|[image: Black horizonal rectangle with white text on the left reading "Association|
For Autistic Community," and a green, blue, and red infinity sign on the right.]
When I decided to go to the first Association for Autistic Community Conference in 2014, I had been lurking on the outskirts of the online autistic community for years. At first I wasn’t sure whether to go at all. Aside from the practical issues -- travel drains my inner resources like nothing else -- I didn’t know whether I was willing to step into a group of autistic people and claim that I was one of them. They might tell me I was lying; they might turn me away. But I was hungry for a taste of belonging, hungry enough to face packing and plane tickets and a crowd of strangers … and if I didn’t belong, I would rather find out sooner than later.
I worried that I wasn’t autistic enough, or wasn’t autistic in the right ways -- after all, hadn’t I been semi-successfully passing as neurotypical for the better part of my life? I worried that everyone would already know each other, and that there wouldn’t be any room in their already-established friendships for me. A lot of people did know each other already, as it turned out. But it also turned out that it didn’t matter. My first night there, I sat at a table full of strangers, talked about the fun and challenge of working in a creative field, made a joke about dubious autism research, and was welcomed as if I had always been there.
As the days went on, I lost track of time chatting about nothing in particular with people I had never met before. I listened to a presentation about sensory issues and sexuality, and another about how to avoid being manipulated by people who are trying to help you, and no one cared if I kept my body moving so I could think more clearly. I hunted through a convenience store for things that were pleasingly shiny or squishy, with a group of people who understood the value of shiny squishy things. I had a glow-stick swordfight with Ari Ne’eman, then-head of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and someone whose work I had admired for a long time. Never once did I feel out of place.
It wasn’t a utopian paradise. It’s tempting to frame it that way, but in the end that would be disingenuous. Think about it this way -- neurotypical people regularly spend time in communities made up mostly of other neurotypical people, and that doesn’t mean they never develop conflicts or run into problems. AACC was the same way. It wasn’t perfect; what it was, rather, was a place where the social landscape made sense. Where I could navigate the world without needing to constantly try to translate everything, or suppress my normal reactions, or make sure I was doing it right. And that was something I had never experienced before.
That experience was what I had hoped to find there. But the conference also gave me something else, something that changed my life in a way I didn’t expect: I had never realized, before spending time around other autistic people, how much I saw my autistic traits as the things that made me special. My sensitivity, my awkwardness, my obsessive interests and the bubbly joy they gave me -- before I knew I was autistic, those were the things that made me different, and so they were the things that defined me. Afterwards, autism was a name for something I had thought couldn’t be named, and it was a promise that I wasn’t alone, and I clung to it like a shield. But at AACC, suddenly being autistic didn’t make me special or different. Autism couldn’t define me if everyone around me was autistic too, and I had to figure out who I was when I could no longer point to a handful of autistic traits as the answer.
At some point during the conference, maybe around the time I realized my previous view of myself was no longer adequate, I also stopped worrying about whether I belonged. Was I autistic enough? Clearly so -- the people around me followed my trains of thought and understood my overwhelm and recognized me as one of their own. (Even my voice told me I was in the right place. I had never realized before that the cadence of my voice marked me as autistic until I found myself in a roomful of people who sounded like me.) Was I the wrong kind of autistic? The more time I spent there, the more I became convinced there was no such thing. I was more verbal than some people, and stimmed more than some people, and was more social than some people and less than others. The noises that bothered somebody else didn’t bother me -- and so what? No one was going to take away my autism card away because being autistic didn’t look exactly the same for me as it did for them.
Once I came home, I found that I cared less than I ever had about how I looked and sounded and moved, and whether I was doing everything right. Now I knew how it felt to be myself around other people, and I wasn’t willing to give that up. I probably looked a lot more autistic than I did before I left, but at the same time, autism mattered less to me than it had in a long time. I knew there were other people like me out there; I knew there was a place where I made sense. After that, knowing what to call it seemed almost beside the point.