“Hello, I’m sitting here…”

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.

four women chatting while sitting on bench
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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.

Seeing Trends

two boys in front of glass window
Photo by Dazzle Jam on Pexels.com

Most of my 10+ years of work have been in the autism and special needs communities as a therapist or developmental specialist. While the clients themselves (kids or teens) are the main focus, I have also been taking mental notes on trends I see amongst the parents and families. The notes have been interesting and at times, concerning.

First, there are a few common ones I have seen across all of the families, regardless of race, location, or socioeconomic status:

  • If it’s a two parent household, the mother often feels like she is carrying the weight of the autism journey. Granted, this seems to be the feeling in a lot of two parent households in the non-autism community as well, but I hear it more often overall with this population.
  • The parents feel as if they have to fight for every service, meeting, and opportunity that they can get.
  • A lot of parents/guardians feel lonely.
  • If the entire family becomes invested in helping their autistic family member succeed, the client usually does (and often goes beyond what any of us professionals may have thought they could do). These cases taught me early on to never underestimate my clients.

Since my change of scenery from California to Florida, I have now started noticing trends that I knew little to nothing about before, but always suspected. In Cali, my population was mostly white with some Mexican families included here and there. Here, the clientele is mostly African-American with some Latino families included here and there (mind you, my therapeutic population is not autism-based here, but mental health based instead). Some of the things I’ve noticed:

  • The children in the black community in general are getting diagnosed much later than their white counterparts. We’re talking *years* later. Early intervention has been proven time and time again to be critical to helping autistic individuals with navigating this really insane, overstimulating world of ours. The later the diagnosis, the more intense and prolonged treatment may have to be.
  • Professionals aren’t listening to the minority parents/guardians. Many parents have told me that they “had a feeling” that something was different about their child, only to have their primary care doctors brush it off and say, “They’ll grow out of it.” This has directly led to the first bullet point above this one: delayed diagnosis.
  • Minority parents/guardians often feel alienated in their own communities. They don’t feel that they have anyone they can talk to, and that few others know their experience enough to even provide support. This diagnosis is still considered foreign in many of these communities.
  • Incorrect myths and assumptions about autism are still quite common. This also leads to delayed diagnosis.

Below are some links to different articles and studies about this disparity in the autism community as a whole. Our services here at SPARC Guidance aim to improve the situations in the minority communities in particular.

Race, class contribute to disparities in autism diagnosis: This site overall is a great one for autism-related news. There are links at the bottom of the article to the studies that were used in the article (these also inspired my post).

Under-Representation of African Americans in Autism Genetic Research: Yes, this is from a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure very little has changed. If populations are not included in the research, then programs for those populations will not even be considered or thought of.

African-American and Latino Children Often Diagnosed With Autism (ASD) Later Than Their White Peers: There is one quote in particular from this article that I wish to highlight, because it speaks to another trend I have noticed since working here in Florida: “In 2007, a study by a team at the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology, University of Pennsylvania, found that African-American children were 5.1 times more likely to be misdiagnosed with conduct disorders before being diagnosed with ASD.” (Rentz, 2018).  Also, kudos to NPR for recognizing and correcting their article regarding how they classified autism (see their correction box at the bottom of the article).

If you wanted to know why I’m leaving the therapy field to focus more on autism education and empowerment in my community, now you know. 🙂

 

Race and Autism Diagnosis: Study

We need to talk about this.

Being African-American and working in the autism field, I have certainly noticed that there are very few of my race that I have treated and worked with in my decade in the field. In fact, I can count the number of black clients that I’ve had on one hand. It begs the question of why. This study I read about today starts to shed light on this question.

In the article about the study (both are linked below), “white parents were 2.61 times more likely to report a social concern and 4.12 times more likely to report a concern about restricted and repetitive behaviors” than black parents. They didn’t go too deeply into why, but from experience I can think of a few reasons.

First, there is an idea floating through my community that autism is a “white people” condition. The low diagnosis rate in the black community (which has its own reasons below) is cited as the reason for this belief. This is part of a much larger problem with the community: lack of trust in the medical field, and a belief in long disproven theories about autism. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve had to disprove the autism/vaccine connection theory with my own people.

Second, the black and brown communities are simply not getting educated about autism (probably partly due to the reason above). Because of this, they are often unaware of the more obvious symptoms that were mentioned in the article and the study. In many cases, the symptoms are dismissed as the child misbehaving or just being “not quite right” (I’ve heard this one more than I care to admit). This sets up for a later diagnosis, which leads to delayed treatment, which leads to a more difficult time overall.

I hope to be one who expands the awareness and acceptance of autism into my own community; it could help enhance the lives of a still unknown number of autistic individuals that stand in the midst of the African-American community.

 

Race and Autism Diagnosis study

Article on study by MedicalXress

Article: “None of you are going to college.”

No, not exactly an autism piece, but this does give a hard look at the reality of being black and in special education here in the United States. This has to change, not just on the end of the institutions, but also on the end of the African-American community and its understanding/acceptance of neurodiversity. For both ends, education is critical.

His Teacher Told Him He Wouldn’t Go To College