Tribal Initiation

(trigger warning: everything that was ever trigger-y about being Autistic in a world that doesn’t want us here.)

I’m pretty much always taking some of the free courses on Coursera. I don’t always do everything required for a certificate (I’ve come close several times and I have one certificate for a Brown University class “The Fiction of Relationship”) but I watch a lot of lecture videos and think about ideas presented.

I just watched a lecture for a Rutgers University class called “Soul Beliefs: Causes and Consequences” and when the professor began speaking about tribes, I took extra interest in what he was saying. He was talking about both traditional tribes and modern tribe-like social structures, particularly religions (the title of the lecture was “functions of religions”.) But he pointed out that a tribe can be members of the Elk Club, a street gang, or participants in any sort of subculture that exhibits a shared culture and set of values.

As he discussed how one becomes a member of a tribe, I couldn’t help applying his words to my neurotribe of Autistic people, particularly Autistic activists I know online. He said, “the first step in learning to become a member of a tribe is imitation. It is through imitation and instruction that we absorb the values and worldviews of the tribe.”

That makes Autistic culture unusual when compared to other “social tribes” that exist today, because we come into Autistic community already in possession of at least 80% of Autistic culture (possibly because so much of it is neurological and deeply-rooted, not artificial or constructed.) We come into Autistic community with very similar mannerisms, preferences, and worldviews, even though many of us never met another Autistic person during our formative years . . .  and those of us who did were often intentionally kept separated from other Autists because many professionals believe it is not good to let us “mingle” because we will “pick up bad habits from one another.” (What? Like the annoying habit of realizing there are other people like us and thus maybe we’re not so “wrong” as we’ve been led to believe we are?)

There is some imitation and instruction that occurs when Autistics come together. For example, I’m told that many gatherings of Autistic adults use the Deaf applause hand-movement instead of clapping hands because so many of us find the high-pitched palm-striking noises of traditional Western applause painful to hear. While it is such an obvious solution that I’m sure it must have come about by parallel means, it did require some people to suggest it and other people to adopt it as a good idea.

It was the third item on his list of ways people learn how to be a member of a tribe that helped me understand more about why — beyond the effects of our shared clusters of neurologically-based traits — so much of Autistic culture almost seems to have arisen before Autistics came together to build community. The third item on his list was initiation.

Some initiations are mild: learn a few words or steps, maybe eat a live goldfish. Some initiations are brutal: street gangs beat their members in and university fraternity members sometimes die from the harshness of the initiatory rites. Autistic initiation is one of the most brutal tribal initiations out there. And, again, we are different from the other tribes. We do not conduct our own initiations.

The initiation into Autistic culture comes from growing up Autistic. Some of us were abused by peers. Some of us were abused by parents. Some of us were abused by teachers. Some were abused by therapists. Many of us notice when people are “staring at us like we are garbage.” We hear the words others call us. We hear the threats. We can read the letters neighbors send to our parents. And when we reached an age where we knew the name of our diagnosis and had access to the news, we saw that other people like us are killed. By police. By parents . . .  and people sympathize with the killers more than the victims. It’s a radical act to tell people not to kill us.

And this is the initiation into our tribe.


5 responses to this post.

  1. I’m wondering how imitation – instruction – initiation works in other non-voluntary groups. Like being black, or being gay. It feels to me like there should be some intersectionality (acknowledging differences as well as commonalities) in that theory of tribal organisation. Not every tribe membership is voluntary, but you can still choose to identify or not identify with the tribe. And how that then impacts the sharing of values and culture, or the resistance against that sharing.

    No doubt about it that all our shared autistic experiences are a ruthless initiation, though. Being made to feel different is only possible through rejection from another tribe.

    • Disability and sexuality are different from other non-chosen tribes in that we generally do not grow up within our tribes. Black children, like most children, imitate their parents and are instructed by them as they grow up. Whereas most gay children and Autistic children do not get the gift of being raised within a tribe of people similar to themselves.

      Growing up Autistic carries an extra burden as newer studies have shown that Autistic children are bullied and abused at a much higher rate than children with any other disability, including intellectual disabilities. It would not surprise me to learn that we are killed at a higher rate as well.

      And, yes, I think (sadly) part of what makes the Autistic community as strong as it is, is the shared experience of being the painted bird – rejected by others and rejected more fiercely and more violently proportionate to how hard we tried to fly with the flock. And being socially rejected stimulates the same neurons as physical pain, so we are bonded in the way that people who go through torture together are bonded.

  2. Brilliantly observant. I love this:

    “We do not conduct our own initiations.”

    I will be thinking of this all day. This certainly explains the kinship I feel with fellow autistics and the pleasure I derive from advocating for the community.

    Thank you.
    Lori D.

  3. Good thinking….I’ve wondered how much of what is taken to be autistic is PTSD.

    • The two are quite often mixed in together. It’s hard to tease them apart. For one example, Tony Attwood’s book on Asperger’s says that people with Asperger’s have a much higher rate of anxiety and depression than the general population. I don’t think that’s an autistic trait; I think it’s a PTSD trait that will seem strange and obsolete when someone is reading historical literature about autism at some point in the future when society has sufficiently shifted such that these sorts of “tribal initiations” no longer occur.

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