Life on the Spectrum

Archive for June, 2012

The Importance of Autism Community

I run an autism social group in my community. We call it the Asperger Meetup Group. For a long time it was the only social outlet for autistic adults in my community. Everyone is welcome, regardless of whether or not they have an official diagnosis. The group has no agenda, no formal structure, no check-ins or preset topics of discussion.

For me, running the group is rewarding. I really like it when people come to the group for the first time and I can see their gradual awareness that “everyone here is like me.”

One group member ordered a glass of wine at the first meeting she attended. It was her way of coping with social situations that were normally anxiety-inducing for her. At the end of the night, she realized that she’d barely touched her wine. The glass was still almost full. She didn’t need the wine to help her adjust to this social situation, because the people in the Asperger group weren’t judging her. She didn’t have to drink to fit in.

Some people have objected to the idea of an autism community. They believe having our own autism community means segregation, cutting ourselves off from the world. This was voiced to me by a parent of an autistic child. This parent wants her child to be “just like everyone else.” However, the fact is that an autistic person isn’t like everyone else. We can’t be, even if we want to be. (I don’t want to be.) That is why we need an autistic community.

In an autistic community you are more like everyone else than you are elsewhere. It is true that when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person; we’re by no means identical to each other. But we have plenty of things in common, whether it’s a tendency to make social faux pas, a perseveration over an obscure topic, a clumsiness that makes us trip over our own two feet, or a sensitivity to sound that causes even the smallest sound to be magnified to an unbearable level.

When a person attends a meeting of the Asperger Meetup Group, he or she will be welcomed and not judged. When I’ve spent the day dealing with neurotypicals, it’s a relief to be among my peers. I don’t have to explain why I just tripped over that chair getting to my seat. It doesn’t matter to them that I just dropped spaghetti sauce on my shirt. No one cares if my clothes are covered in cat hair.

Aspies need to be around other Aspies. It’s tiring to be around non-autistic people. As well-meaning as the neurotypicals might be, they can never truly understand what it means to be autistic. They don’t know what it’s like to live in our world, so instead, they try to make us live in their world. The neurotypical world is not a comfortable place for autistic people to live. It’s too loud. It’s too bright. The clothes aren’t comfortable. People don’t always say what they mean, and they expect other people to read their minds. They assume everyone understands them.

We can learn from each other. A common discussion topic when Aspies are together is: “Does anyone else…?” Sure enough, the person asking that question will find that yes, other people do that, or feel that, or have that particular problem. Sometimes when one Aspie has a problem in a certain area, they can learn coping strategies from other Aspies who have had trouble with the same thing.

I am by no means an autistic separatist. I don’t think we should associate only with other Aspies and auties. But being able to spend time with others who are like me is so much easier than spending time with those who are not like me. It’s like having a tribe, a clan, a group that you belong to. You can identify with others in that group. It’s comfortable.

I think the Internet has helped to form an autistic community. It’s a great way to meet others on the spectrum, especially for people who might live in isolated areas, those with mobility problems that make it difficult to go out, or those who are simply too shy or socially anxious to attend an autism/Aspie meet in person.

If you are reading this and you are on the autism spectrum, I hope you have found others on the spectrum that you can relate to, whether in person or online. You are not alone, and that, to me, is the most important reason to have an autism community: to show autistic people that they are not alone.