Monthly Archives: May 2009

“Intentional” communities… not.

Standard

I wrote part of this in response to a post on the change.org autism blog called Down on the Farm, about “intentional communities” (which aren’t really) built for autistic people (but not by us or with our meaningful input) along with some non-autistic people (who have much more choice and power than we do) in ways where the power structure screams institution even if the shape of the walls doesn’t (some people believe institutions are defined by their shape and number of residents, which is neither the sociological definition nor my definition — the definition I use includes a specific power structure that can occur anywhere).

The blogger’s response was not to actually critique all this in any meaningful way, but just to say:

I like the idea of [my son] Charlie working on a farm. He likes being outdoors and the kind of work one does when gardening strikes me as combining many of the things he’s drawn to do. Judging from his indifference to computers, he’s not likely to be a candidate for doing data-entry. And various sources have been saying to me, they’re aren’t going to be any of those sorts of jobs left when he’s an adult—-??!??!!?

Driving back from the post office earlier today, we saw a father and his young son digging in a huge pile of dirt in front of their house. The boy was younger than Charlie; I could see how eager he was to be helping his dad and I think the fact that he was getting to work with (play in) the dirt had a lot to do with it. Working at a desk isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure (even in the industrial-suburban Garden State—there are farms here).

Which completely misses the point of what these places really are.

I’m reposting my response here because I think it’s an important issue and I am disappointed in the blogger there for her treatment of it. Change.org is supposed to have a strong commitment to social justice and I see no such commitment in this kind of complacency about such a destructive place.

Here is my original post:

———–

I can’t explain why I think these places are a terrible idea. But I do.

Last year, an autistic woman (Danechi of And Stimming with Rainbows of Every Design) blogged about these places in a much more responsible way than they are being discussed here.

Her first post was called, The point of intentional communities is that they are *intentional*.

To quote the relevant parts (which are in response to the exact same community that is being discussed on change.org):

Bittersweet Farms is not an intentional community.

The point of intentional communities is that a person *intends* to live there. If they decide they no longer want to, they can leave. They make decisions about their own lives.

If a person is placed into a community by someone with greater power, forced to stay there unless the person with greater power moves them out, and has important decisions about their life made by those people in power, then they’re not in an intentional community. They’re in an institution.

Yes, even if it is on a farm. Yes, even if they are doing work on said farm.

And no, I will never willingly consider such a living arrangement for myself, even if I think intentional communities have the potential to be really cool, because Bittersweet Farms, and the Sacramento-area farm-institution in the very early planning stages are not intentional communities.

[...]

At most I can only realistically imagine an autistic getting a token role in this planning process. There’s no way we can get a majority. Even if we did get a sizeable minority, the power structures will still be the same, and they’re the most dangerous part of the whole thing.

Googling the name of the person in charge [of SAGE] shows that they’re a Rescue Angel and that they were somehow involved with the Green Our Vaccines Rally. I know what that means from an autism-science perspective, and I’m not happy with it, but I don’t know if it would have any significance from an institution-masquerading-as-pseudo-utopian-community-planning perspective.

Her second post on the subject is here:

I just spent time at another residential-farm/institution’s website reading the rationale for why agricultural life is good for autistics.

[...]

SAGE Crossing’s rationale/justification for concept has no similarity to my experiences, and clashes horribly with my worldview in general (that we should create a culture of inclusion). Theoretically a rural setting might be “safer” for autistic-me. (But is it for someone with my chronic illness? I think me-with-cystic-fibrosis is far better off in a city with nearby medical facilities.)

And there is no way that I’m going to live in a farm just because I flap my hands. People who flap their hands are allowed in cities too, for the record. And if all people who annoyed other people were sent out to the countryside, there would soon be so few people in cities that they would no longer qualify as cities.

Also, what the hell does needing to be anesthetized for routine medical procedures have to do with needing to live on an institution-farm? It seems like SAGE Crossing is just throwing out random stuff about autistics and assuming that people will infer we can’t be included in society based on these disconnected, irrelevant things.

I would like to ask why you don’t deal with these issues in the same manner that Danechi does. It seems to me that she thinks more critically, as well as more accurately and responsibly, about these places than you do. She has put into words things that I could only describe as a vague nausea and feeling of these things being wrong at the core, as well as being my worst nightmare. institution-wise (far worse than nightmares that call up images of totally rough and obviously degrading treatment).

When I say wrong at the core, I mean that the problem is not a superficial issue. It’s not whether some autistic people might like to live on a farm while others may not. (My autistic father grew up on a farm and his farm was nothing like these ones deliberately created for autistic people.) It’s about the power structure. And I am not equipped to explain what, precisely, is wrong with it. I don’t have that kind of language. I just know it’s terribly wrong, and become quite alarmed when I see writing by people who cannot appear to sense that at all. Especially on a site that is supposed to be about working for real change and social justice — which would require far more critical thinking about these matters.

If you want to talk about intentional communities, though, LeisureLand (another page, with photos, here) is a good example of an intentional community created by and for autistic people. And it is nothing at all like these more institutional versions of the same things. The institutional ones have an alluring form (at least alluring to some people) but a terrible substance.

At any rate, on a place like change.org I am highly concerned about posts that seem positive or neutral towards places as destructive as this one, and that appear to take places like this (and possibly group homes, etc., too) as inevitable, or inevitable for people with a certain level of difficulty doing certain things.

———–

…and that is where my original reply ends.

I think Danechi’s phrase institution-masquerading-as-pseudo-utopian-community-planning sums up the situation better than anything else I can think of. That’s what makes all the hair on my body stand up when I read about these places.

I’ve lived in a pseudo-utopian institutional farm community before, and my experiences there have done more lasting harm than straightforward beatings and attempted murder have (well, there were beatings there too, but they were not the worst part, merely the easiest to describe). I am sure such a remark would be really puzzling to a lot of people, but I don’t know how else to explain it. Certainly I was totally cut out for the kind of work there (simple, concrete, and repetitive), and I enjoyed the work-training program very much. Certainly it was less physically brutal than most. But of all the things I have had to untrain myself from in order to survive in the real world, that place has been the most strenuous, and the most resistant to my attempts to overwrite it.

At any rate, it concerns me that someone affiliated with Change.org can write about an institution-masquerading-as-utopia, and have their only response be a set of musings about whether their son might like it there. And it highlights a difference I have noticed between people who look to the core of such a place and find it highly alarming, and people who readily believe the propaganda and proceed to fantasize about how much they or their children might like living there.

Please remember it is propaganda, and does not speak to the reality of having your life controlled that thoroughly. Please remember that people who have had their lives controlled that thoroughly often cannot see the damage it has done until a long time later. You come to expect that kind of control and you forget what freedom was like, if you have ever even experienced it in the first place. And please remember that places created by one kind of people, and for another kind of people (where “another kind” can be understood to be different societal categories even when it’s not an actual difference in essence), are rife with power imbalances and the potential for great harm. And that carefully crafted utopias on the surface are often among the most insidious dystopias under the surface where you can’t get your hands on them in any concrete way.