Self-StartersThere is a short story I read years ago that I’ve always remembered as a tiny masterpiece of irony.  It was set among what are sometimes called First Nations people, but viewed with a slightly different focus, it provides some useful perspective on what might be called the Autistic Nation. I remember nothing of the author or title, only that it was published in an anthology of short stories by Native American writers, but I can summarize it briefly, and try to bring that perspective into focus here.

The story centers on the delay in a game between two Native American basketball teams who are meeting in an annual tournament. These are teams fielded mostly from the reservations; players are required to have a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) identification card proving tribal membership in order to be on a team.  Glory and high drama being in short supply throughout most of the year for players and spectators both, the pitch of excitement is arguably greater than that found during the NCAA’s March Madness tournament.

Only at the end do we learn that sitting high up in the stands watching the game along with us are two white men, career BIA officials who remain silent until one of them speaks the story’s final sentence.

The delay involves one team’s suspicion that a member of the opposing team is a ringer.  Not that he is a non-Indian, as the narrator makes clear that the ancestry of the alleged ringer is never in question.  What he lacks, the complaining team claims, is the registered status that qualifies him to play in the tournament.

This claim, passed on to the referees, becomes a formal challenge.  The spectators wait expectantly as the player is given an opportunity to produce a BIA identification card or otherwise prove himself a registered Indian.  He cannot, and is ejected from the game.  The crowd jeers him off, and as play resumes, one of the BIA officials nods his head thoughtfully and says, “I think we’ve finally won.”

The picture then, if you’re missing it, is of members of a once-sovereign nation insisting on the authority of their conquerors to validate or deny their identity as members of their own nation.  While their ancestors may have played by that conqueror’s rules grudgingly, these players and spectators are willing collaborators, playing a white man’s game literally, figuratively, and enthusiastically—with no felt need to challenge or subvert the terms of that game.  They need no prompting to invoke the authority that excludes one of their own from a supposedly communal event.  When it comes to the task of staying divided and conquered, they have become self-starters.

The Autistic Nation, I suggest, is similarly divided when we agree that there is more than nominal meaning to the fact that only some of us are “registered Indians.”  Rather than a BIA identification card, some autistic bloggers have been reduced to posting a scan of their autism diagnosis, a “note from the doctor” in order to prove that they know whereof they speak.  Others are derided and discredited for speaking about autism from the perspective of self-diagnosis.  Most of the demand for this sort of “certification” may come from those who do not identify as autistic (at least not openly), but insofar as any of us take such demands seriously, we remain a house divided, by our own hands.

To be clear, I have no quarrel with Native Americans playing basketball, forming leagues, or meeting at invitationals.  That The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is enough for me—but the Autistic Nation still has that fight ahead of us.  Rather than being assimilated, warehoused, or hidden behind casinos, we are growing in numbers and in visibility.  Whether this is due to increased awareness on the part of diagnosticians and the public, to a cultural shift in the way women choose mates, migration patterns, crossing of lineage threads, dietary or other environmental changes (or all of the above), one out of every one-hundred 8-year-olds is now diagnosable with autism.

These kids are accompanied by an also-expanding cohort of not-so-impaired, not-quite-diagnosable autistic peers.  Next year, and the next, there will be more.  The example of pushing back against assimilation and refusing to stay invisible has already been set for them, and they will grow up and have their day.  What that day will be like for all of us depends not on how soon we find a “cure,” but on how much of their nature we are willing and able to recognize in ourselves today.

The stigma attached to autism, I realize, makes this point difficult to grasp.  Who after all wants to see themselves as autistic?  But then who, besides say an imaginative 8-year-old playing in the back yard wants to be an Indian—disempowered, dispossessed, and disenfranchised.  And yet as any deeply-at-play pretend-Native American knows without being told, we all possess an aboriginal legacy:  long-buried, long-forgotten strengths, abilities, and ways of being that belong to no one but us. Once, we were all native peoples.

And as William Stillman and I both have suggested (here, here, and here), we all also—every one of us—have autism; alongside our aboriginal legacy, we all also have an autistic birthright.  I would suggest also that these two things, our aboriginal legacy and our autistic birthright, are in many respects actually one and the same.

Whether this is so or not though, don’t we have to draw a line somewhere between those who “are” and those who “are not” autistic?

No.  We don’t.

To stop drawing or recognizing such a line would, it’s true, be something of an embarrassment to those committed to the notion of autism as a “mental disorder”—though gaggles of deeply earnest experts would surely be trotted out to convince us it’s much, much worse than that for all of us. Insurance reimbursement should of course be available for professional services that are helpful and humane; what should not be allowed to stand is the stranglehold on our perceptions enjoyed by the insurance industry’s billing code bible, the DSM.

This would as well dry up profit centers for those who as one autism blogger puts it, “induce feelings of helplessness, frustration, and despair in parents for their own financial gain.”  Many people have investments of many kinds—not just monetary ones—in such enterprises; these investments might be rendered worthless as well.  Resistance, some of it from seemingly unlikely places, is to be expected.

Beyond inconveniences such as those, a refusal to recognize that dividing line will only return us to ourselves—along with our sovereignty.  Granted, we have been away for a long, long time.  When the scale of the game can be measured in millennia, it may seem vastly absurd to point fingers over “who started it.”  For all that though, it’s you and I who wake up every morning and start the game over—without being prompted to do so—by placidly, obediently looking to officialdom in its many forms to tell us whether or not we are autistic today.

Or not; we either look to those whose aim is to contain autism “on the rez” to make that call about us and ours … or we don’t.

It’s our choice, every day.

on 11/6/09 in featured, Society | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Hey what about Archie Belany AKA Grey Owl.

    Too much focus on his fake identity but not enough on his legacy to the world.

    I am secure enough in my autistic and neurodiverse identity not to have to produce any papers to any but the annoying officialdom for whom it is equivalent to producing a passport in order to get a bank account.

    My “official” autistic identity and my cultural autistic identity are two seperate things and the second has nothing to do with diagnosis, because that is not what produces culture.

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Hail the deeply-at-play Archie Belany AKA Grey Owl! Hail Laurentius Rex! Hail Canadialand!

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