Several years ago I wrote a paper about the internet being a catalyst for the modern Autistic rights movement, and perhaps more importantly, neurodiversity as a defined subculture. When I engaged in the research needed, I was told by a clinician that autism and community are oxymorons. According to him, the very nature of autism made it impossible to conceive of any community being built by and for Autistic people. We could not have our own culture, because we were, as he put it, “more absorbed within our own inner worlds.” To this day I still think about those words and have to wonder what this man defined as a community, or even a culture. Since writing that paper, I have realized that Autistic culture has always existed — the internet merely gave us more opportunities to engage than previously known.
Dr. Steven Shore once famously stated that “…if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The individual Autistic experience, just as with allistic (non-Autistic) experiences, will vary. While we Autistic people have our own ways of communicating and expressing empathy, love, interest, and satisfaction there can be differences depending on the individual. There are always a few commonalities; as Autistic people, the historical events that led to the label we now recognize as autism creates a shared history. We all have a story relating to our diagnosis, no matter the age when it happened or whether we ever formally received one or not. It’s a shared experience of self-discovery. Many of us first came to autism after being diagnosed with previously recognized diagnoses that got absorbed into the spectrum. Being bullied, exposed to therapies and educational practices that remove our autonomy, and dealing with mainstream society treating us as outsiders is often a shared experience. More than just a shared experience, some studies have shown what we as Autistic people already knew: the same communication barriers neurotypical people seem to perceive us as having don’t exist in quite the same way when it comes to interacting with our Autistic peers.
Many Autistic people, including myself, can see the pattern of Autistic traits within our families. My mother, for instance, shares a lot of common traits with me that led me to receive my autism diagnosis. My father, too. In my own life, the family I’ve found are all neurodivergent in some way as well. Birds of a feather, as they say.
When we realize that Autistic people flock together, the reality of how we’ve always been community builders becomes more clear. When we try to visualize a caricature of autism, many might envision someone like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, and while many might dislike the comparison, there is a reason why they’re depicting him as someone with hobbies in comics, games, and fandom. You usually can find us at a table, surrounded by miniatures and collections of dice, playing D&D. You can find us in parks on Sundays, roleplaying our lives as characters from another place. You can find us at conventions for practically anything you can imagine. We are everywhere in spaces dominated by a dedication to a particular interest, a shared hobby, or the inner worlds we like to share with one another. Our differences in communication bring us together, rather than separate us, and allow us to create and maintain these friendships amongst people with similar neurotypes.
We have always existed and always created and sought out communities, whether we knew we were Autistic or not. The internet has only better enabled us to create a community around our shared experiences, joys, and sorrows as Autistic people separately from our interests. We do exist within our own worlds, but part of the Autistic experience, and one of the many ways I would argue that we show love, appreciation, and friendship is bringing others into those worlds with us.
So if you are neurotypical, the next time an Autistic person empathizes with you by relating your situation to an experience they’ve had, infodumps about their latest hyperfixation, or mimics the things you do, know that it isn’t an attempt to be insensitive, but rather the opposite. We are pulling you into our world and expressing ourselves to you in the ways we use to communicate with one another, informed by our own Autistic culture.