This is an entry for the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. The entire month of April (except for Sundays) I will be blogging through the alphabet on autism-related topics to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month.
C is for Color
No, this isn’t about lighting it up blue or walking in red or toning it down taupe. Today I want to talk about people of color and autism.
When the average person thinks about autism . . . well, wait. I think maybe the average person rarely thinks about autism at all. Maybe this time of year, a bit. But when the topic comes up, the average person thinks of someone famous — usually Temple Grandin — or someone fictional — usually Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” — or a little boy. A little white boy. A little white boy from a middle-class family. There are many layers of erasure here, but the thing I want to point out today is that all of those images of autism are white.
When the face of autism is nearly exclusively a white face what happens to Autistic African-Americans, Autistic Asian-Americans, Autistic Native Americans, Autistic Latino-Americans — any Autistic people of color? Those folks are under-diagnosed, under-served, under-valued, and under-protected. This is a problem for all communities of color. I am white, but dear friends have made me aware of the difficulties they and their families face and I want to do what I can to signal-boost autistic issues of people of color because I firmly believe that until all of us are valued, accepted, and honored, none of us are valued, accepted, or honored.
Under-diagnosed: Autism in Black reports that diagnosis rates are the same across races but black and latino children are diagnosed significantly later than white children. This is a problem, because the sooner parents, teachers, doctors, churches, families, communities understand that a child is Autistic, the sooner everyone can learn how to work with that child’s patterns of strengths and weaknesses and help that child to excel in every way possible.
When an Autistic child goes undiagnosed, too often the people around that child unfairly blame the child for their troubles and often compound them unnecessarily. Without a diagnosis, a child is left without accommodations, without appropriate learning plans, and without the crucial understanding that leads to acceptance of the child, neurotype and all.
When you combine disparities in health care access with the stereotypes of autism as a childhood condition of mainly white boys, it is obvious why Autistic children of color are under-diagnosed and diagnosed late. It is vital for the health and well-being of children of color that we all work to change the tendency to automatically think of autism as a white condition and help all Autistic people get timely and accurate diagnoses.
Under-served: Too often, Autistics of color who need services end up in jail or prison instead. Autistic children and adults are at greater risk of ending up in the criminal justice system than the general population. Sixty percent of American prisoners are people of color (twice the percentage of people of color found in the general population.) When you combine the higher risk of imprisonment of Autistic people with the higher risk of imprisonment of people of color, it is clear that we are letting too many people who need services in the community end up getting under-served (and often phsycially and psychologically destroyed) in prison instead.
Under-valued: There is a vicious circle here. Autistic people of color are not visible in the autism/Autistic community, so white people are less likely to notice that nearly all the organizations and spokespeople are white. Without a visible presence of people of color in leadership, the stereotypes about white autism are reinforced. It is time for all of us to speak up about the absence of people of color in leadership roles in our communities. Without a diversity of perspectives and without a diversity of voices being heard with respect to the diversity of needs, we are letting our Autistic brothers and sisters and their families down. Inclusion means everybody. Until everyone is well-represented and heard and valued, we are all losing out.
Under-protected: When young Autistic men are also young men of color, racism and ableism become deadly. Too often, the police use excessive force in dealing with Autistic black or Latino men in stressful situations. You’ve heard of the “crimes” called “driving while black” or “walking while black”? Add to those, “being Autistic while black.”
For just one example out of hundreds, Brobrubel’s Blog has an entry, Autism in Black and White, that compares how John Elder Robison’s son, Jack, was treated for building and detonating explosives to how Neli Latson was treated for sitting in the grass, waiting for the library to open.
As a white person, I know that my voice should not be a front voice for the issues of people of color. But this is everyone’s discussion. We should all be talking about this. We should all be asking where the people of color are in our community. What is most important is that the voices we should be listening to on these issues are those of people of color. The role of white allies is to encourage everyone to talk about these issues and then be quiet and listen to what people of color want to tell us.
This blog entry is short because this is not my story. It is the story of my brothers and sisters, members of my neurotribe, who live with prejudice and racism and erasure every day. As Landon Bryce of thAutcast said about black Autistic people, “they are ours.” They are our family. We are their family. We must listen to their story, we must make sure there is room at the table, we must value their voices. We must not talk over them.
And that is why today’s entry is so short. It is not that there isn’t more to say – there definitely is. But I do not want to talk over or speak for my Autistic family members of color. I only want to remind everyone that they are here, they are among us, they are us. If our goal is, as I feel it should be, autism acceptance, we must remember that none of us are accepted until all of us are accepted. I challenge you to notice the color of autism as you look around our community and I challenge you to do whatever is in your power to add strength to the voices of people of color — Autistic people of color and their families. Until they are heard and until their needs are valued and until they are cherished as important members of our neurotribe we can talk about acceptance all day and all night but we will never find it.