Online community building by autistic adults
One diagnostic criterion to identify individuals as having an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is that their communication patterns, social reciprocity, and interactional competence show qualitative impairment (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). And yet, my experience as an individual who was once diagnosed as ASD and my investigations of Internet websites run by and for autistic individuals led me to see that individuals who identify as ASD are not only interested in communicating with others but highly articulate in self-advocating through the affordances of online communication. My research was focused on exploring the communicative experiences of individuals who participated in two websites designed by and for autistic individuals as a means of self-advocacy, WrongPlanet and AspiesforFreedom. The method used to study the two websites was that of participant-observer. Having joined the online groups by introducing myself, I was able to peruse archived postings and current threads available on the websites. I analyzed threads of postings for themes being discussed and for features showing evidence of what Herring (2004) described as online community. Some of the postings were triangulated by interviewing participants. These interviews revealed more personal information about how one chooses to self-advocate and create community online. Results indicated that the forum posts of these two autistic-run websites demonstrated evidence of shared community and self-advocacy through the topics discussed. The autistic individuals I studied seemed to want to be seen as having a difference not a deficit. They acknowledged their struggles, but posited that individuals with ASD have strengths that are uncommon and are currently being under-utilized by society. Their use of the Internet demonstrates how autistic individuals are capable of communicating about a wide variety of topics, and are capable of contributing to the conversation about what makes them similar and different from those whom they call Neurotypical. The significance of this study is that insights I present have a different validity than other studies of autistic individuals conducted by non-autistic researchers. Also, by challenging stereotypes of the capabilities of autistic individuals, a path is created whereby all may benefit from the strengths, talents, and insights they are able to provide.