Double Rainbow: Autism and Race

Earlier this month, Slate published a piece on Eugene Hoskins, a black man who lived in Mississippi in the early twentieth century who today would have been diagnosed with autism. Hoskins crossed paths with William Faulkner at some point in his life, and the author of the Slate article surmises that he may have been one of Faulkner’s inspirations for The Sound and the Fury.

The account of Eugene Hoskins raises questions about the relationship of autistic history to black history in America. The history of autism is necessarily woven into the histories of any and all populations affected by autism, yet what one would term “autistic history” is largely treated as monolithic. Overwhelmingly, race is neglected not only in tracing the history of autism, but in contemporary research and coverage. Recent studies have shown racial disparities in obtaining a diagnosis and in accessing treatments. Representations of autism in popular media—including real high-profile autists and fictional characters—are almost uniformly white. The only real-life exception I can think of is Stephen Wiltshire, and he is certainly less well-known—at least in the United States—than Temple Grandin or John Elder-Robison. A relatively recent documentary called Wretches and Jabberers seeks to draw attention to “low-functioning” self-advocacy, but nonetheless falls short in other aspects of diversity, since it features two middle-aged white men. (The film is still definitely worth watching.)

The only fictional autist of color who comes to mind, who features prominently in a film or other text, is Zen from the movie Chocolate—a Thai woman in a Thai film. 

The intersection of autism and race is a site of thorough erasure. Where does that leave the intersection of autism, race, and sexuality? Autism, race, and gender? 

I don’t know what else to say, and I think that’s telling. There’s so much left unsaid and unanswered for that one doesn’t know where to start. And I am not a person of color. While there is a place for white anti-racist allies, and part of the work of anti-racism is rendering whiteness visible as a construct, the voices of autists of color should be at the forefront of any dialogue about autism and race. 

So what do you think? Where do you see the spaces and potential for rendering the invisible visible? How would you like to see the intersection of race and autism addressed?


Related: Autism and Race
thAutcast: Neil LatsonArrested for Being Black and Autisticto Serve Two Years Rather Than Ten (click through for a link to a really troubling Washington Post article)
Racial Harassment Alleged During Arrest of Autistic Teen
Critical Race Theory, Feminism, and Disability: Reflections on Social Justice and Personal Identity 
Racialicious: Race as disability: an update on fertility clinic mixup case

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by Caroline Narby
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I write a little bit in the areas of embodiment and autism. I am very disappointed that Bitch Media has announced their intent to discriminate against people with disabilities in the hiring process for an executive editor. 

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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Maybe not an international

Maybe not an international name everywhere (yet?), but Birsen Basar is definitely an 'autism name' here by now:

She spoke at the NVA Autisme Congres in 2010, I was there with my mom, she was awesome. She's also been on our national TV.

(And there is supposed to be a squiggle beneath the s in the last name but I can't figure out how to make it)

What about the male lead in

What about the male lead in the movie about Muslim American equality, "My Name is Khan" ?

Oop--you're right. That one

Oop--you're right. That one slipped my mind.

Kevin Blake from the Scifi

Kevin Blake from the Scifi network's popular tv show Eureka was a main recurring character that was black and autistic

No doubt you are right and

No doubt you are right and this example doesn't negate that autism is generally seen as white by default in the US but I wanted to mention Abed in Community.

Although fans of the show

<p>Although fans of the show discuss Abed as if he definitely has Asperger syndrome and other characters surmise that he might, he does not have a definite, diegetic diagnosis in the show. Certainly Abed can be interpreted as autistic, and claimed as an autistic character, by viewers. But he is presented as a "strange" character, not a definitively autistic character. In that way he's in the same ambiguous category as Sheldon Cooper, Temperance Brennan, Lisbeth Salander, and, for some I suppose, Kalinda Sharma. (I personally don't read Sharma as autistic, but that's neither here nor there.)
It's a nitpick, but it's the reason why I didn't consider Abed. The writers/producers sort of say "Here's this character who's pretty bizarre. Who knows? Maybe he's autistic." They don't straight-up say "Here's an autistic character." And I think that kind of dancing around autism without committing to it serves a definite purpose--if filmmakers or television producers commit to portraying a character as autistic, they become limited by the narrow range of tropes that dictate the portrayal of autism in popular media.&nbsp;</p>

I also missed this guy on

I also missed this character on Degrassi. I have no idea whether he's a protagonist or not, nor about the way his autism is portrayed in the show. Degrassi has a large fanbase, though--I'm sure someone can weigh in.


This is an important issue that I had honestly never thought about. Autism in itself is so obscured in the public eye; the intersection of race and autism is given very little notice. This post has piqued my interest to dig deeper into the topic and get more educated about it. As part of an interracial family, I feel especially drawn to explore this more.

I have a question for you - what do you think about the current emphasis that some religious communities put on the alleged link between vaccines and autism? I ask because I am part of a religious community that does not choose to vaccinate their children out of fear of autism and other issues. I have chosen to have my son vaccinated because from what I understand, this correlation is more gossip than it is science. Also, even if there was a link, I would rather deal with my child being autistic than having a horrible disease.

I appreciate the work you are doing and look forward to reading more of your posts.

Personally, I am extremely

Personally, I am extremely frustrated with people in the autism community who insist their children "became" autistic after receiving vaccinations and that vaccines "cause" autism.

The original study that suggested a link between vaccines and autism has been retracted, and multiple subsequent studies have failed to demonstrate any such link. Vaccines just don't cause autism. It's not a matter of opinion or belief; there is zero empirical evidence to support the idea that they do. That the belief still persists is dangerous because not vaccinating one's children is a public health risk. What I think some people fail to understand is that vaccines don't just protect the children who receive them. Your own child might survive getting measles or the mumps just fine. But vaccines facilitate a phenomenon called "herd immunity." Vaccinating a sufficiently large portion of the population protects the health and lives of the sub-set of the population who cannot receive vaccines. Vaccinating your own child protects the lives of his or her peers whose immune systems are compromised, and who could easily die even from what was once a common childhood illness.

I don't have much understanding of how the rejection of vaccines relates to religious belief. I am not religious myself.

Thank you.

I want to thank you for making this post. Unfortunately, the intersections between race and autism-spectrum conditions are often ignored, and the "face of autism," at least in the United States, is universally White. I've seen very little that discusses the relationship between race, autism, and the relationship the two of them have with each other when it comes to autistic people's outcomes. I know that for me, the intersections of being autistic and being Black have had a strong impact on who I am, and the choices I've had to make—or was discouraged from making.

I do have to say that I was pretty unusual for a Black autistic person in that I was spotted pretty early on, in comparison to other folks. I have heard, though, that it's often more difficult for Black youth to receive an autism-spectrum diagnosis before school age. Black youth with learning or developmental differences are likely to simply be treated as "slow," rather than having a particular set of needs that would be best addressed by an autism-specific early-intervention program.

Again, thanks. It's a relief to see that someone *cares.*

You'll never believe this, but....

Some Afro-Americans refuse to have their child tested for learning disabilities, due to the belief that 'The Man' will just stream their kids into lower academic streams and right into vocational programs that have them working in mostly blue-collar jobs. Of course, refusing this could impact badly on child if they have an ASD and need the special help.

Double Rainbow: Autism and Race | Bitch Media

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Another Autie of Color...

<p> Darryl McAllister from Diane Duane's Young Wizards books. While he's "cured" (SHUDDER) in the original version of A Wizard Alone, in the New Millennium Editions of the series (wherein DD rewrites all the books to some degree so they're on a proper timeline, and also fixes some things) he's forever and always on the Spectrum because DD was reliably informed that the original book was made of fail. And Darryl's "becoming" autistic (I <i>think</i> that's what happened, I refuse to touch my copy of the original edition to verify for the sake of my sanity) is instead a particularly nasty burnout caused by the Lone Power (Lucifer, the best and brightest angel, <em>that</em> old story...) because He doesn't want Darryl to become a wizard.</p>

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