Category Archives: Social

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’.

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.

My worst social trait.

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One of the things I feel the most guilty about is my inability to stay connected with people I care about.

Generally, I can actively have between 1 and 3 friends, at most, at a time.  I may have other friends who are my friends, but I don’t communicate with them.  I don’t even remember, half the time, that they exist.  It’s gotten so bad sometimes that I live right down the hall from one of my closest friends in the world and I have sometimes forgotten that she exists for over a month at a time.

People who are not tied to me closely in a way where I have to communicate with them regularly, don’t stand a chance unless they are able to keep up the lines of communication, themselves.

I try as hard as I can to change this.  I feel horrible about people that I feel like I’ve picked up and then abandoned, so many times over the years.  And then, to make things worse, it can get to a situation where I only contact them when I absolutely need something out of them.  So then it becomes “I can’t even contact you most of the time when I just want to talk to you, but I can contact you when I need something from you.”  That feels horrible.  I know that it’s not the case that I’m just “using” them, I know this is all tied into autism and executive dysfunction and movement disorders and memory problems and inertia and a million other things, but it still feels like this is what’s going on, and I can’t help wondering if they secretly resent me for it.

Sometimes, to make matters worse, there are people I think about all the time, but I can’t write to them.  I get writer’s block every time I try.  I may somehow manage to think about them every day, but I can’t write.  And then the guilt builds up and only makes it harder to contact them.  I haven’t gotten into this cycle with very many people, but when I have it’s been almost impossible to get out of.

And then I try to explain these things to people I’m “supposed to” have ties to, people who are very different from me both socially and cognitively.  There’s one person who’s repeatedly said things to me like “I know you don’t like to write to me” and no matter how many times I explain what’s actually going on, they still say things like that, a lot.

And sometimes I wonder whether everyone except me knows all this about me.  Like whether there’s conversations like “Yeah, she says she likes you, but then she disappears and forgets about you and never talks to you again, except maybe if she needs something.”  I hope not.  But I don’t know.  I always feel like I have to warn my friends up-front that this happens, because it’s so hard for me to stay in touch with people no matter how much I actually care about them.

And it’s hard to deal with this in a world where people measure how much you care by how much you think about someone and stay in touch with them.  I have the problem that I can care very much about someone, and in fact have a very close relationship with them, yet forget about them for weeks or months at a time, and fail to communicate with them for years at a time.  If my friends want to maintain a relationship with me, then they have to put in a larger amount of effort staying in touch with me than they normally would with someone who is more easily able to stay in touch, and this doesn’t seem fair.

And it still doesn’t seem fair even knowing that this is related to specific cognitive limitations.

And I still feel like a failure as a friend, because I can’t communicate with people as much as I want to, or think about them as much as I want to, or both.  I still don’t know what makes the difference between people I think about all the time but can’t communicate with, and people I forget even exist.  It certainly isn’t how close a friend they are, nor is it physical proximity.  There’s someone in particular that I think about frequently, but who I have not written to in probably seven years.  They wrote to me once a few years ago and I badly wanted to write back but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t.  It was like bashing my head against a brick wall.  And this person is someone I once had daily contact with, someone I owe my life to.

As far as I know, there’s a few things that overlap to cause this problem.

One of them is a memory problem where unless a memory is specifically being triggered all the time, I’m not going to remember it.  I have a very good memory for things that are triggered in a specific way, and a lousy memory for everything else.  I have been known to be unable to eat because my cupboards were closed and I couldn’t see the food so I didn’t know food existed.  I have the same problem with people.  If the person is not actually there, or not actively communicating with me right at that instant, then I don’t remember they exist.

Another of them is a form of inertia, where actions have to be triggered in specific ways in order to happen, much like memory has to be triggered.  This means that simply thinking about doing something is not enough to make me able to do that thing.  I have to be in a situation that triggers the right reaction.  And writing to people is not an action that is easy for me to trigger into existence.  So even if I remember you exist, I’m not necessarily going to be able to write to you.  This also explains why I’m more able to write to someone if there’s something I need — the need triggers the action.  Although need doesn’t always trigger an action, it all has to align correctly (so there’s someone I needed something from for years and I never could write to him because it wasn’t exactly aligned right to trigger the action of writing).

Another of them is a trouble with multitasking.  Staying in touch with people is not a simple action like picking up a ball.  It is a complex action that involves many different cognitive and physical aspects all at once.  This means that in order to happen it’s not enough for one thing to be triggered by one other thing.  Everything has to line up perfectly.  If even one part of this large chain of events is out of place, then I’m not able to do it.

The multitasking problem is also evident not just in the amount of parts it takes to make the action happen, but also in terms of paying attention to multiple things at once.  There’s a reason that I am able to stay in touch with one or two people, but not more than that.  One person takes up all of my attention, then I have very little attention left over for anyone else.

And this is all besides the fact that I’m pretty introverted by nature and I don’t automatically spend my time thinking about people.  I think if I were extroverted I would still have trouble keeping in touch with people, but it would be less trouble because my mind would be more drawn to thinking about them all the time.  I can go a long time without thinking about people at all.  Even when I write for my blog, it is easier for me to pay attention to what I am saying, than it is to pay attention to all the people who might be reading it.  I am always genuinely surprised how many readers I have, and sometimes alarmed by that fact.  Even though I feel like I am someone who cares deeply about people in both the general and the particular, my mind is not automatically drawn to thinking about people, as a topic.  Right now I mostly think about crocheting.

I’m sure there’s other things, many of them autism-related, that play into this as well.  And it doesn’t just affect friends, it affects family.  I have a horrible time staying in touch with my family, and I feel constantly guilty about it.  (Worse when I get letters from relatives that contain assumptions like “I know you don’t like writing to me”… ouch.)  Especially since I get a lot of support from my brothers at times, but never ever talk to them, rarely talk to my father, and only sometimes talk to my mother.  It doesn’t matter how much I care about or love someone, it can’t overcome all these difficulties.

So if you ever notice this pattern in my communication with you (this includes my inability, sometimes, to respond to blog comments), try to understand that it’s not personal.  I only have one person in my life that I’m in consistent contact with right now, and another person that I’m in semi-consistent contact with, and that’s usually about my limit right there.  Three people happens sometimes but it’s rare.  Right now it’s one and a half people — one very consistent contact (Anne), one less consistent contact (Laura), and a lot of very, very scattered contact with other friends and family.  And I can even forget Anne exists, even though that doesn’t happen as often as it would with other people because of a type of connection we share that as far as I know is completely unique — I can’t form that connection with people on command, it just exists, and I’ve never had that type of connection with anyone else.  And even with that deep, intimate connection I can occasionally forget her for a week or so.

And I’m very sorry, to the 15+ people I’ve cared deeply about and almost entirely lost contact with over the years.  If I could change anything about myself socially, this would be it.  But I’ve never been able to change it.  It makes me feel like I’m not capable of “real” friendship, even though I know I am.  I am lucky that I have some very tolerant friends.  People who take such lapses in contact personally, won’t do well in a friendship with me.  Not that I judge you if you do take it personally on an emotional level — we just may not be compatible if you do.   But do try to understand that my level of contact with you is not at all related to how much I love or care about you.