The Souls of Black Autistic Folk: A Prelude to the Journey

Last Friday was the beginning of Black History Month. Amidst what we will be hearing about it in February 2013 — which tends to be everything ranging from the celebration of African-American historical individuals and events to the usual question of why the shorter year of the month was chosen for this celebration — I will certainly be adding my own voice to the chorus of writers and bloggers.

In my case, I am fascinated with Paul Robeson — one individual where autism and Black history intersect. I first studied African-American history in high school through a (what was considered groundbreaking) semester-long class and found myself introduced to history I had never encountered before. It is where I was introduced to the Harlem Renaissance. It was where I began to explore poetry and where my love of the craft began to take wings through learning about Langston Hughes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Maya Angelou. And I recall a brief mention of Paul Robeson — giant of stage and song and inspiration to the likes of Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. Robeson, best known for his portrayal in the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello, is proposed to have been an Aspie by author Norm Ledgin in his book Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and and Hope Through Famous Role Models. Ledgin compares some of Robeson’s behavior with the diagnostic criteria in the soon-to-be-superseded DSM-IV and concludes that Robeson fits the criteria for an Asperger diagnosis.

This month, I’m going to explore Robeson — who he was an an artist and a person, and through the lens of Asperger’s. Robeson was born in 1898 and died shortly before I was born (January 1976). I wonder — and would like to explore — about the reality he encountered as an African-American autistic in the early part of the twentieth century, and how that reality compares to the reality I encounter today as a multiracial African-American autistic.

And of course, this exploration will lead me to related questions. I know I am not the only African-American autistic out there. In my journeys over the last three years I have encountered some wonderful individuals, including record producer and autism advocate Michael Buckholtz. Logic dictates that he, I, and the few other individuals I have met cannot possibly be the only African-American Aspies out there. The big question in this case is: where ARE we? Through a bit of exploration, I hopefully may find some general answers (while being careful to respect the privacy of those who cannot be “out”) this month.

I hope you’ll join me on this fascinating journey this month. Hold on tight. It might be one heckuva ride.

-Nicole

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6 thoughts on “The Souls of Black Autistic Folk: A Prelude to the Journey

  1. I think we’re here, but are unseen. I believe I have AS but was never dx, and prolly never will be. I am 26 just about to leave my parents home which is freaking me out. I would love to find out if my feelings are true, if I;m really an aspie. Ill prolly never know.

    • Rachel, I think you are probably right — we’re here but largely unseen. (BTW please accept my apologies for not responding sooner — I am WAY behind in responding to comments.) As far as finding out, I don’t know what your insurance situation is, or if you have access to medical and mental health services, but there are professionals out there that do diagnose adults. The trick is, of course, finding one.

      Depending on where you live, your state may have a department of aging and disability services, or they may have a board of developmental disabilities for your county. You might want to start there for assistance. If you attend a major university with a student health center or psychology/counseling services department, you could also try to contact them too. One of them should be able to direct you to a professional. In fact, your state has an autism research and resource center. I’d be happy to send you this info, if you don’t mind me contacting you backchannel.

      Best of wishes to you, Rachel. I hope all works out well for you.

      -Nicole

  2. Hi Nicole, just discovered you were black. I’m too and in Europe. A large part of the reason is that for many neurological differences and conditions, black people are underdiagnosed (except for the ‘violent’ conditions).
    I have ADHD and it was a battle to get diagnosed. Took a long time, even getting help for my depression was a battle. I’m very convinced I have Aspergers and I’m gearing up for the battle again. I have seen so many therapists and it has not really changed anything fundamental. I’ve been called recalcitrant and resistant which kind of hurt as I was doing all they said.
    But at heart, I know what I am and it explains so much.
    It’s been difficult to find how cultural differences may affect different Aspies not to say the combo of ADHD/Asperger. I grew up in West Africa and was not bullied as a child. It was accepted as who I was and my early reading/nerdism was encouraged and not seen as a bad sign but a very good one. I was considered to be very shy and was not expected to be very social. I had people come to me rather than me go out to them. Also my difficulty with eye gaze was not so pronounced as in the culture I grew up in, a lowered eye gaze was a sign of respect anyway. (I didn’t really realise that until much later). I know it’s different in the US. (lived there for a while). So I’m wondering if certain aspects of high functioning autism can be enhanced or toned down in different parts of the world.

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