Confronting my own internalized ableism let me see autism as a disability, but not something that made me powerless.


By Latonya Pennington

I first learned about autistic people through the teen fiction book Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde. Focusing on a group of friends at a pop culture convention, the book is seen through the eyes of an autistic, fat, straight white girl named Taylor, and a Chinese Australian bisexual girl named Charlie. Although I did relate to Taylor’s social anxiety, it never occurred to me that I might be autistic like her. The whiteness of her character (and of the author, who is also autistic) caused me to subconsciously associate being autistic with white people, even though I knew that Black disabled people existed as well. 

In fact, internalized racism and associating autism with whiteness would have prevented me from learning more about autism if I didn’t talk with my older sister about what I was going through. In the past, I had told her that I felt like something was wrong with me because I had a hard time socializing and learning certain things like driving and tying my shoes. Last year, she told me that she had spoken to an online friend about me and the friend suggested to her that I might be autistic. The month before my 28th birthday, I decided to take online tests to see.

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All of the results from the three self-assessment tests I took said that I was on the autism spectrum. One allowed me to have a personal copy of the results in case I decided to get professionally diagnosed. As I considered the way I answered questions about my inability to multi-task and the instances of taking sarcasm and jokes literally, I felt like I found a part of me that I was missing.

But this feeling of being found disappeared when I realized how alone I felt as a Black autistic queer person. So I went out to find online communities of other autistic people who were more like me.

Although search results for Black autistic adults were sparse, I did find a person named Mallory through a mutual friend on Twitter. Her blog posts on going from being self-diagnosed to officially diagnosed were a little harrowing to read because they showed me how ableism, racism, and capitalism work together to make it practically impossible for people of color to be professionally diagnosed as autistic, but Mallory made me feel a little less alone.

Despite Mallory’s presence, I was still feeling ashamed of being Black and autistic. I was already Black, non-binary, and queer, not to mention hard of hearing and dealing with depression and anxiety. Being autistic on top of all of that made me feel like it was impossible for me to feel normal and be liked.

It didn’t help that while researching resources I came across critical and negative articles and news about autistic people, fictional and real. Once while looking up Black autistic Youtubers, I saw results about Black youth being attacked or killed by Black parents and white racists.

Seeing this negativity triggered some painful memories of being called retarded in middle and high school by Black kids due to a habit of dragging my feet when I walked. As a result, I ended up internalizing ableism that I tried to ignore, especially since I wasn’t “officially” considered disabled and didn’t have visible disabilities.

But after my 28th birthday, I decided that I was fed up with being made to feel insecure about being multiply marginalized and not fitting in. Since my 16th birthday, I always felt my birthday wasn’t worth celebrating because I wasn’t worth celebrating. But now I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, and if I didn’t learn to embrace who I was, then my life might never have meaning.

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That’s when I bought the book All the Weight of Our Dreams, an anthology I came across while researching autistic people of color. Edited by Lydia X. Z. Brown and made in partnership with the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, the anthology is a book of art, poetry and essays made entirely by autistic people of color. Although it wasn’t light reading, I felt increasingly validated the more pages I read.

All the Weight of Our Dreams helped me start confronting my own internalized ableism by letting me see autism as a disability, but not something that made me powerless. All over the book were things I had experienced without knowing that they were caused by autism.

One painful essay by Kassiane A. Asasumasu discussed the writer being emotionally abused by his mother and experiencing meltdowns, an extreme psychological reaction to a stressful environment. As an emotional abuse survivor, I’ve had many meltdowns in response to being scared or frustrated. Even though they were brushed off by my family as “being childish,” I was able to understand them better now have more compassion for myself.

An essay by Morénike Giwa Onaiwu sums up my current mindstate: “I was the same person before and after the discovery… except I wasn’t. I was no longer unaware about who I was. All of me. My full, true, perfectly imperfect autistic self.” I am Black and autistic, disabled but not weak. Being a Black autistic adult is a continuous process of learning, unlearning, and getting comfortable with myself, but that is okay.

Latonya Pennington is a freelance pop culture critic and poet. Their criticism can be found online at Syfy Wire, Brain Mills Press, and Black Sci-fi.  Their poetry has been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, EFNIKS magazine, and Argot magazine among others.