Category Archives: Auties

Reviving the concept of cousins.

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Someone decided this was going to be Autistic History Month.  I had another contribution I was going to write.  In fact, it’s already almost written.  But I ended up writing this instead.  At first glance, it seems to be specific to autistic people.  But while it applies to autistic people, it also applies equally well to a lot of other disabled people, so it’s not necessary to ignore it because you’re not autistic.

There’s something the autistic community⁠1 has lost.  And I think it’s high time we got it back, possibly in an improved form.  It’s the concept of cousins.

It started with a man who had hydrocephalus.   I met him once, after the events I’m going to recount were already in the distant past.  But I’m leaving his name out in the interests of privacy, given that when he wrote about these events in Our Voice⁠2 he used a pseudonym.  Anyway, I think he came to the autism community, and later the autistic community, because he was a professional whose job involved autistic people somehow. But I don’t know for certain.

What I do know, is once he discovered the autistic community, he stuck around.  While he always made it clear that he wasn’t autistic himself, he found that he identified with autistic people a good deal due to his hydrocephalus.  Autistic people, likewise, found that they could identify with him.

At one point, there was an autism conference where a lot of autistic people attended.  Including Kathy Grant (now Xenia Grant), one of the co-founders of Autism Network International.  Jim Sinclair, another ANI co-founder, was there as well, along with several other ANI members.

To understand the tone that all of this took place in, it’s best to understand a bit of Xenia’s personality.  She is possibly the friendliest person I’ve ever met.  She’s also one of the most unapologetically autistic-looking people I’ve ever met: She looks autistic (in physical actions, in conversational topics, in what parts of the world she reacts to and how), she knows she looks autistic, and she has no problem with this at all.  And she has such an infectious exuberance and enthusiasm for life that it’s hard not to be cheerful when she’s around.  All this adds up to the fact that I’ve never met or heard of anyone who didn’t like her.⁠3

So anyway, I’ll let Jim Sinclair tell the story, since xe was there and I was not.  This is excerpted from xyr long but important article, Autism Network International: The Development of a Community and its Culture:

Another development during the 1993 conference was the recognition of a new segment of the ANI community, and the adoption of a new term to refer to it. One of the people who had been corresponding with ANI members online, and was attending this conference to meet with us in person for the first time, was not autistic. He had hydrocephalus, another congenital neurological abnormality. In our online discussions he had been noticing many similarities between his experiences and characteristics as a person with hydrocephalus, and the experiences and characteristics of autistic people. At the conference he met Kathy, who was not online at the time and did not know who he was. He introduced himself to her, explaining that he was interested in exploring similarities between himself and autistic people. He briefly summarized the effects of hydrocephalus in his life. Kathy considered this for a moment, and then warmly exclaimed “Cousin!” (Cousins, 1993). From that time on, the term “cousin” has been used within ANI to refer to a non-autistic person who has some other significant social and communication abnormalities that render him or her significantly “autistic-like.” The broader term “AC,” meaning “autistics and cousins,” emerged soon afterward.

The term AC is further documented on Jim Sinclair’s personal website:

Cousin refers to a person who is not NT, is not quite autistic, but is recognizably “autistic-like” particularly in terms of communication and social characteristics.  Some conditions that may lead to cousinhood include Tourette syndrome, hydrocephalus, Williams syndrome, and some learning disabilities.

AC stands for “autistic and/or cousin.” “AC” and “cousin” are sociological terms describing status within the ANI community, rather than clinical diagnostic terms.

[from A Note About Language and Abbreviations Used On This Site by Jim Sinclair]

As I’ve noted many times before, the online autistic community often has a very short memory.  I can remember when ‘cousin’ was a well-known term and used widely, even outside of ANI-related circles.  And then, gradually, its use died out and a lot of people seemed to forget — or not know in the first place — it had ever existed.

I only ever saw one criticism of ‘cousin’ that made sense to me.  And that was more about the way people used the idea, rather than the idea itself.  This was, that people used ‘cousin’ in a way that made it sound like autism was the one central way to be neurodivergent, and everything else was judged by whether it was similar to autism or not.

If the ‘cousin’ idea is brought back, I hope that it won’t be seen as exclusive to autism.  It can be used for practically any form of neurodivergence or similar experience of the world.

For instance, I experience delirium pretty regularly if I get sick enough.  This is because, as far as anyone knows anyway, delirium leads to brain damage, which leads to further susceptibility to delirium.  This is especially true for severe or prolonged delirium like the type I’ve experienced at times.  Delirium is a set of cognitive and perceptual changes brought on by a physical illness or injury of some kind.  The part about being directly linked to a physical problem is important.  The cognitive problems can range from mild confusion or disorientation, all the way to hallucinations, delusions, and large chunks of time lost altogether.

On a purely medical level, there are important differences between delirium and psychosis.  Some of those differences are subtle, and some are pretty dramatic.  Failing to distinguish them medically, could lead to death in extreme cases.  But experientially?  When I talk to people who have experienced psychosis, their experiences are closer to my experiences of delirium than any other group of people I’ve met.  So you could say delirium is a cousin of psychosis — the differences may be important on a medical level, but when it comes to understanding my experiences and how to deal with them, people with psychosis are the most likely to understand.

I’m going to quote one part of what Jim Sinclair said above in xyr definitions of AC and cousin, again, just to emphasize it:

“AC” and “cousin” are sociological terms describing status within the ANI community, rather than clinical diagnostic terms.

That means the important part of cousinhood isn’t what your diagnosis is.  It’s whose experiences you identify with and gain meaning from.  I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that at the same time that ‘cousin’ started disappearing as a concept, large parts of the autistic community became less focused on being a community of people who support each other, and more focused on being as exclusionary as they could get away with.  To the point where I’ve run into people who worry that they’re not ‘autistic enough’ to flap their hands when they’re happy, and that flapping their hands would be the equivalent of cultural appropriation.  Because people have told them that, or said things like that in their presence, enough that they’ve completely internalized it.  As if autistic people have some kind of monopoly on hand-flapping.

I’ve said this many times before, about concepts like autism itself:  These concepts are only useful inasfar as they help people.  That can mean:

  • helping you understand yourself better
  • helping you understand other people better
  • helping you meet people who are more likely to resemble you in ways that are important
  • helping you obtain services you need in order to survive, get a job, get an education, get legal help if you’re discriminated against or targeted for hate crimes, etc.
  • helping you advocate for yourself if you run into accessibility problems
  • helping you learn skills that you would otherwise find too difficult to learn, as well as skills you may never have heard of without meeting other people like yourself
  • helping you in all kinds of other ways, the point being, these are good things in your life, rather than destructive things in your life

On the other hand, these concepts can hurt us, and that’s where they become dangerous.  This can mean:

  • people becoming snobbish about being more autistic, or less autistic, than other autistic people
  • people defining the boundaries of who counts as autistic and who doesn’t, for reasons that have entirely to do with their own egos and insecurities
  • people trying to put limits on what you are allowed to be able to accomplish in your lifetime, and still be counted as autistic
  • people excluding you for no other reason than that you’re autistic
  • people treating you as subhuman, an unperson, because you’re autistic
  • not believing yourself to be fully a person, because you’re autistic
  • limiting your own ideas of what you’re capable of, because you’re autistic
  • forcing yourself, or being forced by others, into fitting certain stereotypes, because you’re autistic
  • feeling like you have to pretend that certain stereotypes don’t apply to you, even if they do, because you’re autistic and you feel like you “shouldn’t” be too stereotypical
  • feeling like you have to defer to professionals who have studied people like you, in describing your own life, because clearly they know more about autism than you do, which means clearly they know more about you than you do
  • harming you in all kinds of other ways, the point being, these are destructive things in your life, rather than good things in your life

And you can substitute nearly any other category of person in place of autistic up there.  The basic pattern works the same:  Pretty much any label that defines a group of people, has the possibility to do good and the possibility to do harm.  The only times there’s any point to using the label in question, is when it’s doing something good for you or other people.

Bringing people together with words like ‘cousin’ allows people to identify with autistic people, without putting pressure on them to figure out instantly whether they are actually autistic or not.  It allows people to acknowledge that most skills and difficulties autistic people experience are not totally unique to autistic people.  It allows people to acknowledge the vast grey area that is both outside of standard definitions of autism, and outside of neurotypical, but that resembles autism in important ways.  It allows people to acknowledge that the boundary between autistic and nonautistic is fuzzy at best.  And it does all that while contributing to people understanding more about themselves and each other, and bringing people together into friendships, communities, and other relationships they might not otherwise have.

So I really believe that it would not only be a good thing to remember the word ‘cousin’ and what it used to mean, but to revive it and expand its use for more than just autistic people.  It allows for so much more flexibility than people are currently given about a lot of different identity groups, and that’s important.  So if you like the idea of cousins, by all means, use it and adapt it as much as you want, for whatever groups of people in your own life you think it would best apply to.




1 For the purposes of this article, ‘the autistic community’ refers to relatively mainstream online self-advocacy and sociial communities made up mostly of autistic people.  There’s a lot of different autistic communities out there, both recognized and unrecognized, online and offline.

2 The newsletter of Autism Network International.

3 Actually, come to think of it, I’ve heard of exactly one person who didn’t like her.  It was a self-loathing person with autism who said they were embarrassed by her.  That’s an unfortunate but common reaction that those of us who are visibly “different” get from other people who want to forget their own difference, and who find that we remind them too much of parts of themselves they’d rather forget.  But for someone as social as Xenia, to have heard of only one person who disliked her for her unusual mannerisms and reactions to the world is a testament to her extremely friendly personality.  Ordinarily, if I mention Xenia to anyone who’s met her, they sort of light up inside just remembering her.  I don’t think it’s coincidence that someone that friendly is the one who thought up the concept of a ‘cousin’.

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What came before.

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If I could reach through the computer screen…

I want to hand you a lapis lazuli ball

So you can lose yourself in the deep blue

And be dazzled by the gold specks.

I want you to roll it over and over in your hand

Gently nose it to feel its texture

And weigh it in your hand.

I want to hand you my black tourmaline egg

So you can feel that unique texture

I want you to hold it while you sleep

And wake up to it, warm and slick in your hand

I want to hand you my amber ring

So you can watch the sunlight turn it into fire

And watch the sun set inside it glittering red, orange, and yellow

I want to do these things

So that I can say

We share these sensory experiences

And nothing can take that away

I want to hand things back and forth

And clack them together to hear their sounds

And rub them on our cheeks

And brush them against our fingertips

Then I want to hand you things too big to pick up:

The warmth and smell of a granite mountainside as the sun heats it up all day long.

The liquid sunlight melting across the coat of a cat who embodies sunlight well.

The whole cycle of life that takes place in the soil of a redwood forest. And the smell of that soil.

The deep rumbling sound of the Mother Tree when you’re curled up against it, surrounded by its invisible amethyst glow.

The feeling of lying in bed, but at the same time, being surrounded by a deep, glowing blue sky, as if pre-dawn or post-dusk. And listening to the music of the forest. Listening with my skin, listening with my eyes, listening with my fingertips, listening with my nose. Listening with everything more than my ears. Being wrapped in the song of the forest and the stars and the trees and the soil and the fungus, all singing, all singing inside me.

I know you can feel the layers of sensory experience. The layers of meaning that come before the meaning of mind. The things we were meant to forget, when we learned to think their way. The things we didn’t forget, the things that we retained no matter what we were told to forget. The stillness, the silence. The music in the silence, the growth and death and birth cycling endlessly.

I would hand you these things, if I could reach through a computer screen. And I would take whatever you handed back, and listen to it sing its unique song. And we could communicate the way we are meant to communicate. By what came before thought, by what came before sight and sound, touch and smell, by the resonance in what came before.

Empty Mirrors and Redwoods

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This was originally written and posted elsewhere on February 25, 2012.

This is in response to a quote:

“When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” —Adrienne Rich

This is the story of my life. Not just teachers. Everyone. Everywhere. Not a moment. A lifetime.

Which is probably why one of my biggest goals in learning to communicate with people, in both standard and unusual ways, has always been to shout to the world that I exist, who I am, and that I am not going away without a fight.

It’s also why it hits me so hard when anyone tells me I’m impossible. They usually do it in the most fleeting ways. As in they don’t even give me a full once-over. In a moment they have decided I don’t exist. Sometimes it’s a matter of fact statement. “Real people don’t work like that.” Other times it is accompanied by some of the worst bullying I have ever encountered. “Real people don’t work like that. And I will stomp you into the ground for having the audacity to be who you are.” Any way it happens it hurts. Not just for me. I’m trying to make the way easier for others like me. I don’t want anyone ever to have to go through this again.

There is nowhere I can go that this won’t happen. Even if I try to go away from people, they can still follow. The closest I’ve ever come was when I first moved out on my own. I lived alone with my cat in a redwood forest. I would turn off the Internet, go outside, and talk to the rocks and the trees and the slugs and the fungus.

I’d fill my pockets with rocks. Or sit on the ground and stack rocks all over my body. And the rocks would tell me about my own solidity. They’d tell me about being part of mountains. And avalanches and mudslides. And volcanoes. And all the other things rocks know about. A small piece of granite in my hand would tell me about the smell of sun on a granite mountainside.

They told me I was part of the world too. Of the larger world. Many people say the world when they really mean the social world of human beings. The world is so much bigger than that. They told me that even if no human being told me this in my lifetime, that I do have a place in the world. A very small, particular place just for me. They said that everyone has a place like that. And that when I am done with my place in the human world, I will turn into all the animals and fungi and plants and microbes that will likely eat my remains. And then I will have other places in the world entirely. I may yet be a redwood tree when I grow up, just like some rocks turn into sand in the ocean.

Until now, I’ve never been able to fully express what all those rocks and stuff did for me. It was a surreal period of time. When I was online or with people, the main message I got was I didn’t exist. And even when the people weren’t around, their general behavior patterns followed me telling me I was a worthless, unreal waste of space. Then I’d go out to the rocks, in my driveway and elsewhere, and suddenly I had a place in the world and everything made sense. They didn’t tell me all these things in words. They told me through the patterns of what they were and where they’d been and what connections they had to other things. It’s hard to translate it into words or ideas, and harder still to translate into the dead, disconnected world that the mainstream culture wanted me to believe in.

So the rocks, the slugs, the dirt, the trees, and the fungus seemed to have no problem with being in the same world as me, and letting me know in so many ways that I belonged there. It was human beings that shut me out. The only thing I could write of it at the time: “I walk inside and I disappear; I walk outside and I have a place in the world again.”

But it wasn’t as simple as momentarily looking in a mirror and seeing nothing. My friend said it was more like looking at a painting without them in it and then being told it was a mirror. For me, it was not seeing myself no matter where I looked. I mean, on a deep level, I knew that I existed and that one day I would find at least one person like me. Knew it bone-deep, though I never imagined how much like me they’d be. But on the surface of my mind, it felt quite different.

On the surface, it was terror. Absolute unreasoning terror. That I might not really exist at all. That I might just be a thing. Forget not seeing myself in the mirror, I didn’t see myself anywhere. I felt like I was floating in a dark place without being able to perceive myself or anything around me. Or falling, living in free fall. Once it really started hitting home, I became terrified for my survival.

Because my life was not full of examples of anyone like me. Education was one way. I started junior high, high school, and college but I never truly finished them and deep down I knew I’d never finish. (Don’t make me explain the twists and turns in my educational history that made that statement possible.) I spent the majority of my teen years in either no school, institution schools, or special ed. And I knew that to the rest of the world none of us were real. And just — I can’t explain it fully — this caused an intense, deep terror of what my adulthood would be like.

After I fell off of the conveyor belt of life that all the real people were on, I was presented two, and exactly two, choices for my future. The first choice was that I could remain as I was, and go to an institution forever. The second choice was that I could get better and live on my own with no disability-related support. People called the second one words like “hope” and “we believe in you”. I called it a mirage. And it was really that second option that drove me to suicide over and over. Because that was the option I knew I would never become. And having it thrust in my face and called “hope” only gave me the message “hope is impossible”.

I knew this because I could see things about myself that none of those hopeful people could see. I saw that every month that life went on I was being expected to climb harder and run faster. And I saw that the things preventing me from doing those things… even if my skills were staying the same I’d be dropping further and further behind. But my skills were getting worse. And I knew exactly what that meant in terms of how feasible choice #2 would ever be.

Somewhere around when I got diagnosed, I coincidentally found Nobody Nowhere in a library. I brought it home because of nothing more than the picture on the cover. By the first page, I was in shock. By the next page, I cried. This was my first ever glimpse of myself mirrored in the eyes of another human being. I got profoundly lucky. I collect autiebiographies now, I think I have over a hundred, and that’s still one of the closest to my experience. If basic types of autism truly exist, she and I are in the same one. We are different in many other ways but not so much in that one. The first time I ever, ever was told by a human being in any form that I existed: I think I was 15 years old.

Somewhere in there I began making plans to escape. To run away to the woods and find some way to hide there and scratch out a living. But every time I tried going, I was caught long before I got there. People began making theories that something in my brain caused me to wander aimlessly with no real purpose in mind. They got me a bracelet that said so, that I couldn’t take off. Just one more mirror I didn’t exist within.

One reason I write about my experiences is to force the world to acknowledge who I really am and that I exist, that we exist as people like each other in these ways. But wrapped around that just as much is the desire to do for other people what Nobody Nowhere did for me. I know that a lot of people like me, given our language issues, don’t write a lot. And I want to be one of the ones that does, so that other people will benefit. And I don’t mean just about autism, although that will always be a large part of it. I mean everything in me that most of the world doesn’t acknowledge as a possibility let alone a large number of real life people. This happens to all marginalized people, and it also happens to people who just have things going on that are rare or contradict mainstream culture or the culture they live in. And I’m all of those things and I know how hard it is and I want to make it easier.

I also want to do something else. I’ve long had a video project in mind, but I don’t know if that will ever happen, so I do it in other ways too. I want people in the position I was in growing up, to know that choice #1 and choice #2 are not the only viable choices for a person to have. People kill themselves when they think they don’t have choices. And there are not enough choices in the world — but there are more than two.

Some truly nasty people once had a tittering little chat over my having said something like this once. It went something like “Why does she think her life is so great? She’s on welfare. She’s in public housing. She’s poor. She’s always going on about how wonderful this is, but that’s a shitty excuse for a life.”

I can’t even begin to explain the screwed-up worldviews that led to this little discussion. Including a complete misunderstanding of what does and doesn’t make disabled people happy with our lives (link to PDF). But really what it comes down to is this: Growing up, I learned that if I remained significantly disabled I would be in an institution. No other options. I knew long before anyone else did that cures were a pipe dream. I’d try hard to act like whatever they tried on me was making me better but that was bullshit and it fell apart fast. There was no such thing as a combination of freedom, and being unable to work or take care of myself. None. It wasn’t even imaginable. Nobody even made me aware of disability benefits or daily living services until I met other disabled adults.

To have no good options is a terrible thing. I want people to know there are options. They don’t work out for everyone. But to have the knowledge that there’s one option wakes your mind up and tells you there might be more. To actively look beyond the borders of your imagination. To be creative and keep trying. I know that the options I have now may disappear if the Republicans get their way, if the government collapses (even in a good way), if the economy gets ever more trashed. But my experiences since adulthood have stretched my imagination and taught me to keep trying for something until the day I die. Even if right now will seem downright luxurious compared to what is to come.

But what do I have now that is so special to me? I have a steady (if meager) income without having to destroy my body trying to work. I have subsidized housing, so I can (mostly) afford bills and food. I have housing at all. I have wheelchair accessible housing… mostly anyway. I have Medicaid and Medicare for health insurance. My GP is excellent and most of my other doctors are good. People actually pay attention to how to detect and treat pain, infection, and other medical stuff despite my communication problems.

I have a means of communicating in words that isn’t speech. I have learned how to communicate in words rather than just imitate what I thought was expected. I have a wonderful cat. I have friends who know me as myself, not a mirage, and who are not bullies in disguise. Including friends where we can understand each other without having to try too hard. Including some who can do so without words. I have learned some degree of self-respect and basic ethical awareness when dealing with people. I have a meaningful spiritual life. I have Internet access. And I’m alive.

So I have the basics — and more — and that is more than I ever expected. There’s things that would be better if they were different. But I can live this way fine. And I just wonder what kind of life a person has to have led to act like what I have is worthless.

The thing about never seeing yourself reflected by the people around you is that it’s simultaneously traumatic and invisible. So you feel terrible but you can’t put a finger on why. So unless you have someone telling you what’s going on, you’re eventually going to turn it around on yourself and become really miserable. And then your society generally sees your feelings as the problem, which just puts another layer of the same thing. It gets really convoluted. Because the answer — actually acknowledging you exist — is apparently too simple for some people.

This is why I freak out so badly sometimes when i realize I’m talking to someone who’s force-fitting me or what I’m saying into categories in their head that make no sense. It’s not the one instance. It’s the lifetime of little instances built up over the decades. It’s the fear — complete, unreasoning terror — of things ever going back to how they used to be.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to grow up in a world where people see you. And talk to you. And about you. And not just about a series of illusions and mirages in their heads. I’m not talking about going out of their way to be inviting, even. Just noticing would be enough. Because when people notice, they act on what they’ve noticed, and it just unfolds naturally.

And if you ever wonder why I am so attached to redwood forests, it’s that. Both the one I was born in and the one I first lived on my own in. In both instances there was an intense sense of exactly where I belonged in the world. Everything around me told me that. And if I want to remember, all I have to do is think about that environment. Trees, soil, rocks, slugs, fungus, owls, moss, lichens, everything. I’m not able to live there but that doesn’t prevent me from being aware of these places. And whether it’s because I was born in such a place, or some other reason, that gives me the most intense feeling of belonging in the world that I’ve ever known.