For Black women and girls who aren’t “autistic enough”
Autism was something that happened to rich white boys, not people like me.
by Jo (Foderingham) Brown
I remember sitting in the cafeteria in kindergarten when something made me feel anxious. When I was around this age, if I felt that way, I would physically ground myself: I’d clench my fists really hard or get up and move around. This particular day while my empty lunch box was on the table in front of me, I began to gently hit myself on the forehead with it. One of the after school teachers seemed confused as to why I was doing this, so she came over and told me to stop.
I stopped grounding myself in ways that made me feel better. Over time, I learned that certain things I did, such as pacing, repeating things said by others, and moving my hands or arms were perceived as weird or deviant by society. I took on more normalized repetitive behaviors, such as picking at my nails, jiggling my feet, and scrolling through my phone.
In freshman year of college, I learned that these are all examples of stimming — self-stimulating behaviors undertaken by many neurodivergent (especially autistic) people in order to regulate their feelings. There are many types of stimming, including kinetic (movement-based) and echolalia (where someone constantly repeats a word or phrase). I also learned that many things I’ve had trouble with throughout my life — making eye contact, understanding euphemisms and nonverbal cues, and even numerical estimation — are common autistic traits.
In tenth grade, I was diagnosed with depression, an anxiety disorder, and ADHD. Many things I did as a child — like getting incredibly nervous when I had to speak on the phone or losing a jacket every two weeks — started to make sense. Learning that I was mentally ill and that I could treat it and learn how to cope with it was life-changing. I didn’t just have to suffer through trying to force myself to live up to standards and norms set by a neurotypical world — I could make my life work for my access needs.
However, these diagnoses didn’t answer everything. I’ve spent years thinking I was just pretty weird and more than a bit awkward. Over the last year or so, though, I’ve realized that I’m more than that. Since my freshman year of college when I learned about stimming and other autistic traits, I had been wondering if I was autistic, too. When I’d bring it up, whether to therapists, psychiatrists, friends, or trusted mentors, they’d dismiss me outright. To them, there was no way I was autistic; I didn’t display well-known behaviors associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD], like hand-flapping or obsessive interests.
It’s been proven that mental illnesses manifest differently in Black women. Due to gender and race socialization, ASD shows up much differently in Black people and women, girls, and AFAB [assigned female at birth] folks. Autism is popularly understood to be super-smart boys and men who don’t know when to shut up about their special interests and don’t like spending time with others. However, women, girls, and AFAB folks are socialized into being seen and not heard, so autistic people who are female and/or AFAB are often very shy. Girls are also expected to be “nice” and “caring,” so we are trained into catering to others and out of our desire to spend time alone.
Many women, girls, and AFAB folks — particularly when they are Black — do not receive ASD diagnoses as kids, if ever, because we are not your typical poster children of autism. While the decision to pursue a diagnosis is deeply personal and depends on individual situations and resources, the lack of official diagnoses means that we cannot receive academic or professional accommodations in accordance with our access needs.
If I’d had a mental health evaluation as a child, I have no doubt that I would’ve been diagnosed with ASD. However, I was a Black girl who went to underfunded public schools without mental health counselors. I was raised by my immigrant single mother who — due to no fault of her own — simply didn’t have the time or requisite knowledge to realize that I was more than just another slightly weird kid. Autism was something that happened to rich white boys, not people like me.
I know that I will probably never receive an ASD diagnosis. Doctors will never perceive me as autistic because I’ve spent too long masking my autism; every little interaction like the one with my after school teacher taught me that the things that felt natural and good to me, like stimming, were weird and unwelcome. I’ve had to force myself to learn how to make eye contact and I constantly monitor for underlying meaning or nonverbal cues in conversations. Because I am empathetic and appear not to be hopelessly awkward, I’m apparently not “autistic enough.”
Now that it’s Autism Acceptance (not “awareness”) Month as well as Black Women’s History Month, this feels like a good time to remind everyone that girls, Black people, and yes, even Black girls can be autistic, too. Just because it looks different for us does not mean we aren’t autistic. There is no such thing as being “more” or “less” autistic than another person. We can speak, communicate, and advocate for ourselves. We are not “robots” and we are not “puzzles” to be solved. ASD and autistic people are incredibly diverse, not only in terms of our identities, but in how we experience and manifest our autism. We are whole — no missing pieces.
Jo (Foderingham) Brown (she/her/he/him) is a Black, queer, gender non-conforming woman from Georgia, currently living in DC. Common subjects of her work are misogynoir, Blackness, body politics, popular culture, and her Jamaican heritage. You can keep up with him on Instagram (@tallawahgram) or at tallawahthoughts.co.