Autism Has A Race Problem

Doing Harm When You Mean To Do Good

Being autistic often means that, as a community, we experience the brute force of social inequity on the daily. Even those of us who are unaware of our neurotype know what it’s like to be othered. We are spoken over by those who have our ‘best interests’ in mind. We are pushed out of interactions and opportunities for being different. Yet, if we beat the statistical mortality odds, we forge ahead anyway in the face of opposition non-autistic people would likely find insurmountable.

So when our already marginalized autistic community becomes that opposition — when we are the bullies in our own house — who’s taking those blows?

As in most every other facet of life, #AutisticBIPoC are the people experiencing arguably higher levels of exclusion, aggression, and inequality within our own autistic spaces.

Over years of seeking out Black, brown, and Indigenous voices for first-hand stories about the intersections of being POC and autistic, I’ve had to dig. The many reasons we’re not easily found in public life trace directly back to our being marginalized peoples and knowing that makes me even more grateful for every person of colour who steps into advocacy to stand as a beacon for others.

A Quick #AutisticPOC Primer

Living as an autistic racial minority not only encompasses the stereotypes non-autistic society places upon us as autistic people but it layers on the multiple overt inequities of systemic racism. It’s an obstacle sandwich and one that goes largely unseen. Our day-to-day experiences are often starkly different than the emerging narrative driven largely by the white autistic majority. Here are a few outcomes that shape our lives worldwide:

  1. We are underrepresented in the information about autistic people that drives policy and, hence quality of life.
  2. Within our own minority communities, awareness is anecdotally nearly non-existent and autism is still highly stigmatized. We report being exposed to violence and trauma in childhood perpetuated by our own family members working to “normalize” us as a means of keeping us safe and affording access to more of life.
  3. We are more likely to be seen as willful, difficult, and/or using illegal substances.
  4. We are more likely to be reported to authorities for “suspicious” behaviour.
  5. We are more likely to be incarcerated or killed.
  6. We are less likely to receive adequate care, support, or protection and suffer health disparities as a result.

But What’s It Really Like Tho’?

Inside our POC spaces, where our voices are not only heard but elevated, we spend our time like you’d think: trading recipes, laughing at cute pets, and working on strategies to thrive within generational and ongoing systemic imbalance. Whatever our support needs, we have careers to build, kids to feed, aging parents to care for, and lives to live to the fullest despite the relentless weight pressing down. Advocates out there blessing TikTok and the ‘Gram do so *on top of* everything else. So if right about now you’re thinking all this is a lot. I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong.

I host several spaces where autistic people gather to learn more about ourselves with the common goal of building our best lives. The spaces I host that are not dedicated to people of colour have much, much larger memberships and are majority white. As in, nearly completely. (And yes, if you’re wondering, of course I’ve received messages about the unfairly exclusionary nature of my POC-only spaces). As far as I’m aware, I am the only woman of colour hosting an autistic community that is thousands of members strong. And let me tell you, y’all don’t make it easy.

Like clockwork, when the bigger news items on racial injustice grab international attention, the dynamic in my flagship group changes. The latest came in the wake of another round of horrific racially motivated violence in the headlines this past month. When a member used a historically race-based word, a virtual mob of angry predominantly white members demanded that I declare my stance on racism. Where was my personal statement on why racism is wrong? Why wouldn’t I praise their anti-racism actions and punish those who perpetuate problematic behaviour? Why was I not publicly responsive to their explanations of the ways racism affects people of colour?

Few bothered to learn that I am a Black woman.

Few considered that demanding that I act as their anti-racism ambassador was deeply taxing.

None noticed that claiming the space I make available to them was itself an act of racial aggression.

In the days since, it’s clear that many still do not understand their roles in perpetuating the very concepts they claim to hold in highest regard. Historically, this is familiar territory. Closer to home, just as in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd and the period around the re-investigation of the killing of Elijah McClain, my inbox filled with assaults:

  • I was not quick enough to respond to racist statements made within the group;
  • I was not sincere enough in my response to racist statements made within the group;
  • I did not care enough about the racist statements made within the group;
  • I have shirked my responsibilities in making the group safe for people of colour;
  • Due to my many failings to adequately engage who author Shannon Sullivan calls Good White People, I clearly support white supremacy.

It is exhausting.

Surely, We Can Do Better?

Racism is in the air we breathe. The spaces I’ve created for the enrichment of autistic life are as riddled with it as any other. Because autistic people experience socially sanctioned inequities every single day, you’d assume we’d be better than most at identifying with more members of our community, seeing the patterns of injustice, understanding the ways each of us causes harm, and doing better.

I penned this piece not to provide solutions, not to absolve, and not to complain about the state of the world. I’ve been me my whole life — racist behaviour is not news. THAT is why I write this for you today. What may feel new to you is just Tuesday for us (Note: I do not speak for all POC. We are not a monolith). People of colour cannot make others do their anti-racism work. We cannot stop the hate. We are already depleted from the work of waking up, existing, then doing it all over again. It’s been all of modern history, after all.

The members who have messaged me privately during and after these incidents have largely been other people of colour expressing support and solidarity. That’s how we get through. What hurt most were the words of the POC members who said incidents like these were exactly why they didn’t participate publicly. We expect things to turn. We prepare in advance. We remove ourselves for our own safety thereby avoiding the good experiences too. All of this and more is why we can’t have nice things (and why the cycles of marginalization continue). Understanding the context of our experience would go a long way towards fighting on our behalf.

Generation after generation, people of colour have been there for each other. We see each other. (Why yes! Of course I’ve received DMs about intra-minority racism, colourism, and “black-on-black crime”.) Underneath the currents that advance and recede, we anchor each other to solid ground. It is #AutisticPOC who remind me that we have each other’s backs and for you I am grateful.

RESOURCES

Communities

Surprise! You’re Autistic on Facebook
Autistic Women of Colour on Facebook
Autistic BIPoC on Facebook

#NDPOC (Neurodivergent People of Colour — Private Membership)
Autastic Social Club (Private Membership)

Track These Hashtags

#AutisticPOC #AutisticBIPoC #AutisticWhileBlack #AutisticWhileBrown #SoyAutistica #BlackAutisticLivesMatter #DisabilityTooWhite

Follow These Advocates

Lydia X. Z. Brown — Autistic Hoya
https://www.facebook.com/Autistic.Hoya

Morénike Giwa-Onaiwu
https://www.morenikego.com

Riah Person
https://twitter.com/lilririah

Amythest Schaber
https://www.facebook.com/theneurowonderful
https://neurowonderful.tumblr.com

Kayla Smith
https://www.facebook.com/AutisticKayla
https://www.instagram.com/beingmskayla/
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1FEfn93reBHUXMp0zr9gyg

Kerima Cevik
https://www.ollibean.com/author/kerima-cevik
https://www.facebook.com/IntersectedCauses
https://www.facebook.com/theautismwars

Autistic, Typing
https://www.facebook.com/AutisticTyping
https://twitter.com/AutisticTyping
…who maintains this growing list of #AutisticPOC to support and follow.

Spawner of big ideas at Autastic.com • #AutisticBIPoC community builder • Champion of late-identified autistic adults. @WeAreAutastic everywhere.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store