That Wheelchair Analogy
Computers have been described as “wheelchairs for autistics.” The analogy holds good. Computer technology and the internet have empowered many who would find normal face to face interactions extremely difficult. They can build web sites, write blogs and create videos.
It's a fair observation that many (although not all) autistic self-advocates are more comfortable using the Internet than communicating face to face. And the Internet certainly has made it much easier to share opinions and to build cultures and communities worldwide. However, it does not logically follow from these two broad factual premises that autistic people inevitably would have extreme difficulty advocating without computers.
The wheelchair analogy assumes that face to face communication is the "normal" way of interacting with people and that the written word is a less efficient substitute used by those who lack "normal" communication abilities. With all due respect, that hasn't been true since Gutenberg invented the printing press. The written word—whether or not it is on a computer—holds tremendous power to challenge entrenched social assumptions and to bring about far-reaching change.
Why is it, then, that autistic self-advocates are only just now becoming noticed in our society? I believe this can be attributed to a convergence of several changes and cultural shifts in recent years. The definition of autism has been greatly broadened, thus increasing the number of people identified as autistic. As a consequence, we have more potential advocates and more public awareness of autism than ever before. Disability rights activism has created a more receptive climate for autistic self-advocacy. And more generally, the views and concerns of minority groups are not routinely ignored to the extent they once were.
Not all that long ago, if a person did not have "normal" speech and body language, or did not belong to the "right" ethnic or religious group, or was not male and heterosexual and a property owner, it was simply taken for granted that the person had nothing worthwhile to say. These prejudices still exist, of course, but not as strongly as in the past.
Autistic people have been making coherent, intelligent, meaningful statements—both in spoken words and in writing—about our world and the value of human diversity, for many years, even before there was a separate and distinct category of "autistic people."
Society just wasn't listening.