Saturday, 18 May 2013

Why We Need Autistic-Only Groups - Part Two

A while back, I wrote a post on the need for autistic-only groups. The consequent discussion on Facebook (quotes from which are included below) deepened my understanding of what actually happens when members of a ‘dominant’ group join, or try to join, a group originally meant for ‘minority’ people to get together. I became aware, or more aware, of the following things :-

1) When dominants are not allowed in, and they cry ‘discrimination’, it’s because dominants are so used to having the power to go pretty much where they please, and to totally ‘be themselves’ when they get there, that if they are kept out for any reason (or their attitudes are criticised once they do get in) they actually seem to feel hurt. I am a little mystified by this, perhaps because I’ve never been in that position (the only ‘dominant’ group I belong to is the European racial group, and I’ve never felt I had the ‘right’ to join, say, a Maori-only group). But what I am reminded of is reading Paulo Freire (I think) many years ago, who wrote about how members of the dominant groups, when their unequal status and power (hegemony) is declining or gone, will experience the loss of what they think of as ‘normal’ or their ‘rights’, and cry that they are now being discriminated against, and ‘oppressed’. And, what’s more, genuinely believe it, as they don’t see that their previous position in society was based on a distortion of power. I wonder if something of the same kind is happening here.

The problem with those in groups who are dominant, in this case NT people, is that they usually do not realise the various privileges they are experiencing due to being a part of the hegemonic group. So, when we say “well, you've come into our space and it's run under our way of interacting and we don't feel a need to accommodate you” they react with "oh you're being exclusive” when actually what they are experiencing is not being dominant. - Paula

What is interesting is that when we deny them knowledge, THEY feel excluded. They feel they have a right to know us and how we are without acknowledging that they can't. Of course they can try but they will never understand what it is to be us. - Bex.

2) Once NTs are in one of our groups, inevitably at least some of them start ‘correcting’ us. A white person allowed into a group of people of colour, would not nowadays (I hope!) start demanding they talk in Standard English, or tell them not to be so ‘emotional’, or criticise their ‘peculiar’ clothes, etc. Yet NTs allowed into our groups seem to have no hesitation about telling us what we ‘should’ be doing, how we ‘should’ be living our lives, how we ‘shouldn’t’ react in the ways we do, or criticising the way we talk and express ourselves - and get hugely miffed if we challenge that. There is an automatic assumption that their ways are superior. The result is that either we spend a lot of time explaining and justifying ourselves, and/or we start to feel oppressed in the very groups set up to escape that in the larger society.

They were starting to take it over, and question and make judgements about things that we shared, giving ‘advice’ etc that wasn't needed, as well as constantly asking us for 'advice’ (and rarely taking it). – Katy

The trouble at times with our mixed spaces is ...that often they take it for granted that they can begin to use ‘our space’ to ‘learn about us’ without respecting that Aspie spaces are created for us to be able to be ourselves, free from trying to fit into non-spectrum social interacting norms. When us explaining ourselves becomes an expectation in Aspie spaces ... self-consciousness can be created, and this impacts on how we might feel in the space. – Paula

3) An intrinsic part of this ‘correcting’ us, is a lack of understanding of what it really means to be autistic. Our freedom to be ourselves in these groups becomes sharply diminished as a result, previously free discussion dries up, and a muzzled awkwardness ensues. Such groups tend to die or become inactive in the end, because the autistics no longer feel it’s safe to talk openly (this is happening now with the group I mentioned in my first post on this subject).

Our ability to speak is drastically reduced when the message is heard by someone who cannot understand. That is why segregation empowers us. We are all equals here with equal understanding of what it is to have autism. – Bex.

The dynamics of any closed group allowing members to be true to themselves and to each other is so subtly and yet radically changed when others are permitted entry or view. In fact to the very same extent as would inviting one's extended family into a hotel honeymoon suite after the banquet to observe the inaugural conjugal act sans clothes or any bedclothes for that matter either. – John

4) Also, some (not all!) NTs who come into such groups seem to do so mostly to pump us for information or ‘advice’, which can make us feel like performing monkeys, or unpaid consultants, not to mention more than a little irritable. Our privacy is destroyed, ‘our’ space invaded, and we start to feel used.

Aspie spaces (FB pages) are not here for the purpose of parents/carers/professionals to use us to explain AS to them... it's a bit intrusive at times when non-spectrum people come into our spaces expecting that we will happily explain constantly for their benefit... when in fact we're here to discuss among ourselves and hang out with our mates basically. – Paula

The people who think they have a right to my personal thoughts and feelings that I share with you, my soul brothers and sisters, in the knowledge that you truly understand and experience the same things... those people can piss off. - Bex

5) Often in our groups, we have a moan about various problems we’re having with NTs, or poke a bit of fun or ‘turn the tables’ on NTs in humour. Private venting and humour are common ways for minorities to let off steam, and cope with their situation/s without going crazy. But some NTs then complain that we are being ‘anti-NT’ or ‘rubbishing’ them. Yet they don’t ever seem to think about the effects of their own criticism of us, eg when they talk about how ‘difficult’ the autistics in their lives are, the ‘hardship’ and ‘stress’ those autistics cause them, etc.

We've always had non-spectrum people in our groups make accusations of 'not liking' NTs people if we make the odd joke about them or vent about our issues/frustrations in dealing with non-spectrum people... which I feel is inappropriate in a Aspie run space for Aspie people. These spaces are for us.... I get irritated with the reactive behaviour especially when we turn around NT language towards us in humour towards NTs... because we're the ones joking, whereas when non-spectrum run orgs like Autism Speaks create posters and the like saying "we love our kids, but hate Autism”, they are serious. - Paula

Thus, while it may seem like being ‘nice’ or ‘inclusive’ to let NTs into all our groups, the reality is that when we do it means we can end up being silenced, bossed around, used, misinterpreted, criticised, forced to justify our very style of being, and generally oppressed. We get enough of that in the ‘real’ world, we don’t need it in ‘our’ space as well. Yes, there needs to be ‘mixed’ space, meeting grounds where issues can be discussed on equal terms, but ‘minority-only’ groups are even more important. We need autistic-only groups so that we can feel safe, empower ourselves, free our psyches from NT domination, vent if need be, and generally ‘just hang out and be autistic’. We have so little space in the world that’s truly ‘ours’, to have ‘us-only’ groups isn’t really that much to ask.


  1. Let me say that I like your blog and agree with what you say, but would like to look a little deeper at one aspect of it. This is done with all humility and not in anyway to infer that there is anything wrong with your views. This is just a different perspective.

    The first point I would like to make is that when we use the term NT that is not who we mean!
    NTs are those who do not have the special structure of their brain, with increased proportion of white, connective neurons leading to a different way of thinking; no, who we are referring to are those who do not accept, respect or entertain the concept of Autism.
    It is a mystery to them and for those of them who want to find out more we are seen as a strange sub-group bordering on being human.
    But, this group contains those who are Autistic, are On-The-Spectrum – OTS, may even have been diagnosed as such, yet refuse to accept it.

    It is equally true that there are many who are NT that nevertheless fully accept and respect us for who we are.

    Now I would like to draw an analogy with village life.
    It is a widely held belief that villagers are a strange set of people who will not accept new residents as part of their community; we have all heard those who declare that they have lived in a village, or small community for 20 years (for example) and yet are still regarded as outsiders.
    I have moved many times in my life, mostly to small rural communities and yet have always been accepted; even to the point of having been told on one memorable occasion that I had been accepted.
    The problem is that incomers to an existing community will try and make positive changes to their new home, by helping the locals 'move with the times' and to find 'better ways of doing things'.
    In areas where townsfolk or city dwellers move out into the surrounding rural communities, where they can quickly outnumber the locals due to their deeper pockets, in such places it is not unusual to find the local councils taken over and run by the newcomers and the old traditional way of life being excised, to the dismay of the original inhabitants.

    Similarities here I think to what is described in your blog.

    But is this necessarily so? My own experiences say no. It all depends on the attitude and behaviour of the incomer.
    I have always taken great pains to respect that being an incomer, I am joining an existing community. That it is up to me to learn and to adopt their ways and their values rather than trying to tell them how to do things, unless specifically asked for my opinion. By doing this I have had no difficulty and have always been accepted.

    In a similar way I feel that a few non OTS could be welcomed into our groups on the understanding that they will respect us and learn to fit in with how we do things, even to the point of having fun made of NTs or hearing complaints or rants at their expense.

  2. John - Yes, there are many NTs who accept us without prejudice, and yes, there are some autistics who are unaccepting of their neurology (I've even met one or two).
    HOWEVER, being autistic is not a state like being a stranger to a village. Eventually, the stranger becomes a local, even if it takes decades. Nothing will change us into NTs, or NTs into us. Thus the comparison is not totally valid.
    Also, no matter how understanding some NTs are (and it would be difficult to weed out the ones who are, from those who aren't, ahead of letting them in, how could you tell, until it's too late?), there is still a strong case for having autistic-only groups, just becos of our often tortured history with NTs. Letting them into our 'us-only' groups would be like letting a man into a group of female sexual abuse survivors, in terms of potential trauma, if that makes sense to you.
    And really, i don't think it's so big a deal, that we have our own space. I consider myself pretty aware on racism issues, spent time in the anti-racism movement, but i fully accept the right of non-whites to form their own groups, without even people like me in them.