More Stories of Being Black and Autistic
By Elizabeth Roy, Editor Zoom Issue 18
As we hope Issue 18 of Zoom Autism Magazine makes clear, the experience of being Black and autistic in the United States is fraught with violence, from the fear of being murdered by police to everyday microaggressions. Autistic people in general are more likely to experience violence and discrimination than their neurotypical counterparts, and this ableism works hand-in-hand with white supremacy to oppress autistics of color, particularly Black autistics. This article briefly tells the stories of other cases across the country where people faced violence for being Black and autistic. These stories are just a small sample of the violence that Black autistics face and represent a much larger problem. We hope that you will be moved to take action, and at the least that you click on the links in the stories to read more.
Like our cover writer Anita Cameron, we hold hope that a better world is possible and is coming – and that we need to act to make it a reality. Throughout this article we affirm the rights of Black autistics in the hope that readers, especially white readers, join us in committing to creating a better world for Black autistics and other autistics of color.
“Most simply, we affirm that Black autistics have a right to exist: to be in their communities, to find happiness, to make their own decisions about their lives and have those decisions respected. Black autistics deserve a world without racist and ableist violence.”
In that world, Kevin Marshall might still be alive. Kevin, who was friendly and loved his community, especially his family and church, was at a 4th of July celebration talking to a neighbor. The neighbor’s boyfriend flew into a rage and began beating Kevin. When Kevin walked away, the neighbor’s boyfriend went to his car and went after Kevin, hitting him at over 100 miles per hour. Kevin died in 2019 at age 20.
We believe Black autistics have a right to a childhood, including safe and supportive spaces in which to learn, grow, and play.
Research shows that Black children are consistently perceived as older than white children, even being perceived as adults. We also know that seclusion, restraint, and school discipline are disproportionately used against children of color, particularly disabled children of color. Disabled students make up approximately 26 percent of students referred to law enforcement, even though they are only 14% of the total student population.
In 2015, Kayleb Moon-Robinson personally experienced the violence of the ableist, racist school-to-prison pipeline. After kicking a trash can in frustration and following the rest of the students out of the classroom, Kayleb pushed away a police officer who was trying to grab him. For these fairly normal childhood behaviors, rather than being given support and guidance, Kayleb was charged with a felony. Eventually, the charges were dropped, but not before Kayleb and his family experienced trauma and fear that no child should have to face.
We believe Black autistics have a right to be in the community, including using public spaces and resources.
Reginald “Neli” Latson was out in his community, sitting calmly on the steps of his local library waiting for it to open when someone called the police and reported a black man with a gun. When suddenly faced with loud, hostile, and rough police officers, Neli struggled to get free. In the process he struck an officer. Neli was charged and sent to prison. Eventually a deal was reached where Neli would be sent to a restrictive institutional setting rather than prison – hardly the same as being freed to go home. Neli has lasting health problems, including severe trauma, from the experience, and his family is still fighting to have him freed of remaining parole requirements.
We believe Black autistics have a right to compassionate, competent medical care.
In recent years, more attention has been paid to how racism shows up in medical care, including damning research that shows that medical trainees believe racist myths and that Black birth parents have higher maternal mortality rates.
Sometimes this disregard can be deadly, as in the case of Amaya “Joy” Stethers. Amaya had medical issues that required supervision and care. This included having needed treatment for bowel obstructions in the past, partially caused by one of her medications. Despite this history, doctors failed either to notice or care about Amaya’s severe and readily apparent bowel obstruction. Because of this medical negligence, Amaya died of a bowel obstruction in 2017 at the age of 14.
We believe Black autistics have the right to be presumed innocent, given the benefit of the doubt, and be assumed to be acting without malice.
Significant research has gone into demonstrating the racial biases that lead Black people, particularly Black boys and men, to be treated as though they are guilty of a crime and violent. Many of the most high-profile cases of violence against Black boys and men have been a result of this bias, such as the cases of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin.
In 2015, Jared James was murdered because he too was assumed to be a criminal. Jared left his group home and knocked on his neighbors’ doors. It’s uncertain why Jared was going door-to-door knocking at the surrounding houses – he may have been looking for help. One of his neighbors, however, assumed that Jared was trying to break in and shot him. Jared was killed January 5, 2015, at the age of 24. The group home provider lost their license, but Jared’s killer was acquitted.
Kajieme Powell also likely died in part from these biases, along with police violence. Kajieme walked into a convenience store, and took a few snacks without paying. He sat them down outside and then wandered slowly around the sidewalk outside. When police arrive, Kajieme begins to walk away. Rather than attempting any kind of de-escalation or attempting to understand what is happening, the police officers begin screaming at Kajieme and then open fire on him from several meters away. After Kajieme falls and as he is dying from the bullets, the officers handcuff him. Kajieme was killed by police in 2014 at the age of 25.
More recently, in 2019, Osaze “Ozzie” Osagie was also met by brutal police violence. Osaze’s parents had called police to check in on their son because they were worried about him. Rather than help Osaze, the officers shot him upon arrival at his apartment because he was holding a knife. Osaze was killed at the age of 29.
We believe Black autistics have a right to a safe home.
Both in childhood and beyond, Black autistics deserve and have the right to a home where they are free from violence, including when they are in group homes, foster homes, or other living arrangements.
In the case of Omarion “Mars” Humphrey, he was in foster care while his parents were working to create a better home for him and his siblings. His parents were in classes and counseling and working towards reunification. Before that could happen, however, Omarion’s foster parents (who had no knowledge of autism to begin with) neglected to watch him while at a 4th of July picnic, despite having been warned the same day to supervise him carefully. Because of their neglect, Omarion drowned in a nearby lake in 2015 at the age of 9.
What is Our Responsibility?
As these stories and the voices of our writers show, the violence Black autistics face is severe, pervasive, and life-altering. The autism community has a responsibility to believe Black autistics when they share their experiences, work to make autistic spaces more welcoming, and commit to identifying and improving our own words and actions where we fall short. This includes taking steps to make sure autism organizations are diverse, taking action to support changes that will keep Black people – including Black autistics – safe, and addressing our own racism. We must do better. Kevin, Kayleb, Neli, Joy, Jared, Kajieme, Ozzie, Mars, and thousands of others demand it.
How to Learn More
- Read “Just Another Hashtag” at Respectfully Connected or “‘They Don’t Know, Don’t Show, or Don’t Care’: Autism’s White Privilege Problem” at Autism in Adulthood, both by Morénike Giwa Onaiwu
- Read All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism
- Follow young Black autistic advocates like Kayla Smith (creator of #AutisticBlackPride) and Riah Person (creator of #StayStimmy)
- Read and share the “What is Police Violence” plain-language toolkit from ASAN, AAPD, and GMSA
- When looking for a parent perspective, follow BIPOC parents such as Kerima Çevik (creator of #AutisticWhileBlack) or Jen White-Johnson (creator of #AutisticJoy)
Go Back to Issue 18 Home
Read more articles on the Black autistic experience beyond the hashtags in Issue 18 of Zoom Autism Magazine.
- Why are Black Disabled Activists Being Ignored or Forgotten? by Anita Cameron
- Autistic While Black and the Case of Matthew Rushin – #FreeMatthewRushin
- We Believe…In the Right to Exist by Elizabeth Roy
- Why the Social Model Will Not Save Us and “Disability Rights” Aren’t Intersectional by Tiffany Hammond
- What Does it Mean to Feel Safe? Intro by Rose Sutton
In Every Issue
- Editor Letter – Black Autistic Lives Matter: Beyond the Hashtags by Elizabeth Roy
- Cummings and Goings: Working Together to Fix the System by Conner Cummings
- 5 Must-Read Books by Black Autistic Authors by Adriana White
- THE VIEW FROM HERE: “I am Just Going to Be Me” by Jasmine Sutton with an update from Daniel Derrico
Discover More Zoom Issues
- Archived issues on the Zoom Home Page