We’ve explored so much, as a network of communities, in the last few years. Neurodivergence and neurodiversity, neuroqueerness, and now we’re beginning to recognise ourselves as a culture or cultures. Steve Silberman’s “Neurotribes” documents our history and how we came to be named and grouped under the autism spectrum. What fascinates me is the concept of autistic culture, of which our history is an important part.
Looking at the many traits that mark our difference from the neurotypical, one could come to the conclusion that their diagnosis as a disorder is very odd indeed. Excluding other disabilities and conditions that commonly co-occur with our neurotype (for example epilepsy, intellectual disability and motor function disability), would our differences really be classed as a disorder?
Take, for example, our common aversion to eye contact. Is this so unusual? In many species, prolonged eye contact is an aggressive act, intended to signal dominance. In such a diverse species as our own, with such a wide range of cultural norms, is a resistance to eye contact really so out of place? When there are cultures where different hands are reserved for different tasks, where certain hand gestures are considered offensive, why then do we condemn to the rank of “disorder” a biologically driven desire to avoid eye contact?
Or our turn-taking. I’ve mentioned before how autistic people aren’t incapable of taking turns, we’re just expecting longer turns containing more information than neurotypical people do. This isn’t disordered, it’s just a variation on the social expectations. The cultural norm for turns in conversation is dictated by the average attention span of the majority – how long they want to talk and listen for.
So many autistic differences could, under different circumstances, be brushed off as “cultural differences”, if only we were collected together, hailing from some remote part of the world where our neurotype was favoured by the social order. This is pretty much how the Social Model of Disability views autism. If we were in the majority, we wouldn’t be disabled by our autism.
What I’m most interested in, though, is how our culture can develop through this phase of our history. The Neurodiversity movement is starting the hard work of generating acceptance of our differences, giving us room to explore and experiment with what these differences are. I’m curious, in an impossible experiment kind of way, what cultural norms and expectations a group of autistic people would establish if they were raised away from neurotypical culture. That’s not something we can ever really know, though. Instead, we can look at our similarities and differences within the autistic population and try to figure out what exactly an autistic culture would look like.
Unstrange Mind touches on this in Is Everyone “a Little Autistic”?, positing that if everyone was a little bit autistic, the world would be a much different place.
If everyone were a little bit autistic, Salvation Army bell ringers would be illegal. If everyone were a little bit autistic, nothing ever would have strobe lights. Ever. Fluorescent lights, sirens, shirt tags, sock seams — these wouldn’t exist. There would be a strong social taboo against dragging a chair across the floor and making that horrible scraping sound with it. Perfume and cologne would be outlawed as hazardous substances and every school and workplace would have a quiet zone for recuperation. How we handled turn-taking would not involve long lines of people standing scrunched up close to each other. In short, if everybody were a little autistic, our whole society would look a great deal different than it does.
This is what fascinates me. I want to explore our technology, cultural dress, social rules. If we were a civilisation independent of the established neurotypical society, what would we look like?