Computers as the essential prosthetic device for autistics?
Despite a common history of what can, with the wisdom of hindsight, be termed “oppression”, the limited social, networking, and organisational skills of people with AS together with their aversion to direct human contact, had prevented them joining together to form an effective movement to address their specific issues. All this changed however with the advent of the Internet. Computers are the communications medium par excellence for autistics. A significant number of autistics claim that computers mirror the way their minds work (Grandin, with Blume, 1997). By filtering out all the sensory overwhelm caused by actual physical presence, computers free up autistics’ communicative abilities.
InLv members regularly sing the praises of the new medium that allows them to have the form of communication they desire, while protecting them from the overwhelming sensory overload and rapid processing demands of human presence. For many, email lists are their first experience of community. Jane Meyerding, a member of InLv makes clear just how much autistics owe to computer technology:
Like a lot of ACs (autistics and cousins), I find myself able to enjoy “community” for the first time through the internet. The style of communication suits me just fine because it is one-on-one, entirely under my control in terms of when and how long I engage in it, and, unlike real-life encounters, allows me enough time to figure out and formulate my responses. In real-world encounters with groups—even very small groups—of people, I am freighted with disadvantages. I am distracted by my struggle to identify who is who (not being able to recognise faces), worn out by the effort to understand what is being said (because if there is more than one conversation going on in the room, or more than one voice speaking at a time, all the words become meaningless noise to me), and stressed by a great desire to escape from a confusing flood of sensation coming at me much too fast. (Jane Meyerding – Thoughts on Finding Myself Differently Brained, 1998)
As this statement shows, for autistics, computers are the essential prosthetic device, one which turns them from withdrawn, isolated individuals, to networked social beings, the prerequisite to effective social action, and a voice in the public arena.
Autistics compare the importance to them of computers with the importance of seeing-eye dogs to the blind. Martijn Dekker, who is the ‘owner’ of the InLv email forum, and a prominent autistic activist foreshadows puts it plainly:
For reasons obvious to our HFA/AS community, I consider a computer to be an essential disability provision for a person with Asperger’s. (8 Nov 1998)