Dear Young Black Autistics,
Hey, friends. I’m a mixed-race Black and Indigenous young adult. I write to you today as someone who was recently your age, and perhaps dealing with struggles not unlike your own. You may notice that you are different from others in how you think, how you see things, and perhaps how you move, too.
These differences can be both challenging and beautiful in their own right.
In these differences, you may notice that its uncommon to see people who look like you, are Autistic, and are positively shown in your favorite cartoons, live action shows, and movies.
I am 27 years old. When I was younger, I remember one thing in particular. Many of the heroes on television were white. I suppose we were lucky to have Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ Zack Taylor, who happened to be Black, and the “Black Ranger;” however, he wasnt autistic.
In short, Black kids and youth are terribly underrepresented in our media. When was the last time you saw someone who was Black and Autistic in the shows you enjoy?
In terms of Black heroes, there was a certain degree of scarcity and representation of Black Autistic people was seemed like a foreign concept. Perhaps this was because little was known about Autistic people outside of diagnosis reserved for white and mainly male children.
A place to belong in the media didnt exist for Autistic people in general, but as I look back on my childhood, I come to a realization that from then to the present, representation of Autistic Black and Indigenous people in media is still virtually non-existent.
Racism and Ableism Colors All Our Relationships
Our parents have more stress about autism because they already worry about us being killed by police or accused of a crime or being the victim of hate crimes and institutional abuse. We know how dangerous it can be to be ourselves, so we always have to play it small and occupy the background in some spaces just to be safe.
For this reason, our parents can be extra tough on us. They feel powerless against racism and ableism, and they think if we can’t hide being Autistic, we are at risk.
Let’s be real, we can’t afford to be trusting, to complain, or especially to show vulnerability or emotions. We really can only be a small piece of our whole self anywhere we go.
We sometimes make friends when they think we’re the same, but then we go and do something or say something Autistically, and they don’t get it. We don’t wear the right clothes or say the right thing or fit in as naturally, and they abandon us– or turn on us and become bullies.
Standing out is dangerous. Playing it small is soul-crushing. These may feel like your only two options right now, but hopefully, I can give you a little peace and comfort about a better future.
Masking and Code Switching
The thing is, we really can’t always hide being autistic. That’s called masking. We can’t always be flexible enough to be Black enough in Black spaces, Indigenous enough in Native spaces, or neurotypical enough in any space.
Being mixed race means having to code switch in even more cultural contexts, but being Autistic means not being the “norm” in any other space.
It’s a lot.
No matter how much we keep our bodies still, our mouths quiet, and our presentation “normal,” people can tell we are different. They either think we are “not right in the head” or “suspicious” or “defiant.”
Anything but just a human who does things a little differently.
Our teachers can see any of our behaviors— even our justified emotions— as defiant or threatening.
Because Black and Autistic do not usually go together in any normalized way in society. Indigenous and Autistic do not usually go together in any normalized ways. Better representation would help.
I guess my point is that something I wish I saw growing up was more Autistic people in media; in particular, more autistic Black or Indigenous Autistic people in media.
Fiction is The Safest Place to Normalize Black and Indigenous Autistics
It is hard not seeing people who are like us on TV. It can make you feel lonely. It reminds you that you’re not really seen in the world, that you’re not even a valued enough member in the social hierarchy to be used as a prop or a product or a token.
There is not even bad representation of Black or Indigenous Autistic people. There’s none.
White autistics can complain about bad representation, but we don’t even have that. How can we ask for improvements on something that doesn’t exist? How do we build on the absence of a thing?
The thing is, the only safe way to normalize being us is authentic representation. People could learn to understand Autistic behavior, struggles, and communication if they saw us living full, well-rounded, fleshed out lives on television– where the characters and actors are safe from real life racism and ableism.
I want to tell you a few things that I think might be helpful, things that I wish someone had told me when I was your age.
1. Black and Indigenous advocates are representing ourselves.
We don’t show up much on television or mainstream media, but we have our fingerprints out there in the world, making content like this very letter to help inform others that we exist and what our lives are like.
Jules Edwards is a Native mother who runs Autistic, Typing on Facebook. Her page is amazing, and she keeps a list of BIPOC autistic creators (below) you can check out to find others who look like you and maybe share experiences with.
You can also check out more content from Black and Indigenous autistics on this site. Community is not always available for us, but at NeuroClastic, I feel like I have an intersectional platform to express myself. My work here has helped me to make contact with many other autistic people, and I’ve been asked to participate in contributing in making a difference by journalists and businesses who read my articles.
My last article about going to the doctor while Autistic got the attention of people who wanted me to help train and inform a large medical system to be better prepared to support Autistic clients. This is the benefit of community.
2. You have better days ahead.
Middle and high school might be the best years of many people’s lives, but they’re often the worst for us. We can do more to accommodate ourselves once we’re adults and out of school. We can do more to space out overstimulating schedules and environments, have more control over our work or college schedules, and (to an extent) stay away from people and places that are toxic or not inclusive.
3. The better you understand autistic neurology, the more you’ll know yourself.
You have no idea what all are autistic traits and how much you actually have in common with other Autistic people until you hang out in Autistic spaces.
You can learn so much about what it really means to be Autistic, and you can do that by interacting with other Autistic people online.
You’ve really never been allowed to be yourself– which means you probably don’t even know who it is you can’t be. In the Autistic community, you can learn all the things you never knew you didn’t know about being Autistic.
The stuff you learned about Autism is probably all wrong. You may be ashamed of being Autistic now. Society paints autism as a problem, like we are just broken neurotypicals. But you can access community and really learn about yourself when you interact with others who are similar to you.
4. You are never too young to speak out.
You are never too old or too young to challenge a system that opposes us as Black or Indigenous human beings and Autistics.
I center my advocacy on fighting for the future of Kids like you because I know what potential you have and what you could accomplish and how much easier your life would be if people– even the “nice,” well-meaning people– stopped speaking for us and started listening to us.
But do it in ways that are safe for your physical and mental health, because you can’t save the world and destroy yourself as the same time, see.
5. Your ancestors are representation.
You may look to your ancestors as sources of wisdom and guidance. Among them were Black or Indigenous Autistic people who were leaders and mutineers and revolutionaries.
Because we Autistics don’t just “go with the flow,” and because we love Justice so much, and because we think differently– we make up some of the most courageous and powerful change-makers and inventors and philosophers.
Don’t let anyone make you feel less– less attractive, less smart, less worthy– because you’re Black or Native. Don’t let anyone make you feel less-than because you’re Autistic, either.
6. Recognize your power and build the community you deserve.
You may not realize it, but you are so powerful. You have power you’ve not tapped yet.
But you will.
People will hurt you and ignore you and misunderstand you– but others will make space for you. You don’t even need to wait until you’re an adult to start standing in your power.
If you get rejected, that’s not a reflection on you. If you are bullied for your skin color or your Autistic neurology, that’s not a reflection on you. It is a reflection of a diseased society that needs to heal.
You are not diseased or disordered. You are different. Sometimes being different is really hard, but deep down, you need to know there’s nothing all that wonderful about being “normal.”
Once you start delving into community, try to avoid toxic online drama like in the comment sections of social media posts. If you are reacting to injustices or arguing with people who have no dedication to doing better, you’re not standing in your power. You won’t be spending your time in a way that values your potential.
Your time is valuable.
Write letters to places that could change to be more inclusive and equitable for your Black identity. Your Indigenous identity. Your Queer identity (if you are Queer). Your Autistic identity.
Write to the library and ask them if you can help curate a section of books written by Autistic authors. Write to your school principal about making the locker rooms more accessible. Write to television studios about better representation. Write letters to your local paper asking them to publish autistic authors— like you!
Write to your religious leaders or community leaders and ask them to learn about autistic lives and to teach the importance of acceptance. Be a mentor to a younger Black or Brown autistic kid who could use your wisdom and kindness.
You can use your voice anonymously or as yourself. Operate in ways that are safe for you. Operate in ways that are community-minded because white supremacy devalues community. Community is how we will decolonize our future.
7. Connect with your culture— autistically.
If you live in a place where your Black or Native culture is the minority, you may never get opportunities to connect to your cultural roots. If you live in a place that is hostile towards disability, you may never connect with your autistic cultural needs.
Because of white supremacy, you may have no or limited knowledge of your cultural roots. You may have no connection to your Tribe or country of origin. But you can still learn about Indigenous and African traditions and cultural practices.
Use your Autistic passion and love of learning to reconnect with the cultural traditions that comfort you and feel natural to you, especially if you have interests in history or music or art.
Learn about the stories and folklore passed down in oral traditions because in those stories and folklore, you will find people that are a little different but unique and powerful in their own way— just like we are as Autistic people of color.
Listen to music from your culture and see how it makes you feel as an Autistic person. You will often find that it’s a kind of familiar sensory stim that brings you a feeling of being Home.
When I listen to the Lakota lullaby, it brings me a sense of peace, because even though I am Taino and Blackfoot, there is a similarity across dialects because these tribes used trade together.
If you don’t have access to your Elders, you can use YouTube as a resource and type in music whether it’s tribal music from Nigeria or Ethiopia or from various islands and places in South America or from North American tribes. These may hold the stories and traditions you came from.
Representation Begins Now
One of the best aspects about plugging into a community where you have a rightful place is that you’re no longer alone. You only feel alone now because you’ve been pushed and held in the margins as a Black or Native person. You may be in the margins of those individual communities because you are Autistic.
The world will be a better place when it makes space for you to be yourself, and that won’t be safe until we have stronger communities. Our people have a lot of trauma, and we are forced to be more responsible than anyone ever notices or sees.
Look for healing community spaces— online or in your local world— dedicated to restorative Justice and community strengthening. Observe first because your powers of observation are probably on point. That’s an Autistic thing.
What do those spaces do to people who challenge the status quo? Are people shunned or heard and respected? Are their thoughts respected and considered or dismissed and ridiculed?
If it’s a community with mixed heritage, are Black and Indigenous people tokenized or is there a commitment to anti-racism and decolonization? If it’s a community of mixed neurotypes, are Autistic people tokenized or is there a commitment to anti-ableism and inclusion?
Having a community is what keeps the culture alive which helps us form our identity in a world where the odds of erasure are stacked against us.
Found family in the Indigenous communities is not that different from found family in the Autistic context of finding those who acknowledge and accept you. It is a way in which those who find it hard to fit in are able to come together and learn about and respect each other without demanding that you mask your Autistic self or hide your culture.
If you found this letter, and you made it this far, then you are at the beginning of connecting to more representation. You now know you’re not the only Black or Native autistic person out there.
And if you follow NeuroClastic, lots of other Autistic People of Color will be writing to you, sharing the wisdom they have as Autistic Elders in their letters.
You are worthy of love, respect, companionship, and autonomy. You are not finished telling your story or writing your identity, but you can pull all those pieces of you scattered by a racist and ableist society and make a symphony from it.
You’re your own maestro.
- A Letter to Black and Indigenous Autistic Teens - January 4, 2022
- Autism and Going to the Doctor: How it feels from the inside - December 7, 2021
- For the Survivors: Autistic people and our #MeToo memories - November 4, 2021