The Autism Shift: the visibly invisible – autistic people of color

AngelaWeddlephoto

I got it. You had to be tough to be black. There was no crying, no picky eating, none of this I can’t look you in the eye. Humor was a way of toughening yourself up, because the world was going to be tough for us, so if you don’t have a sense of humor now, you had better develop one.

By Angela Weddle

After reading Jackie Pilgrim’s story on The Art of Autism, I was both heartened and saddened by the invisibility of people of color on the spectrum. I am biracial, raised by my black mother in the black community.

How can autism, something seemingly so visible, be invisible?

I’ll tell you. Autism is written off not just as a condition affecting white people, but as a behavioral problem, a set of character flaws, stubbornness, and eccentricity bordering on mental illness.

Although, I didn’t receive my diagnosis until I was 29, everyone knew I was “different” growing up. While my peers were getting into hip hop and the emerging genre of rap, I was delving into jazz; my mother educating me with the likes of Al Jarreau and Miles Davis. Instead of being content to just watch Sesame Street, which I did, I was also probably, the only four year old watching Charlie Rose. I still remember the show was about International Relations.

I didn’t know how to talk to my peers, so I didn’t talk to them. Or when I did, I talked in monologue about subjects that made no sense to them.

I was extremely blunt, calling stupid kids stupid, nosy neighbors nosy, weddings boring and even telling a beaming bride the divorce rate was over fifty percent. My mother blushed at my rudeness.  I wasn’t perceived as “cute” after that comment.  What could she say? She had taught me honesty was the best policy. And the ten commandments said lying was a sin. Several years later, at age 12, when I told the waitress she was a liar for trying to get the “senior” discount one year earlier than the restaurant policy said, she tried to broach the subject of discretion.

I was severely bullied by my peers, and bullied by some teachers, too. When I worked up the courage to tell my 6th grade English teacher I was being bullied, she assured me she would talk to the class after school and she wanted me to attend.

“Alright, everyone, tell Angela how much of a freak she is,” she told the class.  Her words still ring like bells in my head.  I came home and told my mother school was fine. Because I knew the problem was acceptance within my own culture. And no amount of changing schools and talking to principals was going to change an entire culture.

So, there I was, a freak, in my mind, for decades. I grew up Catholic, which was somewhat of a relief. But my mom had to take me out of the Baptist church we were invited to because the drums and the sound system was too loud for my sensitive hearing.

I stimmed constantly. When unable to draw, I rocked back in forth in my seat. I paced constantly at home. I walked with my head down. I was clumsy and uncoordinated. I couldn’t understand maps or directions or sarcasm.

Humor is a big part of black culture. I gradually learned the art of ribbing. Of taking someone down with just a sentence. I remember my first success, when a girl had just insulted me, and I told her that her teeth looked like the Golden Arches. Everyone in class gave deafening oohs and copious amounts of laughter.

I got it. You had to be tough to be black. There was no crying, no picky eating, none of this I can’t look you in the eye. Humor was a way of toughening yourself up, because the world was going to be tough for us, so if you don’t have a sense of humor now, you had better develop one.

To adults I was a curiosity. I looked forward to my mom’s friends coming over so that I could have real conversations; discussing politics, science, music, and showing them my art. I was also a source of confusion.My mom let me ask questions and even engage in the kind of debate that is rarely encouraged in children.  People told my mother, that if they were her, they wouldn’t accept that kind of back talk.

Although my autism was highly visible, it was invisible. My mother often said that she didn’t know what to do with me. Even the teachers who cared didn’t know how to help me. And making friends was a process that was painfully slow. Even then when I made friends, they were with others who didn’t fit in.

Today, as an adult, I still feel anxious in majority black spaces. I have a longing to connect with my culture, but I am taken hold of by flashbacks to my youth. I spent some time going to a Baptist church, only to still find it too loud, too long. Still stimming, I was the only one not regularly saying Amen. I believe in God, but struggle with the concept of God. God is such an abstract entity to me, a person who loves the concrete, the logical, the realistic. I even spent a period as an atheist, something that just doesn’t translate into black culture. I have told people  I have autism.  Too many times the reactions are either disbelief or fear.

“There is nothing wrong with you that God can’t fix,” is often the reaction.  Or “I know a little something about that, but you can look me in the eye, unlike my cousin’s child.”  Or worse there is fear.  I feel as if other black people are saying we have failed her, she is not one of us. She is how old and acting like that? Poor girl.

When I meet other black people on the spectrum, it is an acknowledgment that we do exist, and our struggles are compounded not only in the dominant culture, but perhaps, more so within our own.

***

Angela Weddle is a professional visual artist, who also does autism advocacy and speaking, with her local autism group San Antonio Area Adults with Asperger’s Syndrome. She speaks to educators, companies, parents, and anyone else who will listen about autistic needs and acceptance from the perspective of a person on the spectrum.

Angela’s article is part of  a new site on the Art of Autism under the Autism Shift – on shifting perceptions about autism.

Angela Weddle "The City -Three Views"

Angela Weddle “The City -Three Views”

 

Angela Weddle "Davis Mountain at Dusk"

Angela Weddle “Davis Mountain at Dusk”

 

AngelaWeddlePsychedelicSpaceTime

4 Comments

  • Chris Sterry says:

    Shared on 61chrissterry

  • My son and I are creative and autistic; my next door neighbors are creative, black and autistic (father and son). The son has had it SO much easier than his dad, who grew up black, undiagnosed, in an alcoholic family. It’s a wonder he is alive.
    Thanks for this honest post!

  • Jackie Pilgrim says:

    Hi Angela,

    I’m not sure where to start. I guess I should tell you that I am in complete awe that a post of mine inspired such a beautifully written piece. Reading your words about your experience with your mom’s friends and school reminds me so much of my childhood. And much like you, it was completely unheard of for a child so young to skillfully engage in adult conversations. I too was 4 years old when I first revealed my love for mature conversation.

    Perhaps we will someday connect again as we continue lift the veil, exposing the visibly invisible.

    Thank you for reading my post and thank you even more for sharing your story.

  • Sabrina says:

    I think your art is amazing. Thank you for sharing your story.

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