I just recorded a radio show with an autistic comedian who has only relatively recently come to embrace her autism. She mentioned an experience of speaking to another autistic person and each of them ‘getting’ each other. A non-autistic person observing said ‘you are in your own little world’. While that summary might be viewed as somewhat critical, the experience we have where autistics spend time with other autistics is indeed our own world.
I have spoken and written at length about the idea of autistic ‘language’ and culture. Put briefly, autistic communication can be viewed as a different language to allistic communication (i.e. the communication of people who are not autistic or neurodivergent). This is evidenced when a large group of autistic people get together. There are generally no communication misunderstandings or social awkwardness. However, if an allistic person enters, then they are the one who has issues with understanding social cues! As I see it, this language or cultural difference is a key element of neurodiversity. The idea of ‘different, not less’ is at the heart of this experience of autistic language and culture being equally valid, just different.
I want to look into the idea of autistic space in this post. Autistic space is where autistic people are in the company of other autistics exclusively. There is a variant where most people in the group are autistic as well which is maybe something more inclusive but in between the states of autistic space and general society, or ‘allistic space’ I suppose.
I have had a few experiences of autistic space in my life and all have been memorable. The first was almost 10 years ago, in 2009. I attended a conference and the second day of the event was a workshop for autistic women and girls. The facilitator was an allistic man – something which hopefully wouldn’t be the case if the event was held now. However, in the event in 2009, other than the facilitator, everyone in the room was an autistic woman or girl – and I imagine there were a fair number of trans and gender diverse people. I had never experienced anything like this. It felt like I had come home. Everyone’s comments resonated with me. I felt included and supported and happy to be myself. That was fifteen years after I was diagnosed but I see it as the first ‘real’ day of being me. That was my ‘find your tribe’ (as some people call; it) moment.
Last year I had another opportunity to be in autistic space, as part of a research academy run by the what I have found to be a very inclusive and respectful research body, the Autism Cooperative Research Centre. This event ran for a few days. There were some allistic people but they were in a small minority. Most of the facilitators were autistic and the socialising was just amazing. I met new people happily and revelled in this opportunity to be among my compatriots. I see autistic people as being like expatriates in a foreign country. We may have learned the language and customs but we never quite feel we ‘fit’. I feel like spending time with other autistics is like meeting someone from home and being in autistic space is like returning to my homeland.
One of the things I learned at the research academy was that there is a sense of loss or grief when leaving autistic space. Imagine spending your entire life masking and trying to be accepted, trying to act like other people in ways you don’t understand, being bullied, being criticised for being yourself, finding other people baffling and struggling to be heard and understood and then finding yourself amongst people who not only understand all those things but also see things in a similar way to you? I have found while in autistic space that I want to stay there forever. I don’t think I am alone in this. I hope one day it will be a lot more common to be in autistic space.
My final foray into autistic space was at a wonderful event – a retreat for autistic women organised by the Sisterhood Society, an autistic-run organisation based in Australia. I had to leave the event half way through as I had speaking commitments and it was a real wrench. I have never had such a lovely time socially, meeting new friends and catching up with existing friends. I was simply filled with joy the whole time. I would gladly have lived there for the rest of my life!
Of course I do have a sort of autistic space all the time which is my home, Whimsy Manor. It is just Mr Kitty and me so usually there are no people but when there are, most of them are autistic. I am always very definite on the point that Whimsy Manor is a safe space and people will not be discriminated against or ridiculed. It is also a very ‘me’ place as I have made it mine. I do feel very safe and happy here too. I know that most other people do not get this possibility to have their own safe space. This is another thing I would like to see people having access to because it is amazing.
To conclude, I think there are lessons to be learned from reflecting on autistic space. I do not know many allistic people who have devoted a lot of time to learning to ‘speak autistic’, although I know a few genuine and wonderful allies who make a point of doing so, which is much appreciated. I think there should be more autistic space – more opportunities for us to be part of it and more respect for the value of it. We don’t really need paternalism and well-well-meaning people trying to do things for us. We need greater understanding and respect for our ways of being and the knowledge that difference is so often a positive. More understanding of the value of and need for autistic space and the reason it is important would benefit all sorts of organisations and it would definitely benefit autistic people. I love visiting my autistic homeland.