Monday, January 15, 2024

White autistic people engaging in racist behavior aren't doing this "because they're autistic"

I keep seeing posts from white non-disabled clinicians about some variation of "a neurodivergent child used slurs, got punished, and punishment for something they don't understand is wrong."

The posts usually focus on how punishment isn't effective (true, in general), consequences for not exhibiting a skill someone really doesn't have are pointless and demeaning (yep), but basically ending there (hmmm...). There is no talk about impact vs. intent, or why the child doesn't have the skill to understand the impact of slurs.

Well, there is discussion about why the child doesn't understand not to use slurs, except the posts and ensuing comments always tend to say that the child doesn't understand the impact of slurs because they are autistic or otherwise neurodivergent.

Wow. OK, if this were true, then Black and brown autistic folks would be going around using slurs and having no idea what they mean. As someone who is frequently around many Black and brown autistic adults and youths, I can tell you that this isn't occurring.

White autistic people who are engaging in racist behavior are not doing this "because they are autistic." They are doing this because of white privilege. 

[Image description: Photo of a Black toddler or preschooler in tattered overalls in a field next to a photo of a white toddler or preschooler in a KKK robe in front of a group of adults in KKK robes. Text reads "If the child on the left was old enough to pick cotton and the child on the right was old enough to attend Klan rallies, then today's children are old enough to learn about both of these and how they've led us to where we are today." The instagram account AfricanArchives is credited.] 

The reason that a number of white autistic youth are using slurs with no idea of their impact is because of white privilege, not because they are autistic. And sure, non-autistic white youth may be quicker to intuitively pick up on the meaning and impact of slurs than autistic white youth. But the overall dynamic is still due to white privilege, not that they are autistic. Black children experience racism, thus have to talk about it, much earlier than white children are typically taught about it

Black or brown autistic children (with sufficient verbal or spelled language) are no different in this regard. Their families are talking about racism essentially from the time they are born. They know the impact of slurs, because their families are talking about themselves or people in their communities being on the receiving end of these. Black children of all neurotypes are given The Talk starting at an early age, in which they are taught the importance of things such as always getting a receipt and not touching things in stores. Particularly given the rates at which Black and Latine autistic people are undiagnosed, parents aren't holding off on discussing these things with autistic children -- they often don't officially know they have autistic children! In my experience, Black and brown parents who notice that their children struggle with impulse control or language (with a diagnosis or not) are particularly focused on working with their children on being cautious about what they say to whom and how they say it -- because they have to, for safety reasons. 

Similarly, parents of white children who notice they may have differences in how they pick up on and use social information need to be particularly focused on educating their children from an early age as to the meaning and impact of slurs, along with other anti-racism skills such as recognizing microaggressions and responding to these. All parents of white children should be teaching their children to be anti-racist from birth, and autistic or otherwise neurodivergent children may not intuitively pick up on all of this teaching and may need to have the meanings of slurs spelled out. Rote rules around slurs are actually easier to teach than a lot of universal social skills*:

  • these words are violent and hurt people
  • white people may never use them
  • any white person using them is committing a harmful act
  • they might occur in media, and the choice to include them is a separate discussion
  • if you are reading from a text or quoting something and are white, you need to use the censored forms of them
This is probably one of the easiest social skills among those we teach, honestly. There isn't a lot of nuance. If a parent has neglected to teach their white child about slurs, there should be some reflection here. It isn't because it's a hard topic to teach in an education sense; there is clearly something going on where the parent hasn't fully accepted that it is their role as parents of white children to actively teach their children how not to perpetuate racism. 

Finally, low expectations are a form of ableism. We really don't want to perpetuate "they don't know any better because they're autistic," especially around a dynamic where this is objectively not the case. Autistic folks typically have a strong sense of social justice. If they are raised in a way that includes all different perspectives and teaches them about the existence of different types of oppression, they are typically amazing allies for marginalized groups to which they do not belong.

*Universal social skills are the skills that all people of all neurotypes need to learn (consent, boundaries, self-advocacy, negotiation, etc.), which is distinguished from the flawed idea of teaching autistic people "social skills" that really mean to engage in masking or changing their behavior to appear neurotypical with no real functional benefit. 

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