerced in anyway to confessing. I’ve read the complaint and it is pretty convincing (albeit I’d challenge some of the technical points, but the complaint would still stand), and it seems as even without the confession there is plenty of evidence. But I do think this – and the reporting of being a victim – are two areas where autistic people lose. The system is not designed for us.

But, if the facts show he is guilty: sentence him as you would sentence anyone else. I would say that I suspect general population prison to be inappropriate for most autistic people. But I do think we can earn prison time – but in prison, it’s important to recognize that we are vulnerable, and that prison does have a responsibility to provide safety even for creeps and criminals.

I do wish that we wouldn’t hear “he’s autistic” as often as we do when people are brought to trial. Autism doesn’t make criminals. And in fact, we’re way more likely to be victims (and that part of the justice system treats us poorly too) than most people, while we’re less likely to be criminals statistically (but, obviously, there are exceptions).  Too much popular discourse surrounding crime involves demonizing the mentally ill (of whom, autistics are popularly considered to be a part, whether or not they are also mentally ill).

I also don’t like to hear the response of some of my autistic peers: “He’s not autistic.” I don’t know if he is or isn’t, or if any given criminal is or isn’t. But I do know we can be criminal, we can manipulate, and we can do bad, bad things.

So, am I surprised that autistic criminals exist? Of course not. And I hope we see justice served in this case, whatever outcome that requires.

Why Don’t Kids Report Bullying?

HRC posted a piece on why kids don’t report bullying to school employees.  The article’s a good read, based on fact, but it brought back why didn’t report bullying.

It was simple: reporting the bullying didn’t help.

I was kicked, hit, sexually assaulted, burned, choked, manipulated, humiliated, insulted, excluded, scapegoated, and teased for 13 years of public school.  13 years.

The other kids figured out quickly two things. First, they figured out that I was different. I didn’t act like the other kids. I don’t remember all the names, but I know in my early elementary years, “retard” was a favorite. And in my high school years, “faggot” was a favorite. But it didn’t particularly remember what the name or label was, or whether they were accurate or not. An unathletic, tiny, weak, autistic kid is an easy target. I was an easy target.

I never will be able to express what the humiliation felt like every day of my school career. I just wanted to disappear. I just wanted to be ignored. Anything would have been better than the humiliation.

Even in early grades, I learned I was the problem. I heard that not just from other kids, but from the school itself. I was the problem. I was the kid that didn’t know when to be quiet in class. I was the kid that would get distracted and look out the window. I was the kid that would leave class for no apparent reason (not being able to cope wasn’t a good reason, after all).

I spent two weeks in isolation in elementary school for telling the truth to a principle – that I didn’t vandalize a bathroom. The kid who “witnessed” this destruction (who later I realized probably did it) was thanked for his truthfulness. I was put in a small room with no humans for two weeks. It took me 20 years to simply be able to pee in a public bathroom after that. I wasn’t believed. That was typical.

In Junior High, a teacher watched a 9th grader who was much bigger than the 7th grader I was (well, they were all bigger than me in Junior High – I started Junior High in the .1 percentile of weight) literally lifting and throwing me to take my place in the lunch line. The response? We were both given detention. For fighting. (as an aside, I finally did grow in the 9th grade – and am average height today – something that boggled the heck out of my poor parents trying to keep clothes on me my 9th grade year!)

I remember other times where was the problem when I was bullied. I remember the PE teacher I ran to, fearing the kids chasing me would kill me. I was told to be a man. Again, I was the problem. I remember being sent to a behavior program during the sumer because I was causing too much trouble in class (yes, they sent a bunch of bullies to the same program; you can guess how that worked out for me, although the worst injury I received their was inflicted by a staff member – and, no, I didn’t bother to tell an adult). I remember day in and day out of abuse.

When I reported it? I was the problem. If only I behaved differently. At one point, I was actually told to laugh differently if I didn’t want to be bullied. Even the rare expression of joy was a problem to be corrected.

Most often, the response was to tell me how I could have kept the kids from bullying me. I could have stood up for myself. I could have walked away. I could have told an adult (uh…that’s what I did when I got told this…). I could have…well, it doesn’t really matter. Only rarely were the bullies dealt with – and when they were, they got no more than a token punishment. And who was the bully? Damn near every other kid. And some teachers. I was always in trouble. When the bully got in trouble, it was a “good kid” that did one minor mistake. I get two weeks in the hole for telling the truth about not throwing toilet paper around a bathroom. They get a detention for giving me a black eye.

You learn quickly not to report it when you live through this day after day. I’d guess I reported maybe one of a thousand incidents. Yes, thousand. There must have been tens of thousands of incidents during my school career. Sure, most were minor – minor insults, light pinches, subtle humiliations. But even minor, when you have thousands of these events happening every year to you, it wears you down pretty quickly.

I’d like to say that I was uniquely bullied in school. I do suspect the degree of bullying I received was well beyond the comprehension of most adults (including my parents). I know my parents were shocked when, as an adult, I told them I didn’t vandalize the bathroom in school. They were sure I did it. They believe me now, but it took 20 years to be believed by anyone.

I did tell adults. They just did nothing about it.

And I told in ways other than voice.

I missed over two months of school every year from about 4th grade through 11th grade (in 12th grade, I finally found an adult that would rescue me by allowing me to skip classes when I wanted – unsurprisingly that’s the only year I had a decent GPA).

I failed about half my classes in 8th grade through 11th grade (I not only passed everything in 12th grade, but got a 4.0 GPA; the difference? Being able to escape my classmates).  What kind of kid can earn a 4.0 GPA in 12th grade but fails most of his required classes in 11th grade? It’s simple: an abused kid, where there was at least a partial solution in 12th grade.

Any PE teacher could have watched how the kids picked people for their team. It would have been darn clear that something was going on there. And, no, it’s not that I wasn’t a skilled athlete.

Anyone could have been a hero. Way too few were.

The signs were there. It should have been easy to see. Even when I didn’t speak about the abuse. Even when I had lost hope in the adults.

To the teachers and administrators, I have one simple, simple message: look out for that wierd, small, annoying kid. Nobody else is. Maybe, just maybe, his behavior problems aren’t a desire to torture you. Maybe they are a result of never-ending abuse. Help and you’ll be amazed. The few adults that did listen, that somehow spotted me, that somehow saw something beautiful in me despite the labels and behaviors, they are my heroes. They saved my life. You have no idea how important you might be to a kid. That 12th grade teacher (who didn’t actually teach me!) willing to write me passes to get out of class…she saved my life.

I probably should have told those few adults who actually helped me, who respected me. But by then I was too beat down, and too far from being able to heal. But they still provided me some respite from the abuse. And even that is a blessing.

And when an abused kid – whether abused by adults or other kids – actually tells you about abuse, act on it. You might not hear the word “abuse” used. You’ll probably hear that someone did something to the kid, and it probably sounds like the kid’s blowing it out of proportion and not dealing with things. But maybe, just maybe, you should investigate it and find out if this might just be one of thousands of incidents, and maybe, just maybe, the kid is hoping he can trust. Show your courage and your heart. Show you can be trusted. Do something. It takes a lot to build trust in someone that’s been abused. But show you can be trusted. Show you will listen. And believe. And do.

To that kid: I know it’s damn near impossible to believe me, but you can keep going. Just make it through to another day. I believe you. You don’t deserve this crap. The happiest day of my life was when I left home and traveled 300 miles to college. I had plenty of problems there too, and definitely lacked support (primarily because I had no trust in the ability of others to help me) – heck, I didn’t eat for a week simply because I had no way to ask where the cafeteria was. Not eating for a week was better than being in my hometown. And I did eventually find out where to eat. And I made friends. Yes, friends. People who actually liked me, protected me, spent time with me. What a relief it was to actually have a human to spend time with.

I do know how hard it is. Maybe I had it harder than you, maybe you have it harder than I did. I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. Torture is torture, and is never okay. I’m hoping you keep going, that you somehow find strength that no human should need to find. But you’ve done it so far. Please, go on another day. There is hope. In your heart, you believe it too. You had to or you wouldn’t have gotten this far. Listen to that, and don’t let your brain tell you otherwise. Even when you can’t see a way out, things can change.

Why the Trans Stuff?

This could also be titled, “Can you explain what Joel has been up to the last year?”  Or “Why is Joel glad Autreat moved from Johnstown.”

Some readers of this blog may wonder why there is the trans-advocacy stuff here.  It mostly started in 2012 with an issue involving Autreat.

In 2012, as a member of the planning committee, I discovered, by accident, that our Autreat venue at the time (University of Pittsburgh @ Johnstown) was discriminatory against trans people (and, most likely, still is).  Essentially, they decided to prohibit many trans people from using the correct facilities for their gender identity and expression (I.E. a transman should be able to use the men’s room; that said, depending on where he is in his transition and with his expression at the time, he may choose to use the women’s room for safety purposes, which should also be respected as this is an issue of safety from assault, not preference or comfort).  The change was made in 2011, despite a pretty good official non-discrimination policy (that includes, ironically, gender identity).  It was proclaimed semi-officially – it didn’t go through the typical rule making process, nor was it put on paper, but it absolutely was enforced and echoed by official statements made by the University.  In fact, it was enforced against a student at Johnstown who arrested for using the “wrong” facilities and charged with indecent exposure.

This was significant to Autreat because research shows that autistics are highly represented in the trans community (for instance, 6% of people with gender identity disorder are autistic according to one study – much higher than one would expect if there was no relationship).

There’s all sorts of commentary on U Pitt’s decision online and in print – most of it revolving around whether or not different advocacy organizations and trans people responded “right” to the discrimination or whether or not the trans person who was arrested was right or wrong. Unfortunately most of this commentary doesn’t actually question the discrimination, and most seems to imply “just wait it out” is the right response when you personally face discrimination – but that’s the typical response to anything that disturbs the status quo from people not personally bothered by the status quo. However, the root of the problem is not any specific case, but rather official statements from the University administration about how trans people would be treated. For instance, a spokesperson quoted by Think Progress said,

As this [policy] applies to use of facilities, a female who identifies as a male, or a male who identifies as a female, may use restrooms or locker rooms of his or her declared gender identity after he or she has obtained a birth certificate designating the declared gender. This practice applies to student athletes as well.

Many trans people, for many reasons, do not have birth certificates that agree with their gender.  Depending on where you are born, you may be able to change your birth certificate simply by filling out a form (no documentation or surgery requirement), by providing evidence that you are undergoing treatment for Gender Identity Disorder, by proof of certain surgical procedures, or, in some cases (such as if you are born in Ohio), not at all.  Thus, this can place people in not only bad, but dangerous situations of being forced to use a facility that doesn’t match one’s gender expression.

As a result of this discrimination by the venue, I wrote a long document near the end of July addressed to others on the Autreat planning committee (see this PDF: The Right to Pee) about my concerns.  I sent it after Autreat 2012 (we couldn’t move Autreat when this was discovered immediately prior to Autreat 2012, so I held off on the formal presentation of my concerns until after Autreat 2012).  The document includes documentation about the decision by the University, responses to questions I predicted people would have about the policy, and samples of good policies (such as the guidance issued by the NCAA, a group that knows a lot about single-gender activities and facilities usage, particularly in the context of college campuses).  I’m publishing it here primarily so that people can get ideas for their own advocacy and also to understand the problem surrounding the University’s statements (which are too numerous to go into here).  I’m also publishing it because Johnstown, Pennsylvania continues to be a hot spot for discrimination against trans people, unfortunately – I suspect in part due to the University of Pittsburgh normalizing discrimination.

A few months after I wrote about U. Pitt’s discrimination to the committee, the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown still had not made an offer that accommodated Autreat’s dates and other needs to host Autreat, so the gender identity discrimination issue became somewhat moot at that point (the end of November) and a venue search was then begun.  Unfortunately my document and/or it’s presentation to the committee was insufficient by themselves to persuade the committee to begin the search immediately (it did trigger the creation of an ad-hoc committee, which over a year later still hasn’t produced any recommendations and is probably moot now with the Autreat re-organization), so the search was started at the end of November rather than earlier.  That’s a common problem – it’s hard to convince people that discrimination exists, and it’s even harder for even good people to challenge the status quo in areas that don’t fit with their own personal experience.

It was obviously a relief that a different venue was chosen for Autreat 2013.  AFAIK, California University of Pennsylvania does not have any official policy (or interpretation) that would lend itself towards discrimination.  Nor do I know of any trans discrimination issues recently in California, PA.

The PDF document linked above (as “The Right to Pee”) still basically applies to the University of Pittsburgh (all campuses), with a couple of caveats due to changing circumstances.  First, trans students are now supposedly allowed to use bathrooms corresponding to their identity, on the basis of statements made on a “Student Life” page on the U Pitt website:

“The University has agreed, prior to the finding, to allow people to use the bathrooms with which they identify,” Frietsche said, citing a statement posted May 21 on the Pitt web site’s “single use restrooms on campus” page (www.studentaffairs.pitt.edu/lgbtqa/singleuserestrooms) that lists the locations of non-gender-specific restrooms on campus.

It states, in part: “The University trusts that members of the campus community and their guests will exercise sound judgment and discretion when accessing and using the restrooms.”

Frietsche, quoted above, is a lawyer for the Women’s Law Project, a group helping represent the campus LGBT group in a complaint against the school over the problematic policy (the above quote was from a University Times article).  However, it’s unclear whether or not “sound judgement and discretion” is the same thing as “allowed to use the bathroom that corresponds to your gender expression.”  The terse and strangely worded statement also leaves many questions unanswered – can a transwoman take a PE class offered to women?  Which locker room is she supposed to use?  Which dorm?  And since this new “policy” is listed only on a site that is specific to one campus, on a page that lists where single-occupancy bathrooms are located on the main Pittsburgh campus, does it apply to other campuses, like Johnstown?

The bathroom policy changed to the current “sound judgement and discretion” standard only in response to a legal complaint by the Pittsburgh campus LGBT group. The University seems to be losing in this (thus far, their motions to dismiss the complaint on have been denied, and the parties were ordered into the current phase). However, that complaint was made to the City of Pittsburgh (which has strong non-discrimination law), and it’s unclear how much influence the City of Pittsburgh would have on a campus located in, say, Johnstown, PA.  After all, unlike most places in the US northeast, there are no protections in Johnstown (or most Pennsylvania communities) for trans people – for instance, it is perfectly legal to refuse a trans person service in a restaurant simply because you don’t like their gender identity or you think it’s a sin and you don’t want to “enable sin.”

The complaint is currently in a reconciliation phase where the two parties are to try to come to an agreement that is mutually satisfying, according to the process for complaints made to Pittsburgh’s Human Relations Commission.  If the parties can’t agree (likely), it will go back to the City of Pittsburgh (and, likely, be appealed to state court by whichever side loses).

Other than this, the situation essentially remains as described in the document.  Trans people still don’t have real rights on the U Pitt campuses, with the possible exception of being allowed to use bathrooms (if the school agrees it was sound judgement) and even then possibly only in Pittsburgh.

So, back to why I care – a significant number of autistic people are trans, and it’s simply not possible to have an autistic event without considering the venue’s attitude towards trans people (or, put another way, whether they have simple respect for people). Learning about this also opened my eyes to how easy it is to unknowingly participate in furthering discrimination against trans people (Autreat certainly didn’t know Johnstown was discriminatory when we signed the contract to have Autreat there, and a lack of prior preparation through policy and procedure caused significant delays when trying to figure out what to do about it).  So it’s importance to be careful and do research, and for those of us who have learned about this to speak up when we see gender identity or expression discrimination.  It’s also important to think through these issues so you aren’t learning after there is a problem, but you learn and prepare ahead of time (that said, this shouldn’t be hard: people leaving others alone in the bathroom should also be left alone – duh – how hard is this to figure out?). As I researched this particular issue, it was pretty clear that trans people routinely face discrimination in all areas of their lives and that the fight for trans rights is – as Vice President Joe Biden phrased it – the civil rights issue of our times.  I’d like to be on the right side of history and to be able to tell the next generation, “I did my part.”

That’s why I care.

Nothing About Us Without Our Parents

There are three classes of people when it comes to autism – autistic people themselves, parents and caregivers of autistic people, and “normal” people.

Of course the “normal” people typically get to dictate how things work – after all, they beat out the other two groups by sheer numbers.  Just read a letter that was sent to a parent of an autistic kid.  It starts by saying:

I also live in this neighborhood and have a problem!!! You have a kid that is mentally handicapped and you consciously decided that it would be a good idea to live in close proximity to a neighborhood like this????

The grandmother’s crime (the autistic boy was with his grandmother) was living in a neighborhood and allowing her grandson to visit.  The letter was signed by “One pissed off mother!!!!!”

Now, we all know that most people aren’t the assholes that this “one pissed off mother” is, and we can even see that in the reporting of the community response to the incident. But just because most people are decent doesn’t undo the damage from the assholes. Every time a mother or father of a kid who makes strange noises, does things strangely, has meltdowns, or just somehow otherwise acts different goes out in public with their kid, this mother or father has to fear how people will react.  They have to ask, “Will I meet an asshole today?”

Heck, even a local police chief may be the asshole, should your kid cry in a restaurant.

Often, parents and caregivers get dirty looks when they go out in public with their kids. Others say, sometimes subtlety, sometimes not-at-all-subtlety, “You’re a bad parent.”  After all, a good parent would have normal kids.  Kids who don’t do things differently, don’t make noises, don’t have meltdowns.  It’s, in a sense, an extension of the refrigerator mother theory of autism – autism is the fault of the parents.  If the parents were good parents, supposedly their kid would be more normal – that’s the persistent message to parents of autistic kids.

So, it’s not surprising that some parents have latched onto nearly every possible theory to explain autism, at least theories that don’t blame them in any part (even passing on genes is seen by some as blaming the parents). The origins of the Autism Society of America are based in this – find the true causes of autism and stop vilifying parents! In a sense, much of the advocacy work was advocacy work on behalf of not the child, but simply that the parent wouldn’t be blamed for the child’s behavior.

Certainly, that work is important, and, too often, it is ignored by autistic self-advocates today. Your parent shouldn’t be blamed for your autism! And, largely thanks to parent advocates, they generally aren’t (although their work clearly isn’t done yet – assholes persist).

But, the voices of parent’s aren’t the voices of the people most impacted by autism. Those voices (and other communication) are those of autistic people. We weren’t even included in the membership or leadership of the early autism organizations (and we lack this in many of the current ones). No, parents spoke for us.  Parents might have been treated like crap by society, but they still had more status than we had. If parents were the second class, we were the third class.

Even today, the idea that we should be the key stakeholders in policy decisions about autism is well beyond simply being controversial. It’s unheard of.  While the disabled community has the mantra, “Nothing about us without us,” the implementation of this mantra is typically, “Nothing about us without our parents.”

We see the impact of this even today. When a parent attempted to kill her autistic daughter recently, the press and public expressed sympathy.  Oh, not sympathy for the victim. No, sympathy for the mother. It’s a lot easier for most adults to put themselves in the shoes of the mother than the autistic child. Paula C Durbin-Westby talks about this in her blog.

Even when murder isn’t involved, it affects us every day. Just as the parent has to worry about the asshole, so does the actual autistic person. Most of us have had horrible childhoods. We know how autistic kids are treated. And it’s even worse than how parents of autistics are treated.

But it doesn’t stop when the child leaves the home (and, yes, the vast majority of autistic people do leave the home). If you think a parent gets a dirty look when a child has a overload in the grocery store, try being an autistic adult having a overload in public. We get the blame. Fully and completely. We may end up arrested or otherwise have freedoms removed from us. We’ll probably be asked to not come back to that area. We’re simply not wanted. At all. People can sometimes understand a kid doing this, but they don’t understand an adult that can’t cope with too much input or stress.

And just try – as an adult with autism – to suggest that autistic people should define laws and rules regarding autistic people. No, we can’t do that. We’re just one of the stake holders – and an optional one like that. We’re used when it’s convenient to someone else’s message. But our voice is not all that important without someone else saying it is. After all, we’re just the people affected by these things, we’re not parents or caregivers (never mind that some of us also are parents or caregivers of autistic people too!).

So while I don’t support the second class treatment that parents of autistic people get, and will do everything I can to support parents in ridding the world of that prejudice, it can’t stop there. I’d like autistic people to at least one day get second class status, not the third class status we have today. I’d like one day for us to get treated just as badly – but not worse – than parents of autistic people.

Even better, I’d like all of us to be treated decently. Parents shouldn’t be scared to go out in public with their child. And autistic adults should have a key say in how autistic people are treated (and, lest I leave out a disclaimer, I’m not saying parents shouldn’t have any say, particularly when it comes to being a voice for their child). We shouldn’t just be an optional voice or an after thought. We should be at the table when you’re first thinking of discussing these things.

Equally, I’d like to see a place where our murderers don’t get more sympathy than we, ourselves, do. But maybe that’s still too much to ask. So I’ll settle for second-class status right now.

Autistic Cliques

No, this is not an oxymoron.

Sometimes the online autistic community reminds me of junior high.

No, I’m not saying that autistic people are immature, so please wipe that from your mind right now.  I’m saying that the thing that makes junior high (and in fact the rest of society) difficult for many people (hardly just autistic people) is inside the autistic community too.


Now, I know we’re not robots, and I know that we too are going to have people we highly respect and like – and are more likely to take them seriously than other people.  We know these people, after all.  So I’m not saying this is a completely bad thing – it’s not.  But it’s also not a completely good thing.

Over the last several years at Autreat (maybe the last 3 or 4?), I’ve noticed a change from Autreats previously.  I didn’t go last year, so I don’t know if it changed last year or not.  What I noticed was two things, and I didn’t consider either particularly good, although both come from something that is good.  I suspect this is a wider community thing, and I think we need to look not just at Autreat but at our community as a whole. We need to shape up.

First, I noticed a lot less manners. No, not the typical social skills stuff we’re taught, but things like recognizing that other people might be impacted by your own behavior. Things like actually respecting people’s red badges. Things like trying to figure out how someone interacts at the start of an interaction because you care about their style of interaction, too, not just your own. Things like not doing things that you know will bother other people. Yes, autistic people can and should have manners. Having autism is not an excuse to be rude or inconsiderate. Yes, it means we might not recognize social cues, we might not realize that we’re bothering someone, or we might interact in ways that make others uncomfortable.  But there is a huge difference between doing it accidentally and doing it intentionally (and then using “I’m autistic” as cover). It seems like the autistic community has been slowly getting more and more selfish over the years (although I know that there are many, many exceptions to that).

Second, and I think related to the above, is the rise of more cliques. There have always been autistic cliques when autistic community exists, despite conventional wisdom that says we think logically and don’t blindly build groups or follow leaders. And I think there’s a reason for the rise of cliques: we are meeting each other a lot more often now.

In 2002, when I first attended Autreat and met autistic community, I knew nobody there. Not one person. I learned that others like me exist. And I learned how important it was to see that we exist. A bunch of people there were in the same boat and knew nobody. We spent the week together and enjoyed our time with each other. There certainly were cliques, even then, but there were a lot of people not in any cliques.

Fast forward to say 2011 or 2012. Today, most of the people who come to Autreat already know another autistic person. When I went to Autreat in 2002, I had never met another Autistic, nor had a lot of interaction online. Today, thanks to Facebook, blogs, local autistic get-togethers, advocacy movements, and other events (as well as Autreat being held in the same area for many, many years), the average attendee knows – and maybe even is friends with – other autistic people. And you’ll see even first time attendees often come with friends, either from their own region or met online. That’s a pretty dramatic shift in our community.  That didn’t really happen in 2002.

There’s good with this: it means more people want to come to Autreat and similar events, because they have another reason to attend: to meet the people they’ve met online. Of course you want to meet your friends! You want to spend time with them! This is particularly true if you don’t get a lot of real-life face-to-face communication and your social life is mostly online. So what do you do at Autreat? You hang out with your friends! It’s a wonderful time. But, to an outsider (that is, someone not in your group of friends), this is a clique.  It’s hard to break in, because they don’t share the bond that the others share among each other, at least not yet.

I also think having a chance to meet with other autistic people online interacts with our manners. We can build an online persona that is rough and tough, self-deprecating, or otherwise not all that pleasant of a person to be around. And, no matter how rude we may be, you can probably find validation online somewhere. That can be attractive – I can be “who I am” rather than having to be someone else. And there’s truth that this is a good thing, but it still has limits. It’s still important to think of other people and their feelings. I remember in 2002 being amazed at how concerned everyone was about everyone’s feelings. I saw that in 2012 too, certainly, but I also saw some seeds of difference on this point.

I also saw how, as more and more people at Autreat knew others, how it has become more difficult for people who aren’t “plugged in” to have positive social interactions. They might see someone that they think is really interesting, but they are surrounded by a large group of friends, clearly sharing a common bond. That’s not a great place for an outsider, even in an autistic community.

For my community, I beg all of us to consider each other’s feelings and personhood. Being yourself doesn’t mean “not changing anything about how I want to interact, I can be as selfish as I want.” No, it means, “I can stand firm on my convictions and my identity. And so can other people. I have a part in making that happen.” It involves us taking a less selfish route sometimes. Selfishness is not the same as “being yourself,” even if you can get away with it online.

I also beg all of us to consider that person who isn’t plugged in.  Not everyone is on social media.  Not everyone on social media is popular on social medial. It’s a pretty miserable experience sitting alone at an event filled with people who supposedly know what it is like to sit alone. And, back to manners, if you want to sit alone, that’s cool, but be nice to someone who asks if you want company – sure, you can still let them know you want to be alone (and they should respect that), but no need to be nasty! Taking time to get to involve others is particularly helpful if you know you’re comfortable with your friends. Take time to get to know someone and bring them into your circle. Don’t do what happened to you and me in junior high, and stick to a tight group! Invite (not just allow) others to participate with you! Yes, it’s hard – that’s why it is so comfortable to stay in a tight group, and why NTs in junior high didn’t include us so often! And maybe you do need time just in a familiar group once in a while (particularly if you don’t get it in “real life”). But empathy – which autistics certainly have – also means you notice the autistic doing what you do in real life, staring at a potted plant trying not to look lonely.

All of this involves effort. Community is work. Community is not easy. Community involves conflict, personalities, hurt feelings, and sometimes hurt in other ways. Hurt happens. It happens a lot in community. But so should love, nurturing, respect, consideration, politeness, and generosity. And we shouldn’t ignore those things, either, either if everyone can’t do all of this at once.

We also need to do this online and in other community spaces. We need to start thinking that we’re all really in this together. We need to, when conflict occurs, take a step back or two, breathe, and not demand 100% orthodoxy. We need to be careful about how quickly we run to the defense of our friends, and remember that this “circling of the wagons” was exactly the same behaviors we despised in junior high and onward into adulthood. We need to listen first before we immediately defend the person we know or like. We need to be an open and welcoming community that deals with conflict well.

And we need to recognize our own privilege. Not just things like white, male, privilege. No, also the, “I have influence” privilege. It should scare you when you see it. I know when I have talked about community issues that affect me in abstract terms or anonymously, and see them ignored. Yet when I attach my name and personal experience, now the issue is serious. That’s not cool – the issue is or isn’t serious no matter who is bringing it up. This is something we have to be on-guard about. The leader or blogger or researcher or whoever else shouldn’t be granted more consideration than the yet-unknown autistic person who wants to find out if others exist like themself.

Again, that takes effort. Sometimes a lot of effort. That’s the price to pay for community.  Community is hard. But, community is good and important, particularly for people who have never experienced it.

I’m not writing this in regard to any specific incident. I know people will try to say that I am, but, truly, I’m not. Autreat 2013, which I didn’t attend, had problems. For the record, yes, I do think there were many things wrong in 2013. I hope whatever rises from the ashes is better. I do think this type of concept is important. And I want to see it rise. Yes, we’ll have different leadership next year and fixes for some accessibility issues. And I hope we build a community that is more inclusive – not just eliminating barriers to access, but also actively inviting people into our space. Why get together if we don’t want other people around?

That said, I don’t have a solution other than asking people to be inclusive. I’m certainly interested in thoughts about how we can fix this.