Writing An Autistic Society
What would a planet of all autistic people be like?
(This post is an expanded version of this Twitter thread from 2018.)
Autistic people often joke that we're from another planet. When we find other autistic people who understand us, it can feel like coming home. And speculative fiction gives us room to ask: what could a home like that look like? What would a place look like if it was designed specifically, by autistic people, with autistic people's needs in mind? What would it be like to live there?
In exploring this question, we're no different from the feminist writers who imagine all-female utopias, or the Afrofuturist writers who imagine thriving Black-centric futures. There are authors, autistic and otherwise who've already come up with interesting answers. There's Bogi Takács' Eren universe, in which the planet Eren is inhabited by autistic people with magical talents. There's the hidden community of autistic people and their families in Bradley W. Wright's The Place Inside the Storm. There's C.S. Friedman's planet of Guera, in This Alien Shore, on which everyone has at least one form of neurodivergence and society is codified around it. There's Erika Hammerschmidt and John C. Ricker's book Kea's Flight, in which the neurodivergent children and teenagers on a generation ship band together to overthrow their robot captors and form a society of their own. There's Nyla Bright's short story "Spectrum of Acceptance," in which a neurotypical young woman struggles to understand her place in an autistic-centric society. (There are likely many more; I haven't read everything, and new autistic stories are popping up all the time.)
But where do we begin with this kind of worldbuilding, and how do we avoid its hidden pitfalls?
Here's my advice.
1. Autistic Communities Exist In Real Life
If you are autistic and you've found a group of autistic friends, you probably already know some of this feeling. If you've ever been placed in special education or institutionalized, you probably have a lot of experience being with other neurodivergent people, even if the rules that governed the space were made by neurotypicals. If you have a lot of experience with spaces where everyone's a nerd, you probably know that a lot of the people in those spaces are autistic, and that the spaces are shaped accordingly. If you haven't experienced anything like this, then it helps to do a little research.
A great place to start is Jim Sinclair's essay, "Autism Network International: The Development of a Community and its Culture." Sinclair describes a series of conferences made by and for autistic people, under their own rules. Not every meeting among autistic people will look like this one, but Sinclair's essay is important for depicting the history of how the conferences came to be, the experiences various autistic people had there, and the challenges that arose.
Now, the world you create in your imagination doesn't have to look like real life! In fiction, we can ask all sorts of questions that reality hasn’t answered yet - what if we did it this way? how might we solve this part of the problem? what might happen then? But if you're familiar with what exists in real life, then your ideas about how it might change in the future, or in another world, will be better grounded and more satisfying.
If your community was made by and for autistic people, it should be designed to be accessible for autistic people. This can be challenging since we have such a range of different access needs. But here are a few notable struggles that will be shared widely:
AAC. Not every autistic person can talk out loud. Some can do it sometimes but not all the time, or don't always prefer to. An autistic community that accepts everyone could have many accepted means of communication - verbal speech, sign language, text-to-speech apps, picture-based apps, or perhaps many other things! There will also be times when some people can’t use language at all, even with assistive tech, and this should be handled with respect.
Different communication norms. When autistic people can use language, the way we use it is often different - being blunt and truthful; relying less on nonverbal cues, hints, and inferences; infodumping and focusing on our interests. In a society made up of autistic people, all these things would be very normal! To an outsider, the difference from how NTs say things might be noticeable and jarring. Think of how this would affect ordinary conversations, and also of how it might affect mass communication - the way government paperwork is designed, the way formal proceedings like legislation or criminal trials or business meetings might be structured, the way instructions are given at work or school, the way media is structured and stories are told.
Stimming. A community founded on autism acceptance will embrace stimming as well as unusual body language of all kinds. What would streets and public spaces look like if the people on them were visibly, unselfconsciously stimming as much as they wanted?
Executive dysfunction. This is a really common problem with and notoriously difficult thing to accommodate. An autistic community will probably have widespread tricks for coping with executive dysfunction. Reminder apps, tasks lists, and hired assistants/helpers are some obvious methods; they're also double-edged swords. Power has to reside with the autistic people themselves, not with their helpers or with the technology giving the reminders, or else the tools can become controlling and dystopian.
Help with daily living. Some autistic people need help with things like meal preparation, cleaning their house, hygiene, or managing their finances. Even autistic people who seem very "high-functioning" can need help with these things! An accessible society for autistic people would make it easy to get help with these things. Again, for best results, power should belong to the autistic person who is being helped. They get to decide what they need help with and choose who to hire to help them. Which brings us to...
A different economic structure. Some autistic people can't work paying jobs. In the real world this is sometimes because "real jobs" are inaccessible - it's hard to find sustainable part time work, work that can be done from home, or working environments that aren't torment for an autistic person's senses. But even in a very accessible society, there would still be autistic people who just can’t work enough to support themselves without burning out and breaking down. An autistic community should have ways of making sure these people survive. A Universal Basic Income, for example, would solve a lot of problems at once.
3. Conflicting Access Needs
Some ways of making society acessible are harder to solve than they look.
Take sensory needs, for example. A common beginner mistake is to design an autistic society entirely around the sensory avoidance: everything is quiet and beige, so that no one is overwhelmed. A quiet beige world might be heaven for sensory avoiders - but hell for sensory seekers, and utterly exclusionary to people who can't help making big movements and sounds!
There's not a single sensory environment that will fit everyone. The only partial solution I can think of is to make choice and self-regulation as easy as possible. Maybe there are quiet spaces and loud spaces, and they're clearly labeled so that people can choose? Maybe there's a lot of snug little pods that people can go and recover in if they get overwhelmed. Maybe there's a lot of augmented reality and people can easily adjust what's coming in to their senses without imposing on others. Any of these choices has surprisingly complicated implications for how physical spaces and social processes are designed.
Explicit social rules are another area that seems straighforward but isn't. Most autistic people do much better when there's a structure to their days that we can understand, and when we are told clearly what's expected of us instead of working with guesses and hints. So maybe in an autistic people, people explicitly tell each other how they prefer to be interacted with, all the time.
To some degree, this already happens. Communication badges are a good example - at many autistic conferences, attendees wear a badge, which can be green if they want people to approach them, yellow if they only want to talk to people they already know in person, or red if they don't want to talk at all. These badges are a lovely idea and work well.
But what happens when we try to encode other social preferences in those terms? It might work, or it might not. "Spectrum of Acceptance" has an interesting example of this - when entering someone's home on Nyla Bright's autistic planet, you first have to scan the posted list of rules for how to behave in that home. In "Spectrum of Acceptance," that system seems to work. But what happens if the rules are too long and abstruse to be cognitively accessible, or if someone can’t remember them all? What if the rules conflict with someone's needs (like "don't make sounds in my house" to someone who can't help making sounds) or are somehow offensive? If you've seen a Tumblr user with a several-page-long list of the types of people who should not interact with them, then you probably have some inkling of the ways this can go wrong.
In a community with very formal, rigid, explicitly codified customs, some autistic people will thrive. Others will struggle to remember or follow the rules, for any number of reasons.
This is not to say that people in your community can't make explicit social rules - they probably should make at least a few. But it's interesting to explore what happens when rules clash or are unenforceable, and a community that's been around for a while would likely have some sense of how to deal with those kinds of conflict.
4. History and Conflict
How did your community of autistic people come to be? Were they originally an oppressed group who fought for their freedom? Were they a group of likeminded pioneers who voluntarily broke away from their parent society? Were they a community in an isolated place where, over time, the majority of the population just happened to become autistic through genetic drift? Each of these answers will tell you something very different about how the community sees itself, what outside pressures or remembered fears it might be reacting against, and what kinds of intra-community issues might crop up. Are the people in the community suspicious of outsiders? Do they fear that the oppression of the past could return? Do they have an idealized view of what their community is for, and does that view ever clash with people's actual needs?
How do new people join the community? Is immigration easy? Do immigrants need to be autistic? If so, how do they prove it? What happens if they have a neurotypical spouse, child, or caregiver who wants to join the community too?
What happens when an autistic person in the community has a non-autistic baby? What is that child's experience like? What about “autistic cousins” - people with ADHD, OCD, Tourette's, Schizoid Personality Disorder, etc, etc? Is your community very blinkered in focusing on the needs of autistic people only, or does it try to be more expansive in how it supports neurodiversity? Is it successful when it tries to be expansive, or do some kinds of people fall through the cracks? What is the community's view of mental illness? (Autistic people would likely have lower rates of trauma and mental illness if we lived in an accessible society - but those rates would not be zero.)
Remember, too, that autism is only one axis of oppression. Racism is a huge problem in the real-life autistic community, just as it is everywhere else. Gender, class, and levels of ability can also cause huge divides. Unless your community is actively committed to healing these divides, it will replicate them in similar ways to the communities around it. And the history of your community will affect the divides that exist. For instance, if your community was founded by an original population - whether pioneers or prisoners - were they predominantly from one ethnic or cultural group? What happens to the descendants of people who weren't?
5. Aesthetics and Culture
Accessibility is not the only thing people would think about in an autistic community! Like any other community, it will have its own traditions of philosophy, love, beauty, fun, and art.
Arts and culture are a lovely thing you can play around with when creating a world. What artistic movements and trends might your community possess? It's great fun to think about a thriving arts culture that caters to autistic sensibilities - patterns and mandalas, echolalia, fanfiction and remixes, incredible levels of detail about the thing that the artist is interested in. But art isn't completely static in any culture; aesthetics are social and evolve, and each generation's art is in some ways a reaction to the art that came before. How might autistic artists in your community respond and build on each other? How might they shake things up?
Gender and family dynamics are another thing to pay attention to. Autistic people are more likely than others to be queer in some way - asexuality and nonbinary gender seem to be especially common, but you can be sure that every possible queer identity has some autistic people in it, often in higher numbers than the general population. A community of all autistic people would probably not be very heteronormative. What other kinship and relationship structures might we come up with instead?
And, while not every autistic person is interested in science, I do think that almost any autistic society imaginable would have a thriving scientific community. :)
None of these things are things you HAVE to portray. They're also not an exhaustive list. You might think of other things you want to focus on, or details I haven't included. You might disagree with how I've approached some of them here. That's all fine! What I intended to do with this post is to give you a jumping-off point - a good range of things that might happen, and that might start you brainstorming about how they might happen, or about what other things might be true.
There also isn't a single right way to portray any of these things. Take AAC, for instance. You could write a perfect utopia where AAC works for everyone: there's a lot of potential in thinking through how that would work, what it would be like, how it could be accomplished. But also maybe it's not perfect! Maybe you want to explore the ways that even a well-intentioned, well-thought-out system might not work well for everyone, and you want to imagine how people would cope with those problems. Or maybe you're attracted to the idea that the system is not always well-intentioned or well-thought-out, even when it's created by autistic people. Maybe you want to critique something in the real world, or something you're afraid of, by exploring that idea. All three of these are wonderful ways to make art, and your idea of what one of the three would look like might be very different from someone else's. It's more important to think about the topics, and imagine how a certain way of doing them might play out, than to agree with someone else about the perfect way to do them.
But I think that the idea of autistic community and culture is a very fun one to explore - and I hope that this post gives authors many ideas for how to explore it.
Meanwhile, some news:
My poem “I grew out of it” appears in Not One Of Us #66.