When I first read Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, one of the many moments that stayed with me was his description of Autistics coming together with other Autistics, the liberation and joy that is finding your tribe. He describes – as do many others – that moment when Autistics come together, without judgement, without censure, without fear, free to be themselves, tangibly and profoundly. From the moment I have been reading about Autistic Space (spaces by, with and for Autistics), I have been longing for the day that I might experience them and find my “people”.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but as an Autistic woman in her thirties I have spent my whole life on the outside looking in, not belonging, not comfortable, not at ease. It’s not that I don’t want social connection. Actually, the opposite is true – I crave it. But that kind of connection has thus far eluded me.
I don’t assume that when I gather with other people, I will experience any kind of vital, basic social bond. I don’t assume that I’ll naturally experience the sort of social relationship that unites and connects me to others. Like for most people, I’m sure, the sense of me being an integral part of a greater whole is accentuated and intensified when I am among people who share something in common with myself. But it’s never complete.
I wonder how many people enter a room of other people with an expectation of acceptance and companionship. Because I don’t. I enter a room of other people and experience nausea and anxiety and an expectation of exclusion and awkward loneliness. Or I enter a room wearing a mask of socially-acceptable competence and I function, but that woman is not me, she is a façade. So, if I felt them, “acceptance” and “companionship” never really felt like mine to claim.
I want that. I want to walk into a room and have the experiences behind me to support an informed assumption that people will like me, and that I will be a valued addition to that social group. I want to know what it’s like to muster the courage finally to say something, and for that something to be respected and appreciated. I want to know what it’s like not to have to muster the courage to say something in the first place. I want to be me, really me, and feel that those around me aren’t just acquiescing to my quirks, but actually embrace them totally.
It’s not that I don’t have friends. I do. I have a few absolutely wonderful, dedicated and generally awesome friends. They’re a small group, but gosh I have quality over quantity. What I don’t have, however, is a people, a kindred. I don’t have a group. And I want one.
Last week I got one. I had the opportunity to join an Autistic Space with thirteen other Autistics, as well as a number of Autistic mentors, supporters and organisers.
Walking into Autistic Space for the first time was absolutely terrifying. I had never fit into any social group ever. The longing for this to be my place, my kin, my moment to be me, to feel acceptance, to know connection, was so deep, so nauseating, so overwhelming in its intensity, that I could hardly bring myself to enter the room. What if, like every other time in my life, I experienced rejection here too? What if all the hope that I’d built up, all that optimism, was not fulfilled? How would my heart survive if here, too, everything I’d dreamt of, hoped for, was dashed and disappointed? If I didn’t belong here, surely I didn’t belong anywhere. If these weren’t my people, then I was destined to live my life without that connection.
I’m not going to exaggerate here. I didn’t walk into Autistic Space to applause (Autistic style or otherwise). No one greeted me as the-long-lost-person-they’d-been-waiting-to-meet-all-their-life. No rousing welcome was heard. But then someone handed me an adult colouring-in book, and some putty, and a groovy new fidget toy I’ve never encountered before, and it struck me that I was welcome. Not a prodigious, gregarious neurotypical style welcome, but a warmer, sincerer welcome than I’d ever encountered elsewhere in a quiet, Autistic, accepting way.
When I first walked into Autistic Space I was like a tightly wound flower bud, curled and folded in on myself to protect myself from what I have learnt is inevitable pain, hurt and disappointment in social environments. But in Autistic Space every conversation, every shared experience and memory, every gesture of acceptance, every respectful acknowledgement of my needs, encouraged me to unfurl my petals.
When my stim-putty was appreciated by many of the other participants, it felt like sunshine on my petals, coaxing me to open, to blossom and bloom and be beautiful. When people laughed at my puns and my quirky humour, it was with me, not at me. When I gave feedback or suggested feed-forward, people listened and truly heard my words. Heard and appreciated them and thought that they were insightful and valuable.
All the defenses I have erected over years to shield myself from the hurt of loneliness began to disappear, as each of my petals – my stims, my passions, my intellect, my puns, my songs, my laughter, my movements, my humour, my creativity, my analysis – unfurled a little more, to reveal the real me. It wasn’t immediate, but slowly I was coaxed by my Autistic peers to emerge as something infinitely more beautiful than I was before when I was the mere promise of a flower yet to thrive. Autistic Space was my sunshine, my nutrient, the food I needed to realise who I am.
I spent four days in Autistic space. I coloured my way through the majority of that time. I flicked and flapped. I stimmed with putty. I clapped silently. I acknowledged my sensory needs. I made friends. Lots of real, genuine friends, friends with whom I will continue to keep in contact, though we are geographically separated. I shared myself, and I realised that in that sharing, I became more.
Austistic Space is a gift. It’s a gift I’d like to give to other Autistics, and to my Autistic children. It was a glorious, peaceful celebration of potential. And I will be forever grateful for that gift, even as my brain grinds back into the gear of performing in a non-Autistic world.