I had a very surreal experience months ago that made me realize that any of us who do not fit the mold of “typical American” can expect to be ignored at some point, even when we are physically right there. This is also the reality of many on the autism spectrum.
I won’t go into massive detail about the situation, because it involved people that I care about that I think simply did not realize how tone deaf the conversation was sounding to me. I also didn’t bother to correct them because it would have quickly dampened a light and fluffy mood.
In hindsight, I should have said more.
The topic started on Black Panther, and then took a turn to different aspects of African-American culture (specifically with regards to us black women) that may have inspired other subcultures. I then watched and listened as two definitely not black people debated on who knew more about black culture in order to prove their side of the argument. I heard everything from “I lived in so-and-so, so I know more about it” to “I have a lot more black friends, so I know more about it.” Meanwhile, I sat and sipped my drink in silence, looking at both of them with what I can only describe as disappointed amusement.
Finally, a third person hinted that maybe they should ask the one black person at the table. By then, I didn’t care to prove a point at all. The bartender came up, and that thankfully more or less ended the discussion.
So here’s the tricky part about this whole experience. I don’t want to necessarily be seen as the spokesperson for an entire race, but by being the only member of that race in the group, it was almost unavoidable. Therefore, I was taken aback when two of them started a “who knows black folks better” match in front of me. No matter what the initial subject, it would still come across as ridiculous in my eyes. I stayed silent because there was no way that I was going to purposefully support either point.
This later made me think about my spectrum clients, who were mostly kids. I have seen many people talk over them and discuss them (usually in a negative tone) without so much as a sideways glance their way. Interestingly enough, I have also heard many parents and teachers tell me that they know that the client understands what they are hearing, they are just not responding (at least, not verbally). It’s one of the reasons why I try very hard not to discuss them when they are sitting right there, at least not in a negative sense. If they are there, I praise their efforts or perhaps playfully acknowledge their moments of impish behavior (that often gets a knowing smirk from them). I also try to include them as much as possible in the conversation, because that is just basic manners, I think.
No, being black in America and being autistic in America are not the same thing. There is a lesson in my strange experience at the bar that can apply to practitioners in the autism field, though: if you’re talking about the person’s experience in their presence, you should at least acknowledge or include the person in the conversation.