Backchannels accommodate neurological pluralism while fostering the serendipity of networks.
I updated “Bring the backchannel forward. Written communication is the great social equalizer.” with selections from “NeuroDiversity: The Birth of an Idea by Judy Singer”.
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As this statement shows, for autistics, computers are the essential prosthetic device, one which turns them from withdrawn, isolated individuals, to networked social beings, the prerequisite to effective social action, and a voice in the public arena.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)
I updated “Bring the backchannel forward. Written communication is the great social equalizer.” with a selection from “7 Cool Aspects of Autistic Culture | The Aspergian | A Neurodivergent Collective”.
Until one day… you find a whole world of people who understand.
The internet has allowed autistic people- who might be shut in their homes, unable to speak aloud, or unable to travel independently- to mingle with each other, share experiences, and talk about our lives to people who feel the same way.
We were no longer alone.
Sometimes it takes another person with your specific disability label, not another neurotypical teacher or peer, to help the world understand your experience. One of the first books I read about autism was Donna Williams’s memoir Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1998). One of her observations has always struck me as particularly apt: “Communication via objects was safe,” Williams says. For me, computers are objects that can be a bridge to interpersonal connection and growth. Those are things we all want, regardless of our differences.
ANI launched its online list, ANI-L, in 1994. Like a specialized ecological niche, ANI-L had acted as an incubator for Autistic culture, accelerating its evolution. In 1996, a computer programmer in the Netherlands named Martijn Dekker set up a list called Independent Living on the Autism Spectrum, or InLv. People with dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, and a myriad of other conditions (christened “cousins” in the early days of ANI) were also welcome to join the list. InLv was another nutrient-rich tide pool that accelerated the evolution of autistic culture. The collective ethos of InLv, said writer and list member Harvey Blume in the _New York Times _in 1997, was “neurological pluralism.” He was the first mainstream journalist to pick up on the significance of online communities for people with neurological differences. “The impact of the Internet on autistics,” Blume predicted, “may one day be compared in magnitude to the spread of sign language among the deaf.”
I updated “Bring the backchannel forward. Written communication is the great social equalizer.” and “Wanted: hospitals and doctors’ offices that…” with selections from “Fergus Murray: Why ‘nothing about us without us’ should be an Autism policy principle | CommonSpace”.
When AMASE conducted a survey about the mental health of autistic people around Scotland, we found that many had been excluded by such simple things as practices insisting on telephone contact
I updated “Bring the backchannel forward. Written communication is the great social equalizer.” with a selection from “Microsoft’s Radical Bet On A New Type Of Design Thinking”.
One day someone will write a history of the Internet, in which that great series of tubes will emerge as one long chain of inventions not just geared to helping people connect in more ways, but rather, to help more and more types of people communicate just as nimbly as anyone else. But for the story here, the most crucial piece in the puzzle is this: Disability is an engine of innovation simply because no matter what their limitations, humans have such a relentless drive to communicate that they’ll invent new ways to do so, in spite of everything.
You could describe this in that old cliche that necessity breeds invention. But a more accurate interpretation is that in empathizing with others, we create things that we might never have created ourselves. We see past the specifics of what we know, to experiences that might actually be universal.