This week, a 10-year-old girl died in Utah. Her name was Izzy Tichenor. She was Black. She was autistic. She lived as many of us do, unseen, unheard, and bullied by a world where it’s normalized to look the other way when we’re being victimized.
Along with sadness for a young life lost, the headlines are filled with hand-wringing and bewilderment: How can this tragedy have happened? It’s likely that few Black autistic people have wondered how or why Izzy felt she had no other option. Many of us know all too well how and why. We share the legacy of burden that young Izzy carried.
First, the cold facts. Though the suicide rate in the American Black community is lower than of the broader population, the rate among counted autistic people is significantly higher than the general population. Notice that I said “counted”. Why?
We Are Invisible
Until very recently, minority populations have been largely excluded from the discourse — and subsequently from the policy that shapes public life, public opinion, and individual behavior. When you’re consistently and historically excluded, for practical everyday-life purposes, you simply do not exist. Not in statistics. Not in doctors’ offices. Not in the media. And not in our minority communities themselves.
Put another way, inside Black communities, autism is often thought of as a White-people issue, a curse, or a shameful and dangerous weakness to be hidden or eradicated if it’s thought of at all.
If our children are assessed, it’s usually due to a “behaviour problem” that’s keeping them from blending in. Unidentified, they’re “problem students”. Autistic adults who have mastered camouflage are unlikely to realize they’re neurodivergent, even after their children have been diagnosed. Unidentified, they are likely struggling with multiple aspects of life but seen as “lazy” among other things. Black autistic men can get caught in the criminal justice system.
I’d love to quote some accurate, relevant statistics here to support this relaying of our collective lived experience. I trust you’re beginning to see why that isn’t happening.
We Are Multiply Marginalized
When it comes to neurodivergencies such as autism, Black communities live with an externally imposed lack of information and misinformation that creates stigma and shame around differences such as ours.
Pile on racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and other societal norms that drive the message home that who you are is unacceptable and you have a weight so heavy that carrying it requires incredible strength and resilience. It’s burdensome for adults. Consider for a moment what it feels like for our children.
The message is loud and clear: “be yourself but not like that”.
We Are Not Our Masks
What makes us different from most people encompasses our every thought, feeling, sensation, and experience. Observing the many ways we are different from most everyone around us and not having our experiences mirrored takes a toll. Constantly suppressing our thoughts, feelings, reactions, and experiences takes a toll.
The non-autistic world is our greatest bully and no one is listening. When you’re ten and gifted and female and Black, somehow you’re supposed to be able to handle it.
But we are not our masks. We may look fine. We may smile and say everything’s good. We’ve learn early what the correct responses and behaviors are. We learn to police ourselves. It’s made clear that what’s happening inside doesn’t matter as much as how we behave. Many of us use use our considerable gifts and talents to produce a performance that keeps everyone happy and allows our basic needs to be met.
The world wishes we weren’t us so we work relentlessly to make it so. We want to fit in, to belong, to be liked. Where you see “improvement”, what’s changed is our mask. Generally speaking, we’re conforming for your comfort in hopes that finally we’ll be accepted and included. Underneath, who we are is increasingly buried. It’s well documented in the population at large that repression brings a host of mental health difficulties. Ours is mostly happening beneath our awareness.
Masking is survival. Only sometimes it isn’t enough to keep us safe and get us through.
In one way or another, whether today or thirty years in the future, autistic people pay the price for this relentless self-monitoring. This week, the loss of Izzy begs us to pay attention, to take action on behalf of the countless children and adults in our lives who remain unseen and unheard.
We’re right here in front of you.
For a list of resources including #AutisticWhileBlack advocates, see Autism Has A Race Problem.