Becoming an Ally to the Black Autistic Community

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of Parenting Without Panic. Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

We all embody an array of social identities, which shape the way we see the world as well as the way the world views us. Intersectionality refers to holding identities in more than one historically marginalized or underrepresented group. Being Black and Autistic is a unique intersection that brings together its own set of experiences. Research is clear that Autistic individuals who are also Black have experienced generations of societal discrimination resulting in high rates of under or misdiagnosis, which results in a lack of services and support. As someone who is neither Black or Autistic, I want to share what I have learned from Black Autistic self-advocates and their families about how to be a supportive ally. 

The first step in allyship is to recognize how our own identity informs our perspective. As a professional working in the disability field and a white mom of an Autistic Transgender woman, my privilege makes it more likely that I will be taken seriously when I seek help for my daughter. Even though resolving problems and getting her the support she needs has never been easy, I still have not had to personally experience how the impact of systemic racism and bias add significant barriers to what is already an often exhausting and worrisome process. 

As an ally, it’s critical that I listen and learn from the experiences of Black Autistic individuals and their families. And it’s important to remember that not all Black Autistic experiences are the same so that we don’t make incorrect assumptions. Their stories and valuable insights can broaden our understanding beyond our own perspective. It’s through their voices that we can gain a deeper appreciation of their distinctive family cultures or challenges they face in their communities, school, work, and when dealing with law enforcement, the medical community, or social services.

It’s also important that those of us who do not hold these identities don’t take over or co-opt the Black Autistic experience. This means we shouldn’t speak for or lecture on the Black Autistic experience if we aren’t Black and Autistic. The Black Autistic voices I pay attention to on social media or at conferences are powerful. As an ally, we can share and amplify their message without taking over. 

For the past three years, Autism in Black, has hosted a virtual annual conference where they focus on specific issues and Black Autistic experiences. I’ve learned a tremendous amount by attending and re-watching sessions that focus on the varied stories of Black Autistic people and their families. I’ve listened to Black mothers talk about their fear of their Black Autistic sons being stopped and misunderstood by police. I’ve listened to sessions on the inequity of education for Black Autistic students and how their externalizing behavior is seen as defiant instead of a response to an overwhelming sensory environment. And I’ve heard Black Autistic adults share their deep frustration over being misunderstood and gaslit by medical professionals who label them as noncompliant. I’ve also listened to couples talk about how they strengthen their bond while raising Black Autistic children by resetting expectations and showing gratitude for each other. And I’ve heard Black Autistic adults talk about how they find joy, peace, and self-compassion when they engage in their areas of interest. I continue to be deeply moved by attending the conference and constantly think of how to better support the Black Autistic community members at AANE.

Being an ally is not passive. We need to attend events that celebrate Black Autistic culture, like the Autism in Black conference in April 2024. We need to listen to what the Black Autistic community is saying they need and offer support to make that happen. We need to acknowledge our own conscious and subconscious biases and correct our thinking and behavior. As allies, we need to see the work of affecting positive change as our work too, and work alongside Black Autistic self-advocates. 

At AANE, we have support groups for Autistic Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). Group members tell us how freeing and validating it is to be in a group with other Autistic People of Color who get what their life is like. We need to continue to ensure that our programs and services are informed by and responsive to the unique needs of Black Autistic folks and their families.

Social identities like race, disability, gender and class are at the core of how we experience the world around us. By understanding and respecting the intricate web of identities that make up our lives and the lives of others, we can work toward a more inclusive and compassionate world. Acknowledging and learning about intersectionality is not just about recognizing differences; it’s about working diligently and respectfully to alleviate misrepresentation and individual and societal barriers to access services and supports. This will ensure that all Black Autistic people and those with other historically underrepresented identities have the opportunity to thrive.

Check out these Black Autistic voices:

Cheryl Poe – Advocating4KidsInc

Jude Afolake Olubodun

Maria Davis-Pierre – Autism in Black

Heather Clarke – The Learning Advocate

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