I am probably the most conservative person in the world who regularly listens to communist folk music. I reflected on this as I listened to a folksy rendition of the old far left standard ‘Solidarity Forever’ on the bus coming home. So why would a forty-something property-owning bureaucrat be listening to the strains of socialist hymns so enthusiastically? Socialist music transports me to another time and another place. I was a Trotskyist teenager, an enthusiastic member of rent-a-crowd, a rabble-rousing red flagger, a card-carrying member of the worker’s vanguard (well, I thought I was). My comrades were composed mostly of skinny, awkward students with a smattering of older, leadership types who had been around since the Viet Nam war. Why was fifteen year-old me hanging around with these dubious role models? They were my culture. I belonged to them. All I had to do was spout the party line – which was very helpfully expounded on every page of their newspaper. In return for my loyalty and weekly labour on the bookstall dodging insults from passers-by who did not share our views on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, I got the most valuable commodity of friendship. I would do anything for acceptance and friendship after years of being ostracised and victimised at school. I don’t think socialist Jeanette was alone in the value she placed on friendship and acceptance.
Humans are a social animal. We tend to need to feel aligned or attached with others. Non-Autistic people seem to be particularly good at spotting potential friends and aligning themselves with them from a young age. School is probably the first place where people form those sorts of friendships and attachments outside of their family. Autistic kids can really struggle at this. They watch as other children make friends and join groups and they often try to be included but are rejected. I tend to think that children are similar to adults but without sophistication, so if a kid doesn’t like another kid they will met likely reject them in more obvious ways than an adult would. This can mean that children on the Autism children can take on a lot of negative messaging and think they are unlikable. This coupled with the active bullying people on the Autism spectrum often face can leave them feeling alone, ostracised, different and alienated.
Given that humans are social creatures – including Autistic humans – this alienation can leave some Autistic children, teens and adults desperate to belong to a peer group regardless of what that peer group stands for. I moved from a conservative Christian childhood to socialists to drug addicts and criminals. My self-esteem was so incredibly low that I never questioned the values of the groups I was aligning myself to – I took whatever social acceptance I could get. This is true of others on the spectrum too.
One casualty of joining any group that will accept you is that you can lose your sense of identity. Women and girls on the Autism spectrum in particular are often adept at fitting in and being a sort of social chameleon in order to be accepted and join a peer group. While this can mean they are accepted, it can be exhausting keeping up appearances so to speak and can mean they lose a little of their own identity.
Of course Autistic people shouldn’t have to try to fit in with any old peer group or deny their own identity – no person should ever have to do this. In recent years there has been an emergence and blossoming of Autistic self-advocacy, Autistic pride and people starting to value themselves just as they are, their own perfect selves. Social media has played a part in linking Autistic people from around the world and creating a place for Autistic people to meet others and build our community. This is a great thing. It would have been nice if I had this when I was young, impressionable and sad, but it is great that it exists now. I hope that the recent focus on Autistic self-advocacy and pride will continue and that maybe in the future that sense of alienation and difference that Autistic young people so often experience will be replaced with one of genuine belonging.
Some thoughts about belonging:
- Autistic people often have as much need for belonging and acceptance as others do.
- Belonging to a peer group can be either face-to-face or online, over the phone or any other way – whatever works
- Some people only want one or two friends, others want a larger group,. There is no right and wrong with this. It is up to the individual
- In my case, the views of the group belonged to were not really that important. The value for me was in being part of a peer group. This can be dangerous, especially for people with low self-esteem who may align themselves with groups engaging in negative or dangerous activities
- Autistic people do not necessarily need to only have friends in the Autistic community. ‘Cross-cultural’ friendships are OK too, providing they are respectful
- Auitstic people are not necessarily thoughtless, bad friends, selfish or any of the other negative stereotypes which are sometimes applied to us. We can be amazingly thoughtful and considerate – in my experience we usually are.
- I spent years trying to be accepted with little result. When I discovered that I am Auitstic and then when I discovered my Autistic peer group, I came home.
Yep, one of my best friends is furry and says meow