(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.