In June I was thrilled to attend the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) Autism Campus Inclusion (ACI) program, and I’ll be sharing my reflections in a series of blog posts. This post is about access intimacy and existing in autistic space.
Autistic space is, simply, space that allows for and centers autistic existence, and is shaped by specific expectations rather than unspoken NT social norms. Autistic space is radical, liberatory, and nonjudgmental. It resists the default to NT needs and preferences that alienate autistics and complicate social interactions. It is a place to be as we are. From the earliest days, autistic space has been central to the formation of autistic community. Early community leaders likened the feeling to meeting people from the same planet, speaking the same language, and feeling normal for the first time.
ACI was my first experience in autistic space, or even with more than two other autistic people aside from my student group, in which I am still cultivating autistic space. I was excited and nervous and felt like an imposter, but hoped that being in autistic space would affirm (or deny) my autistic identity. Surely, in a group of other autistic people, in autistic space, I would get a sense of whether I belonged.
The staff explained and modeled autistic space from the onset. It was awkward at first, but we quickly settled into what autistic space meant for each of us. Some stimmed more openly and freely, some of us texted rather than talking, no one made judgments about samefood or comfort items or quirks, and we all made use of the color communication badges. As the week went on, I felt more comfortable in the space and experienced relief at not constantly masking or explaining my needs. In fact, we would often begin explanations- for why we needed or preferred something a certain way- only to be met with a chorus of understanding.
The feeling of access intimacy- this familiar, unspoken understanding- has been theorized by Mia Mingus. Access intimacy is what happens when someone “gets” your access needs without explanation or challenge or shame; it is indescribable but utterly recognizable. We can develop access intimacy with people we are close to or people who are like us and have similar, or even conflicting, needs. Access intimacy is a source of support and strength in our collective and interdependent disability experience.
Even when ACI was focused on learning, lecturing, and preparing to meet our advocacy goals, the rules of autistic space held true. People were allowed to come and go as needed, and everyone participated to their level of comfort and while meeting their needs. As an academic, I have experience with seemingly endless days of conferencing, even though they are often inaccessible and result in burnout and fatigue. I was going strong and inadvertently masking through sessions for most of the week, but on Thursday, I reached my limit. I was exhausted, but didn’t want to miss an exciting presentation on disability justice. The solution? Listen to the presentation from underneath the conference table. Under the table I could still hear the presentation, but wasn’t worried about looking engaged or contributing to the discussion. It was dark under the tablecloth and quieter than seated at the table, and in autistic space, no one questioned why I was under the table- they simply checked in to see if I needed anything.
When unconventional participation is allowed and encouraged, participants can engage in more meaningful ways and get more out of their experiences without exhausting themselves. It is a step towards making our spaces more accessible and inclusive and caring for participants as people, separate from their labor and attendance and engagement. Building rest into our academic and professional events introduces a radical shift to academic and professional culture, which is dominated by the absence of rest in the presence of constant labor.
How can we reimagine conferencing to be inclusive and accessible to people with disabilities? How can we dream towards an academic culture of access intimacy and equitable, restful, and meaningful participation?