The State of the Black Autist (for Autistics Speaking Day 2014)

from queenunique.wordpress.com

 

I proud to say that since my initial diagnosis in 1990, society has come a long way from the “dark ages of autism”. Growing up, I had only a few options: be institutionalized, spend the rest of my life with family, or spend my adult life in rehabilitation centers. I dreamed of going to college, not spending all my school years in special education, enjoying independence, and pursuing a career in whatever passion I desire. Only a handful believed that I can actually achieve it. Back in the 1990s, I don’t recall having heroes on the autistic spectrum. Sure you have the savant on films, but that’s about it. There were no real-life autists and aspies in my book. The world seemed unprepared for dealing with people on the spectrum, because they weren’t as many supportive programs.

In 2014, I admit that it’s actually a great time to be an aspie or autist. You can be the IT whiz, writer, professor, artist, activist, athlete, musician…any passion you love, you can do know with little objection. I see more people on the spectrum attend mainstream classes and excel at post-secondary institutions. We don’t have to rely on just Raymond Babbit for inspiration. There’s Stephen Wiltshire, Sondra Williams, Donna Williams, Dr. Temple Grandin, and others who are role models for the autistic community to follow and emulate. More efforts are being made to employ people on the spectrum. We can live independently and even go to groups that are tailor-made for our needs, without relying on parent-oriented orgs like Autism Speaks.

I’m liking the chances that I have today, but I feel like I’m still an outcast to my own community. Perhaps it’s because that not only I’m autistic, but also African-American. I wish my ethnic group can be more supportive of the African-American autists. I don’t why autism can be a taboo subject. Maybe my community was taught that autism is the devil and it needs to be fixed, considering that the African-American community is built on Judeo-Christian beliefs. For some believers, the autist is a gift from God and needs special care. Sometimes for black autists who are capable of independence, this could mean facing constant overprotection from family and friends.

I think this fear also have to do with the notion on trying to “be normal and cool”, like the entertainers and athletes. Or perhaps being autistic can suck for an black person like me because intelligence and geekery equals “acting white”. Talk about your crab in the barrel situation!

Also consider the access to health care centers and schools that can help autistic people. In the inner city, or any area that is primarily of African descent, health and autistic programs are not as abundant, accessible, and adequate as ones in other neighborhoods are. In Atlanta, for example, 40% of autistic children in the metropolitan area were diagnosed at only schools. Basically, you can only afford the school psychologist to try to evaluate the autistic child.

By the time black autists enter adulthood, like me, they are totally screwed. Black unemployment is general is a pain, on top of all the other pressures that the black community already have to face, like lack of education, broken families, drugs, gang culture, etc. Unemployment and underemlpyment is still an issue for people on the autistic spectrum in general. Throw in the struggles to interact with people and the odd reactions to certain mannerisms, and you witness the negative cloud that is over the black autist.

But no worries, it more hopeful for the black autist than you think or see in the media. I thought I have no autistic hero to emulate in the black community, until I read about Maurice Snell. He graduated from college and now holds a position at Easter Seals Metropolitan Chicago. If he can rise up to get the job that he loves, then so can I!

Black people on the spectrum can do it too. But it will take plenty of love, willpower, and support. Families should look more at the positive sides of the autistic spectrum, or matter of fact, accept the autist or aspie more instead of nick-picking at their ways of life. I wish that my ethnic group can buy into more autistic ACCEPTANCE than AWARENESS. Geekery is fine; it doesn’t “strip” my blackness or African-American heritage. We should form self-advocacy groups specifically for the black community.

But more importantly, we, the autistic people in the African Diaspora (including myself) should not worry about those who try to derail our dreams. We can take examples from the Stephen Wiltshires and Maurice Snells of the world, and be shining lights in our community. Furthermore, we should know that the autism community at large has our backs. Besides, we are all bond by a condition that non-autistics still can’t grasp and understand the benefits that comes from it.