It's Not Just the Internet
And to that I say: Nice catchy dramatic image, but it's not even close to what really happened.
Yes, the Internet is a wondrous tool that enables people worldwide who have common interests to get together and share ideas easily—but this is equally true for all interest groups. And yes, autistics often can communicate more effectively in writing than in speech, but many of us who grew up in the pre-Internet era had no problem expressing ourselves by means of a typewriter, or even a good old-fashioned pen and paper.
So why have thousands of autistic people joined forums and created blogs and other websites in the past few years? In a word: self-preservation. The rise of the Internet took place, coincidentally, at the same time when a very broad expansion of the diagnostic criteria for autism occurred. Before then, most people who today would be considered autistic were living in a state of blissful naiveté, entirely unaware that they soon would become targets of worldwide prejudice and discrimination.
The concept of the "autism spectrum" wasn't in the diagnostic parlance until 1994, when Asperger's and the other so-called spectrum classifications were added to the DSM-IV. Previously, the term "autism" had a much narrower meaning, was used much less often, and was applied mainly to nonverbal children. What this effectively meant was that, by fiat, a small group of psychologists in the early 1990s (whose pharmaceutical company sponsors no doubt had visions of a lucrative new drug market dancing in their heads) reclassified millions of people throughout the world from the "normal" category to the "mentally disordered" category.
But most of us didn't know it at the time. We were just going about our ordinary lives, working or attending school or raising families, like everyone else around us. We might have noticed that some things were harder for us than for our peers, while other things were easier, but we just chalked that up to natural variation and didn't give it much thought.
Two other ominous developments in the mid-1990s should have given us cause for concern, but we were ignorant of their possible implications for us. First, there was the ever-increasing use of genetic research to develop prenatal screening tests. Although the Down Syndrome prenatal test already had been in use for two decades, most people were not aware that hundreds of tests for other conditions were being developed. This was by design. Fundraising organizations kept their eugenic agenda very carefully hidden. I have to confess that I gave money in response to a solicitation for cystic fibrosis research, naively believing the claim that it would be used to develop gene therapy to cure suffering children. Within just a few years, however, 95 percent of fetuses identified with CF were being aborted—and the children featured in those fundraising ads all grew up without ever getting the promised genetic cure.
Another event that gave some of us a delayed wake-up call, several years afterward, was the genocide in Rwanda. Although two tribes in that country had lived peacefully together for generations, a sudden, intense propaganda campaign made the majority tribe turn violently against the minority. People happily slaughtered their neighbors and co-workers. In families where there had been inter-tribal marriages, some people even killed their own relatives. Women viciously hacked and beat to death little children who had been their kids' playmates, often in front of their kids, while still thinking of themselves as loving mothers the entire time. The rest of the world was so taken aback by this paroxysm of savagery that almost no effort was made to stop it. When it was over and Rwanda lay in ruins, most folks in other parts of the world just shook their heads in pity, feeling secure in the belief that it would never happen in their own countries. At the time, very few of us actually understood the lesson of what had happened there: No matter how completely integrated into the mainstream of society a minority group may be, all it takes is a well-crafted propaganda effort characterizing them as a devastating threat to society, and large numbers of otherwise decent and rational people will start clamoring for their extermination.
Although the Internet existed (albeit in a more limited form) in the late 1990s, most autistics just used it the same way everyone else did, for general information and mindless entertainment. It wasn't until the current decade began that the danger of our situation became apparent. By then, many autistic parents were being told by school officials that their children (whose behavior often was very similar to that of the parents at the same age) were mentally disordered and ought to be put in segregated classrooms. "Autism awareness" propaganda declared that very few autistics would ever be able to hold jobs, marry, or do anything productive (this blithely ignored the fact that many autistics already had jobs and families); that the existence of autistics was a huge burden to society; and that cure or "prevention" was imperative. Not surprisingly, in this climate of mass hysteria, large numbers of quack practitioners began peddling dangerous "treatments" to families with autistic children.
Then we began to see "disease control" agencies establishing mandatory registries of autistic citizens, all too reminiscent of the Nazi bureaucracies that kept registries of Jews. Genetic researchers and their funding groups started openly admitting that they sought a prenatal test for autism. Editors of several otherwise respectable journals saw nothing wrong with printing articles suggesting that autistic workers were undesirable and should not be hired. The ultimate goal has been stated very clearly by the most influential fundraising group, Autism Speaks: it is a world in which autism—that is, the global autistic population consisting of some 50 to 60 million human beings—is "a word for the history books."
And that's why autistic adults are blogging in record numbers. It's not because there's anything magical about the Internet that enables autistics to communicate. Rather, it's a response to the genocidal situation surrounding us. If we didn't have the Internet, many of us (myself included) would be frantically typing up fliers and making thousands of copies, putting them on front porches and car windshields and stapling them to telephone poles. We'd be holding meetings, organizing demonstrations, and waving banners on street corners. In short, we'd be doing all the same things that civil rights activists did before the Internet existed. There's no doubt that the Internet makes it much easier for us to organize and get ourselves heard without the personal risks and significant costs and difficulties of pre-Internet civil rights activism, but that is the nature of the medium itself, not anything unique to autistic self-expression. Autistic people are all over the Internet because, as Club 166 starkly (and accurately) put it in a recent post, silence equals death.