Lately I have had a few messages from autistic people who want to get involved in advocacy but are afraid to. They perceive a lot of the online groups as being unwelcoming and fear they will be attacked or unfriended for expressing an opinion different to that of the group. This is not a good thing and something I felt I should have a think about. Some members of our community apparently excluding other members of our community doesn’t sound like a good thing at all. A little consideration made me realise that this is a very complex issue indeed. In this post I’m going to have a go at unpacking some of the issues and suggesting a few things which might help.
Debate and discussion: friend or foe?
Opinions ands approaches differ between people. In principle this is a good thing and robust, respectful discussion should be encouraged. Some people really enjoy a good online debate and find it helps them to refine their own thinking and understand others’ perspectives. I am one of these people. If we have a respectful discussion I can learn some really useful things and different perspectives but I won’t learn anywhere near as much from just getting affirmation and praise. However, when I was younger I was terrified of anything which might be described as a disagreement or conflict and took it very personally. Everyone is at a different point on their own journey and has different views. So where a robust discussion is enjoyable for someone who enjoys debate, someone who is anxious around disagreement will probably find robust discussions very challenging and feel attacked. Different preferences in this area can mean that one person will find an online group stimulating and invigorating and another person will find it very challenging.
Some groups can come across as quite purist. If a member expresses a dissenting opinion it can be pounced upon. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with these sorts of groups per se and they can serve a useful purpose but if that is the first group a person trying to find their way in the in the autistic community comes across it can have a negative impact, especially if the new person expresses a dissenting opinion.
Where is the ‘line’?
Some things are absolutely right or absolutely wrong. A person coming onto my page and expressing anti-vax opinions and promoting those views to my online friends will not be on my page for long! However, some things I see more as grey areas. Issues around how a person identifies are a grey area to my mind and need to be determined by the individual themselves. But for some people and groups, how a person identifies (eg ‘I am autistic’ or ‘I am a person with autism’) ARE part of that not negotiables list. I draw the line in a different place to others and we all do. Understanding that is really important. Your line and the group’s line may be different on various things.
Some disagreements in groups are not meant to be upsetting or invalidating but some people can experience them as such. For a person who dislikes disagreement, some of those sorts of discussions are very distressing and they can feel afraid to contribute to discussion. Others involved in the discussion may not be aware that this is the impact.
Just say no: problematic groups
There is the issue where some groups are in fact genuinely problematic. These can result in people being shamed or unfriended for expressing a dissenting but not harmful view or hounded in group conversations. Some of these groups quite forcefully assert a sort of ‘preaching to the choir’ sort of thinking. I see these as being quite ideological which is not my approach to life. I don’t really want to get involved in these kinds of discussions so I usually just leave those groups. My rule of thumb its that if I feel frightened about posting something then that group is probably not one I want to remain engaged with.
Some thoughts on interacting with online autism advocacy and empowerment groups
- Online groups offer an amazing opportunity to connect with other autistics and to effect change on a variety of levels.
- Each group has a different purpose and ‘flavour’. Have a look around and try to find a group which is more closely aligned to your interests, likes and experiences.
- People perceive things differently and what might be experienced as an attack by one person may not be intended that way.
- If someone unfriends you because you express a dissenting opinion, I wouldn’t worry too much as you probably don’t want that person on your social media anyway!
- Most people in the various groups are autistic people themselves with their own set of experiences and challenges. They are probably not intentionally trying to make your life hard. A discussion with a group admin if you have concerns can help to defuse any tension a lot of the time, even if it seems hard to do.
- If you are a group admin, think about how your group can support people just entering your online community, if you haven’t done so already
- Social media groups are supposed to be empowering and supportive not divisive and exclusionary. If you are in a group which you find problematic or toxic or that you are not getting anything positive from, my advice would be to just leave.