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.