It can be hard to find “your people” when you’re autistic. For us spectrum jockeys—avoidant, overwhelmed, and overstimulated as we are—community can be as slippery as the spectrum itself: something you surf along until you’ve slid straight through whatever you thought the end point was, before arriving back where you’ve always been, alone with your perpetually “other” self. To be autistic is to spend your life with a nagging suspicion you’ve messed up somehow, that you’re out of place or out of time, and that surely, somewhere out there, are people with that same nag, just waiting to meet and swap dinosaur facts with you until you switch over to listing favorite computer role-playing games or Evel Knievel crashes.

It’s no wonder, then, that the internet has always been a haven for autists. Here, in this vast interconnected constellation of freaks, geeks, obsessives, compulsives, and maladjusted eye-contact-dodging miscreants, is God’s perfect kingdom for undiagnosed and diagnosed autists alike—one wrought in their own image by them, for them.

Or so the old wives’ tales go, old wives usually being a Gen X former forum moderator in an ironic Wang Computers shirt. For as long as I’ve known the internet to be a place for diagnosable outsiders and oddballs, it has also been a place where they speak about how it is no longer a place for them. But where, in the past, this kind of talk occurred at the intersection of nostalgia and paranoia, it now lands somewhere between prescience and grief, hollowed out by the knowledge that the forces of capital are reshaping the internet in its image, and they have little space, time, or need for us.

I was born in 1990 in Perth, Western Australia, an only child with two relatively old parents who understood (and still understand) computers and the internet about as well as I understand those Roblox YouTube poop videos my little cousins show me. My first experience of the web was at a café around the corner from my house in Fremantle. My parents would sit and have a coffee while I sat on the barstool in the little back-corner book nook, where a computer was connected to a busted old printer and glacially slow dial-up. There, I would use the internet to search for images of my favorite Pokémon (Cubone) and my favorite dinosaur (Compsognathus), which I’d then print out and take home to use as references in my many illustrations of these two heady subjects.

As for most millennials, the internet I grew up with was caught somewhere between the technology’s utopian, community-driven first wave and its burgeoning late-capitalist future. It was a place where your best friends—or mine, anyway—were a gaggle of 60-year-old Jewish guys from Staten Island who maintained a similar level of fervor for the musical stylings of Skip James and Blind Willie McTell, where the guy sitting next to you in computer class would show you a clip of an American soldier being decapitated by a high-caliber rifle in Afghanistan, and where flash animations of stick figures fighting like they were in a Yuen Woo-ping martial arts epic were seen as the most brilliant examples of the internet’s boundless possibilities.

This was the internet of the hyperspecialized, hyperfocused, hyper–socially removed (or so the cliché went) hobbyists, who employed themselves as curators, creators, and reference books in a diverse yet cozy bricolage of sites, blogs, forums, and spaces which all shared one thing in common, ultimately: community. You could feel it in the gathering of like-minded souls crammed into a message board to riff and rant about one thing in particular, or all things unparticular; in the usernames that filled you with more warmth than the names of immediate friends and family; in the DM slides turned intertwined confessional; or just in the sense of place and belonging, like stumbling upon a homey roadside inn at the corner of a 10-lane intersection. It felt real, whether it spilled out into the real world or not (though it often did), this unspooling skein of connection in a vast, disparate, and infinite sprawl of logged-on souls.

This internet was made by the sincerely interested, for the sincerely interested, catering to your niche while inviting you into others’. Not to diagnose the guy from my favorite James Joyce forum who insisted on role-playing in said forum as Simon Dedalus (that’s Stephen Dedalus’ emotionally distant father, for those playing at home) when prattling on about Ulysses, but this era of the internet seemed custom-built for those on the spectrum, or those who should be. The memetic language of these spaces—never forget, for instance, that “selfie” originated in a drunken post on an Australian forum—which came to form our generation’s grammar and lingo and state of mind even away from our crumb-dusted keyboards, was organically carved out by people like “Simon,” whose innate weirdness was the very bedrock of what made “being online” what it then was: fun.

Things began to shift, if imperceptibly at first, with the advent of social media, and the steady corralling and corporatization of that otherness, weirdness, fun, and joy.

I was 19 or so when I got onto Facebook and stumbled into the addictive world of social media, which at the time, functionally worked like an aggregator of all these wayward wackos. The early 2010s seemed like a heady evolution of the internet of my high school years: The savant sideshow acts of the forums and blogs were being given larger and larger platforms, fueling a healthy (I thought, naïvely) cottage industry of independent media and artists that was as exciting as it was eminently more explorable. The sewer folk were finally being brought into the light, and lo, there was applause, in the form of likes, shares, comments, follows, all that heady attention—some of which, importantly, led to paid work.

It was an education, it was a bar brawl, it was a party. It was, as I’m sure you now know, doomed.

I did not really begin to come to terms with my autism diagnosis until my mid-to-late 20s, and it wasn’t until I was shin-deep in Twitter that I found what I’ve come to consider my autistic community (hello, Chloe!). This community was made up of people I’d found by way of the comedy, art, music, humor, and modes of thinking that I’d been introduced to in my online adolescence. Skewing slightly older than me, my new friends were truly shaped by the early net. There, in DMs and threads, with people I knew to be off-kilter capital-S strangers and pet-topic enthusiasts of all stripes, I began to whittle away at the great gnarled stick of diagnosis and otherness, until I found the hint of the shape of what I’ll call my “autistic self”—one shaped largely by a surrender turned acceptance, and a certain freeing of the habits and hubris that non-autistic society had conditioned me to repress and reject. Here we were, speaking in the shared language of Brass Eye sketches and Achewood comic strips, peeling back the cheap plaster society slaps onto our autistic armature, and being our authentic selves in ways we rarely could offline in the “real” world.

For a young autist with a voracious appetite for the new and the obscure, it was an education, it was a bar brawl, it was a party. It was, as I’m sure you now know, doomed.

Today’s internet, to borrow from the late, great David Berman, feels like a room with the walls blasted to shreds and falling. There is a sense, among those of us who have been online long enough to receive permanent and irreparable psychic scarring from Goatse and the like, that whatever it was that made the internet that brought us Goatse and the like is now dying, and that that, perversely, is sad.

The megacorp takeover of every independent outlet, blog, platform, site, forum, and heck, form of the Webosphere has led to a stultifying sameness, as unappealing and bland as it is desperate for our attention and money. The algorithmic convergence brought about by Google, Facebook, and the past decade’s consolidation of the internet careened us into a continental shift, with generic SEO fodder and tired clickbait replacing the web’s belt-unbuckling barbecue buffet with the equivalent of a gruel-and-trucker-speed glove-box brunch.

For a time, Twitter achieved what I think “peak internet” can achieve when it’s at its best: the ability to make autistics of us all.

Lost in this ongoing heat death are the autistics, who suddenly find themselves like Bigfoot without a forest. There is an air of communal and cultural extinction as the spaces we’d hollowed out for ourselves are shuttered unceremoniously—abandoned forums; ghost-town blogs; bought, sold, and gutted culture websites—amid Web 3.0 hitting like third impact, vaporizing anything that hadn’t already shut up shop, or merging it with some behemoth corporate entity, like an all-devouring Akira blob. The only way to all still be together is if we allow ourselves to be transformed into LCL goop, and merge as one on the “For You” timeline, an algorithmic market-driven technocratic simpleton’s internet. Where the not-too-distant internet of yore not only fostered but encouraged the kind of idiosyncrasies that autistics tend to have in spades, the internet of Elon Musk, Zuck, and whatever malevolent vulture capitalist is sure to one day buy and gut this website, is one with little time or room for the unclickably peculiar and difficult—not being trending-page friendly, we tend to be hard to make a buck off (unless a majority of your advertising revenue comes from companies like Bandai or the New York Review of Books). What spectrum-lite oddness persists is part run-off, part fluke, part carnival barker—the most vocal autistic voices operating somewhere between vaudevillian and huckster, thriving in that great medicine show that is the front-facing camera video circuit.

This lament is tired by now, but of all the social media platforms, losing Twitter hurts the most. The site now known as “X” was always the one with the most visible (and visibly) autistic community, and the one that ran on the most visible autistic logic: recursive, hyperactive, cumulative, hopscotched, and interlinked. It is a site built on the backs of the obsessive, the passionate, the goofy, the gullible, and the confused: a place where autists could disappear into the crowd while, perhaps, finding comfort in the innately illogical logic of Twitter’s shonky and digressive conversations—that intersection of fandom and weirdness and euphoric shitposting. For a time, the site achieved what I think “peak internet” can achieve when it’s at its best: the ability to make autistics of us all.

Under Musk—who, ironically, is autistic—it has more or less ceased functioning, like me at a rave with a strobe light. Musk, one could argue, is the final boss of toxic, autistic forum moderators: an isolated, awkward exile, vengefully venting his frustrations with his indelible himness by burning holes in the community he reigns over, like a self-anointed champion citing made-up rules before upturning the table at a Magic: The Gathering tournament. Twitter already felt like a place for autistic exiles and refugees from that old internet, functioning as a holding pen or zoo enclosure for an endangered species made migratory by circumstance, if reclusive by nature. For those of us tragically linked to Musk, that googoots soyjak, by diagnosis (and perhaps loneliness), his flipping of said table has left us adrift and grasping, bereft of what we once briefly thought of as ours.

Despite the modern internet’s ahistoricism and self-cannibalism—the byproduct of its never-ending churn, a model built on destruction and dilution of its own past—it will forever be entwined and enmeshed with its autistic past, soul, and self. We are baked into its DNA: borderline extinct, perhaps, but preserved in the amber that is memes, shitposts, info dumps, deep dives, overshares, and cancellations, as well as the inventiveness, imagination, and the unprofitable and genuine otherness that defines this fundamentally divergent hive-mind we all cohabit. To reiterate a point, the internet, at its best, has the ability to make even non-autistics feel autistic—and there remains a quiet power in that in the face of a corporate ethos that seeks to smooth us all down to inoffensive and unquestioning nubs. The great irony in all this, of course, is: What is the value of the internet when all the fringe-dwellers have been pushed off it? What’s the forest without Bigfoot, anyway, when those tearing it down can’t see it for the trees?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *