Integrating autistic culture into the world: The cultural model of autism

The world is full of a diverse collection of cultures. It’s one of the beautiful things about being human. Everywhere you go is steeped in the culture of a society that exists within that space. Cultures exist alongside each other and even trade traditions and knowledge with each other.

Much like world cultures, autistic culture also exists. Autistic culture is a rich tapestry, weaving together the diverse and varied lives of autistic people and their collective experiences.

Many people are confused by the notion of autistic culture. How can a disability give rise to a culture? This is where we need to reframe disability and autism away from the medical models of defining what it means to be us, as if we are only autistic because we fail to be non-autistic. It is an identity, a neurotype. While many claim, “If you have met one autistic person, you have met one autistic person,” there is so much shared experience between autistic people. This is what gives rise to autistic culture.

Isn’t that what makes life beautiful? Shared lives that teach us how to grow and live alongside one another?

Sadly, autistic culture is fundamentally misunderstood. Medical textbooks have told the masses what they think it means to be autistic— a person, sort of, but with deficits and in need of intensive intervention.

The voice of autistic experience is so often hushed into silence. We are not a silent culture, but we are ignored.

The world would benefit from understanding, learning about, and experiencing autistic culture. We as a culture and identity have been showing the world what makes being us a vibrant and beautiful existence.

It’s time for the people of the world to step into our world and experience this culture alongside us— not to appropriate autistic identity, but to break bread with us and learn about our experience and how we relate to each other, how we adapt to our environment, and how we use our identity to create camaraderie, art, language, sensory attunement, collaboration, social justice, parenting approaches, and relationships.

If we want people to understand the autistic experience, what better way than to share our culture the way that a tourist might experience French culture while in Paris?

It won’t be perfect. No brief visit can illustrate the beautiful complexity of the autistic world, but it’s a start. Perhaps, one day, scholars will study our culture— instead of our perceived deficits— the way they have studied the other cultures of the world.

And on that day, we will begin to be heard.

I invite every person to step into my mind, in its complexity, and to witness the world through my eyes.

This culture is ours to share and those who experience it adjacent to us will be better for having walked alongside us.

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10 Responses

  1. I loved this one! I love how you look at it like a culture. Cause it is. So true.

  2. David, thank you so much for this article. I love the idea of neurotypical people being “Autistic-adjacent”! That we have a culture all our own is well-known to us but comes as such a surprise to NT others… which, in turn, always surprises me. Is it that they don’t think of us as *capable* of having our own unique culture? Or, rather, is it that they just don’t comprehend Autism as an identity? In any event, I am grateful for you shining a light on Autistic culture and for you inviting those “adjacent” to our lived experience to witness and learn (and celebrate) it.

  3. Why should NTs be trusted not to grab the parts of autistic culture they like and scream “but NTs do that tooooooo!” while deriding the parts they don’t like as pathological and not worthy of respect? That’s how they almost invariably react to any autistic person’s account of their own experiences.

    1. Some will. But not all of us will. And it will be our job to speak out against and condone those who do, while checking ourselves and being open to criticism from the neurodiverse community.

  4. That’s true. We would all be better off if NTs would lean into our culture a bit and try to learn about it. Unfortunately, I believe that will take time.

    For one thing, as you pointed out, we are thought of as diseased or in need of fixing.. In my mind that outlook is likely based on the old version of autism, where only the most severe autistics were acknowledged. ( Young boys or toddlers flapping and or rocking and or non verbal or a combo). Then there is the idea that we are treated very much like our country treats minorities. The whole colonialism mindset…

    I believe that someday It will change, but again… lots of hurdles before we get real understanding, interest in our experience of lives and how we respond to it.
    Thanks for your voice, Mel

  5. Perhaps a good place to start would be inviting other ND people who aren’t autistic (allistic ADHDers, for instance) to experience our culture and share their own in turn. More ND solidarity is always a good thing, and different forms of neurodivergence tend to overlap anyway, so there’s already some common ground there.

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