“How are an individual’s race and Autism related to one another?” This was the naïve, privileged question that I had initially asked myself when I read the opening title to Morénike Giwa Onaiwu’s Preface: Autistics of Color: We Exist… We Matter and E. Ashkenazy’s Forward: On Autism and Race. However, upon reading these two theoretical pieces, I, and other fellow readers are given two firsthand accounts of individuals living a life of being both colored and autistic, allowing us to momentarily be placed in their shoes. Through Onaiwu and Ashkenazy’s theoretical texts, it becomes clear to readers that there not only exists a relationship between one’s race and Autism, but that Individuals who fall in the category of both colored as well as autistic, are forced to struggle in society and life significantly more than individuals who do not identify as colored or autistic due to concepts such as microaggressions and the way in which their communities react to said individuals.
To fully understand the way in which autism and an individual’s race are linked, we must understand the ways in which exclusively, a person’s race affects their everyday lives in society. We are given examples of this firsthand in Onaiwu’s Preface: Autistics of color: We Exist… We Matter when she states that growing up, before she was even diagnosed with autism, the color of her skin and the way society reacted to her made her “alone”, “strange”, “weird”, and like she “never fit in” (Onaiwu 12). Onaiwu provides readers another example when she mentions that growing up, her teachers were unable to properly pronounce her last name “which was two syllables and four letters long” (Onaiwu 13), but were able to pronounce her classmate’s western, caucasian names such as Kowalczyk or Schwarzkopf. Both Onaiwu and Ashkenazy also mention the concept of microaggressions, which are described as “Brief and common place daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slides and insults toward people of color” (Ashkenazy 27), and the way in which said microaggressions make them feel like the “other” in our society. For example, Ashkenazy mentions how often she is being told things like “yeah with that dark thick wild curly hair, I definitely knew you were black” (Ashkenazy 28) and “It’s really cool to have a black friend! My world is just too white” (Ashkenazy 29). What is perhaps most telling about these claims, is that Ashkenazy mentions that they come from close friends, and are out of ignorant innocence (Ashkenazy 30) rather than ill intent, as it shows that racism and racist remarks can often stem from a person’s lack of knowledge on the subject and even if they don’t intend to, can create difficult and uncomfortable situations for these individuals. Through examples such as these, both Onaiwu and Ashkenazy are able to paint a clear, vivid picture of how the color of their skin as well as their other physical attributes affect their everyday lives.
We must now shift our focus on to how Autism can exclusively affect an individual’s life and their status in society. Autism is typically defined as a developmental disorder that can oftentimes diminish an individual’s ability to interact with others and communicate. Onaiwu gives us a firsthand example of how autism affected her life when she mentions that the way she “spoke, interacted, moved, and processed things was so very different” (Onaiwu 14) than any of her fellow classmates. The author also briefly touches on the divide created by society that exists between able bodied individuals and those diagnosed with Autism, as she mentions that growing up, there was no place she “belonged”, no place where she could “find someone who understood” (Onaiwu 15) her. An individual with Autism may be forced to maintain a repetitive schedule due to them typically wanting to stick to familiar things. On top of these, Ashkenazy also notes that an individual diagnosed with autism may be “struggling with cultural expectations on top of general expectations from parents, significant others, family, and/or friends” (Ashkenazy 34). Ashkenazy also mentions that an individual diagnosed with Autism may not only be “struggling with culturally based power dynamics and/or hierarchal structures both formal and informal” (Ashkenazy 34), but they might also be struggling at home in the fact that they may be having “feelings of being an embarrassment to both family and community members” (Ashkenazy 34). Through examples such as these that have been presented to us as readers, it becomes clear that while Autism itself may present a wide range of challenges for an individual that is diagnosed with it, society amplifies those challenges, and presents individuals diagnosed with autism with completely new obstacles as well.
By understanding the ways in which an individual’s race and being diagnosed with Autism can both exclusively affect an individual and their lives, we can now properly understand the way in which “we bring race into the great conversation about autism” (Ashkenazy 34). For individuals who are not only a person of color, but are also diagnosed with Autism, the pressure of not only society but of their community can present an innumerable amount of difficulties and challenges for the individual. Onaiwu mentions that “those of us who exist at the intersection of disability and race, aren’t treated as if we are real” (Onaiwu 12). This stems from the previously mentioned divide between abled bodied individuals and autistic people of color, as Caucasian, abled individuals typically only acknowledge autistic people of color when “others need to use” them to “make a point” (Onaiwu 12). The only sense of acknowledgment they get from other individuals is when they are forced to feel like “unwilling tokens for someone else’s cause” (Onaiwu 12). Perhaps Onaiwu’s most touching moment in the text is on page fourteen when it is mentioned that she was not only a person of color, but she was also a hyperlexic, twice exceptional autistic. In this realization, she mentions that she is a “minority within a minority” (Onaiwu 14). This short quote briefly describes in three words the challenges that Onaiwu and other individuals like her are forced to face simply for the color of their skin and for having Autism. We as readers are also given a second chance. to be placed in the shoes of a colored, autistic individual in Ashkenazy’s piece, as they mention that “people often assume things about” them or labeled them “based on either innocent or intentional biases and prejudices” (Ashkenazy 26). Ashkenazy specifically mentions a connection between race and Autism on page thirty two when it’s mentioned that “we bring race into the great conversation about autism because artistic people of color are often times having a vastly different life experience in comparison to their white peers” (Ashkenazy 32). Ashkenazy immediately follows this up by providing multiple examples in which a colored, autistic person is faced with insufferable challenges such as “feeling out of place not only within the world or society in general, but within their own ethnic group as well” (Ashkenazy 34).
Onaiwu and Ashkenazy’s theoretical pieces allow for individuals such as myself, who may not have acknowledged a relation between Autism and one’s race, to finally understand the link between them. By providing specific examples of ways in which a person’s race can exclusively affect their everyday life as well as ways in which Autism can exclusively change someone’s social life, we are able to better understand not only that a link exists between the two, but that they actually play into each other more than most people realize. By allowing readers into this aspect of their lives, Onaiwu and Ashkenazy give readers the chance to experience and understand what it is like being a part of two minority groups. Through this, Onaiwu gives us the answer to our long sought question of what race has to do with Autism. “Everything” (Onaiwu 22) Onaiwu says. It has everything to do with Autism, and we as readers, whether we are part of this double minority group or not, can finally understand that.
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