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Position Statement on Autistic Culture

April 20, 2009

For Immediate Release [first published on April 20, 2009]

The public sociology and advocacy journalism project, The League to Fight Neurelitism, supports the application of United Nations values concerning human rights and social justice to all Autistics.

Following recent discussions on an Autism-focused email list, the League has crafted a position on the subject of Autistic culture. One of the most obvious results of this process will be the capitalization, in this and in all subsequent documents, of the words Autism, Autistic, and Autist. The latter term, the noun Autist, will be utilized, interchangeably with Autistic, when referring to one or more Autistic individuals. For instance, just as one is a Gambian, one is, in the first person, an Autist or Autistic. One does not have Gambia or Autism.

This approach to capitalization, which is already being practiced by some Autists, has long been in use within the Deaf community. As explained on the Alternative Solutions Center blog:

Far from viewing “Deaf” as a way of excluding people, we see the term as an inclusive one. To us, “Deaf” refers to any people who happen to be Deaf. It has nothing to do with having Deaf or hearing parents, or using ASL, SEE, spoken English, cued speech, or any other communication modality. Neither does it matter if one was mainstreamed, educated at a Deaf school, or homeschooled. Degree of hearing loss, being Deaf from birth or being late-Deafened, using a hearing aid or a cochlear implant – none of these, in our minds, precludes anyone from being Deaf.

Capitalizing Deaf parallels capitalizing African American, Jewish, Hispanic, and so on, with each of these capitalized designations referring to a group of people with their own culture and physical characteristics (i.e., skin color, bloodline, hearing status). All of these terms are inclusive. Some Jewish people may be observant Orthodox Jews, centering their lives around their religion, while others may simply identify as Jewish through their family lineage and never set foot in a temple. Some Jewish people speak Hebrew, while others don’t.

Similarly, capitalizing Autism and its forms emphasizes the culture of Autistics. While the Autistic community is certainly heterogeneous, or diverse, in its viewpoints on a host of issues, few cultures, even those which have functioned under extraordinarily rigid, authoritarian, or totalitarian political systems, have ever achieved a true consensus or unanimity. For this reason, a culture may better be appreciated, not as a system of uniform or mechanical behaviors, but as a way of life or as a symbolic toolkit for resolving problems and addressing existential challenges.

Furthermore, cultures do not arise without precedent. Their development, whether systematic or haphazard, occurs within historical frameworks of interaction and adaptation. Social groupings are, as sociologist Anthony Giddens has observed, ongoing accomplishments. That is to say, as willful agents, we need not be passive objects of grand cultural processes. Instead, we can, individually or collectively, express our voices concerning the maintenance, modification, or deconstruction of contemporary cultures. We can also become actively engaged in building new and emancipatory ones grounded on human rights.

A culture, in its nonmaterial aspects, incorporates a population’s language, values, and norms. With respect to the first of these, language, cultures and subcultures are defined, in part, by a characteristic semantics or lexicon. A stranger on an Autistic discussion forum might have difficulty following most conversations. Moreover, opposition to curing Autism is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous value of the self-advocacy Autistic community. In establishing territoriality and appropriate social norms or rules of conduct, this value serves to differentiate self-advocates from many largely parent-dominated groups.

Cultures and subcultures move through stages. Given that Autistic online culture remains in its early phases of development, it would be patently unfair to compare its nascence with online culture as a whole. Similarly, it would be unjust to compare online culture with the cultures of Western industrialized countries. In other words, culture is not an object which a population “either has or does not have.” It is, as a lifeworld, defined by its process – the lived-in experiences of a community.

Concluding on a personal note, when I first connected with other Autistics online, I had to learn the significances of various terms: neurotypical (NT), aspie, curebie, nonspeaking autistics (and not “nonverbal”), and so forth. I also had to study the values (and value debates) and norms in the online Autistic community. I have been involved with computers for many years and ran a BBS (dialup bulletin board service) on a dedicated line in pre-Internet days. Even though I watched virtual culture, in general, develop, becoming a part of online Autistic culture required me to discover a new vocabulary, value system, and normative framework.

Respectfully submitted,

Mark A. Foster, Ph.D.
Founding Director,
The League to Fight Neurelitism


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