Meeting the Extended Family

"Note," she said, "that the Rolling Pin is on top."

I’ve never been able to take in the big picture at family reunions.  Between the carnival of overstimulation that comes with all that social interaction, and being the unacknowledged odd neurology out as an adopted child in my family, simply remaining socially appropriate has always been enough to keep my CPU usage running above eighty percent, uncomfortably close—sometimes terrifyingly close—to locking up like an underpowered computer.  As much of a people-watcher as I’ve always been, at reunions I’ve never been able to read or enjoy the tiny dramas of people’s interactions the way I can on say a city street or in a restaurant, or even with a smaller, more intimate group.  The expectation that I might be called on to participate at any moment from any number of directions keeps me in a reactive mode and prevents me from gaining much perspective on what’s going on, or even speaking my own intentions.  I’ve noticed though that there’s a curious inversion of that experience going on from my perch here at Shift.

Late last summer I posted an entry which laid out what I intended to accomplish by jumping into the fray of public discussion about autism’s place in society.  It was an ambitious declaration, describing a task which if carried to completion will take more years than I will live.  The cue I took came from a phrase out of the American South used to describe what is done when there is important family business which concerns an entire extended family.  When a matriarch or patriarch dies or some other watershed event occurs, word goes out to whatever far corners of the world where family members might be, word that there is to be a meeting at which decisions will be made, power perhaps passed, and ancestors honored.

This of course sounds not so different from what happens anywhere else, but the above is only the literal description.  The phrase I used was also used by an early jazz trumpeter, Buddy Bolden, described here by fellow musician Kid Ory:

I used to hear Bolden play every chance I got. I’d go out to the park where he was playing, and there wouldn’t be a soul around. Then, when it was time to start the dance, he’d say, “Let’s call the children home.” And he’d put his horn out the window and blow, and everyone would come running.

The overtone there is tribal then, and not even of one tribe, but of a nation of tribes who were asserting their national character against all odds, an ocean away from where they’d started.  Outlandish and presumptuous as it may seem to compare autistics to African-Americans, it may well be that the crossing autism has made in order to arrive in its present form has been every bit as long, wide, and brutal as the one across the Atlantic. And for what it’s worth, in terms of maintaining a sense of culture and identity, in terms of calling their children home and having everyone come running, I’d say that to date African-Americans have done a considerably better job than we autistics.

That’s what I’m out to remedy.  Autism in my view is a nation, a tribe, or if you prefer, an extended and far-flung family—and calling our children home is the task at hand.

So.  Strip away all the metaphors but one, and what we are looking at is a family reunion.  And what happens at really big, first-ever family reunions?  You meet all kinds of unlikely people who nonetheless are in fact your kin.  Maybe you don’t get along.  Maybe there are long-running feuds.  People who pretend this or that branch of the family doesn’t exist.  Stigmatized crazy aunts and “bachelor” uncles who happen to be the true gems of the family whom you are poorer for not having appreciated years ago.  Domineering great-aunts, and wrongheaded great-uncles the likes of whom you or your children have never in your life encountered, and hope to never again.  Family gossips and quiet ones who see all but say nothing.  Chronically poor relatives with class issues.  Wealthy, successful relatives with class issues.  Middle-class relatives ruthlessly enforcing the taboo on discussing class issues.  Relatives who decline to attend, ever, or only if certain others are sure to be present.  The holy-roller side of the family, and the heathen side.  On and on.

This is what I’m beginning to see here, in the discussions sparked and spun off from this site, and I think it’s great.  This site is a big-picture endeavor; it portrays a wider and deeper spectrum of autism, and a more encompassing family of autistics, than you are likely to find in any other place at this time.  There are bound to be conflicts.

Save for one example, out of regard for the privacy of those involved I’ll not offer any identifying details, but Shift’s referral logs provide breadcrumb trails that lead back to blog posts and forum conversations which have linked to items on this site.  The long and short of it is that you people are not happy about each other; there are territory and turf issues galore—but you are talking about each other, sometimes even to one another.  And not that these conversations haven’t gone on for a long time in various places, but they are something I want to encourage, something for which I would like to see Shift Journal become even more a center of gravity.

Good on y’all, then.  Please keep it up.  “Strife is the father of all,” said Heraclitus, and there’s our family patriarch if you want one—there’s no denying Strife has been with autistics from any beginning still in living memory.

That one example I can share?  Of family members coming to look one another in the eye for the first time, face-to-face with the startling notion that there’s kinship going on here?  I’ve yet to post explicitly on autism awareness—or autistic self-awareness—in the online/tech/gadget community, but it’s something I monitor closely. Simply tracking the incidence of stories containing the words autism or autistic submitted to over the last four years suggests there’s a slowly waking giant there; Digg is not a community with a comparable interest in any other mental condition.

Last week at any rate I posted an open letter to tech writer Joel Johnson, who had written a sharply pointed, laugh-out-loud funny piece for the gadget blog Gizmodo in which he made an offhand slur against the word “autistic.”  I also dropped him an email and we’ve had a cordial exchange, finding much in common, but before that even happened he posted a link to my piece on his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

This was last Saturday morning, and the vast majority of hits on that open letter that day came from Joel’s followers, hardcore tech folks, over 4.500 strong on Twitter alone.  By midnight, 224 of them had spent an average of 3 minutes and 17 seconds reading a no-name blogger make a big kerfuffle over Joel’s use of the word “autistic.”  The number to focus on there is 3:17, as that’s serious attention for such a short essay.  I suggest that didn’t happen because of Joel or because of me; it happened because tech people know their world has something to do with autism—they’re just not yet sure what it is.

So like I say, it’s nice at this family reunion to be able to take in interactions like that, to watch family members slowly awakening to their connection to the family.  I’m looking forward to more of this.

on 02/12/10 in featured, Society | 1 Comment | Read More

Comments (1)


  1. Thanks for sharing this “family reunion” and hope that it happens again in the future.

Leave a Reply