Notes on Community Knowledge: The Importance of Autistic History
Apropos of nothing, let me tell a little story about the time I seriously misunderstood the meaning of the word self-advocate and was lovingly taken to task.
I’d been involved in the autistic community for a little bit, but more online (read: autistic tumblr) than anything else. I was growing into myself as a teenager & someone who’d been newly diagnosed, and I had a *lot* of opinions.
I *hated* the term self-advocate in high school. it felt like the term were belittling the work I was doing — I wasn’t just advocating for myself, I thought, I was also community building. I felt this way bc I hadn’t yet been exposed to the rich history of self-advocacy.
My heart was in the right place, and I was an autistic youth who had been denied the community I needed growing up. I had a lot to learn, and nobody in my life who could teach me. NONE of that changes the fact that I seriously misunderstood what it meant to be a self-advocate.
Eventually, I aired this view somewhere on the internet — my memory is perpetually fuzzy, but I *think* this may have been on twitter. I jumped in on a conversation happening between more experienced autistics, and I stuck my foot in my mouth so deep it came out my ass.
The more experienced autistics were upset at me, and rightfully so. I’d ignored decades of IDD history, and was insistent that the other people in this conversation were too ~establishment~ and not with the times or some shit.
One of the people in the conversation pointed out to me that this clash came from the fact that I didn’t know my history. I was passionate, I was a committed advocate, *and I did not know my ass from my elbow on this particular topic*.
They very kindly explained to me that the self in self-advocate meant something very different from what I thought: it was a statement of autonomy. It wasn’t “only advocating for myself”, it was “not letting NTs control the narrative”.
To be clear — this person did not have to do this. I was a random person on the internet, and they had been doing advocacy on a professional level for years. The fact that they very gently took me to task was a generous gift, and not one I take lightly.
I now of course know the actual meaning of the term self advocacy, but this story actually isn’t about that. This story is about the fact that I jumped into a conversation missing key facts because I didn’t know my community’s history.
The autistic community has been having very complex discussions on identity, acceptance, and a million other topics for DECADES. As someone newer to the community, it was my responsibility to engage with those conversations, to recognize the patterns and phrases that crop up.
I understand that it can be VERY difficult to track down autistic history and writing, especially if you don’t know where to start or what to look for. And. and and and and.
If we are entering into a conversation around autism with people who have been involved in the community for literal decades, it is 100% on us not to get on their case for perceived wrongs that are due to our own misconceptions.
These are very old conversations. Many of these conversations are in fact older than I am, and certain terms and phrases have become established community knowledge. It’s important to recognize that autistics have been doing the work for decades, and we share terminology.
Resources like the loud hands anthology, all the weight of our dreams, autonomous press, and plenty others are key to understanding these conversations, and I’d heavily advise newer autistics to engage with them and recognize our shared concepts before shooting from the hip.
I love you, autistic community. Keep that fire, keep that passion and commitment, keep that drive to fix what is wrong with the world. While you do so, learn your autistic history. You deserve to know it, and you have a responsibility to know it.
To do an egregious disservice to Hillel: that which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow autistic. This is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary. Go and study.