One of the key identifiers of autistic people is that we have ‘social communication challenges’. Actually the medical language likes to call them ‘deficits’, but I maintain that my social communication style is natural to my neurology and therefore there’s nothing deficient about it.
But it does make moving through my day challenging. I need to plan out the phrases I will use in daily exchanges. Coffee orders. Trips to the post office. Stopping at the fruit shop.
There’s one place though that I have recently discovered I am mostly comfortable with communicating with others.
I am a boulderer. This means I go to a local rock climbing gym and attempt to clamber up 4.5 meter walls of fake rock unroped and on my own. And I do this beside other people who are attempting to do the same.
For the first 3 months, I spoke to no one. That’s how I roll. I watch. I listen. I turn away to avoid eye contact in case someone has that whiff of wanting to start a conversation with me.
Then something happened. It was a quiet morning with only one other person on the wall. After I made it all the way to the top on a harder climb than I’d ever done before, they said ‘well done’ when I came down.
I didn’t feel panic. I appreciated it. I wasn’t lost for words even though it was uninvited conversation. I said thanks and we got talking. I liked it. Since then, I’ve been experimenting and I’ve exchanged a few words with several people. I’ve even asked for help on a route that I couldn’t figure out. Yes, I INITIATED contact.
Because WE ONLY TALK ABOUT CLIMBING.
We don’t talk about the weather, or what work we do, or how our families are, or which friend is a bitch this week, or whatever else it is that people talk about in the name of ‘small talk’.
There are clear parameters to our conversation. There is little to no eye contact because we mostly talk while looking at the climbing wall. No one cares or comments on how people are dressed (and this happens ALL the time when neurotypical women meet up – ALL the time).
Where did my ‘social communication challenges’ go?
I didn’t go to therapy and get trained to overcome them.
I didn’t practice and practice to make eye contact so I could conceal my ‘weirdness’ and others could feel more comfortable with me.
I didn’t grow out of autism or get cleansed of heavy metals or pray to the lord or get ‘cured’.
I did none of the things we regularly do to children in the name of ‘autism treatment’.
Instead, I found somewhere full of people keen to support each other to climb better. It’s minimal contact based exclusively on shared interests in a setting that is now familiar and comfortable to me.
Here’s an idea. Instead of funnelling our autistic children into 20-40 hours of expensive intensive Early Intervention therapies designed to extinguish ‘the autism’, we should help them find their tribe, their place where they fit in as they are and can be who their brains are wired to be.
A place where their natural and preferred methods of communicating can be accepted and valued. Where they do not have to feel deficient because they are not trying to play the game with social communication rules that make no sense to them.
Burn the rulebook on communication. It doesn’t serve diversity well.