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Racial experiences of neurodivergence: An introduction

Being a white man, I fit within the general population’s preconceived idea of what an autistic person looks like. When asked to picture an autistic person, many people will automatically conjure images of young white boys playing with trains. This conception overshadows the perspectives of those who do not fit this expected mold; in an earlier column, I focused on women as people who are negatively impacted by this trope-reliant view of neurodivergence. This week, I’d like to observe how neurodivergent people of color also face unique challenges, as they must overcome grisly intersections between racial stereotypes and stereotypes of the neurodivergent. 

Before going further, it is also important to acknowledge that “neurodivergent people of color” should not be viewed as a monolithic group. As I shared in my first column of the year, neurodivergence can manifest itself in wildly distinct ways from person to person. When one combines this fact with the reality that racial experiences can also vary significantly, it’s easy to recognize that there’s no possible way to describe all the different experiences that neurodivergent people of color can have. So, for this column, I simply hope to present a few of them in the hope of starting more conversations. I also hope that doing so will help white neurodivergent folks — like myself — to broaden our own understanding of our conditions to account for these differing racial experiences.  

Neurodivergent Asian Americans primarily face obstacles created by the “model minority myth.” Because many people presume that Asian Americans are inherently high-achieving and thus do not require assistance, they might be slow to acknowledge challenges some of these Asian Americans face due to possible neurodivergence. The prominence of this positive stereotype, when combined with other factors such as “shame, socioeconomics [and] cultural barriers,” results in many in the Asian American community “being underrepresented in the disability community.” Due to this underrepresentation, schools and workplaces are often reluctant to provide accommodations for disabled Asian Americans, including those who are neurodivergent. Due to the lack of proper accommodation, an insufficient understanding of neurodivergent conditions and society’s insistence on standards that cater to the neurotypical population, these Asian Americans often resort to masking, or oncealing their quirks and idiosyncrasies. For instance, author Helen Hoang — who was not diagnosed with autism until she was 34 years old — stated that she masked her autistic traits due to “her family’s lack of awareness of autism and being pressured to conform from a young age.” 

Similar to their Asian American counterparts, neurodivergent African Americans face issues related to under-diagnosis and underrepresentation. This under-diagnosis means that neurodivergent African American children are often assumed to be troublemakers or nuisances. For example, a study by Mandell et al. focusing on Black autistic children determined “that Black children were identified as having ASD later and were more likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder or adjustment disorder than were white children.” Similar issues arise for African Americans with ADHD. Dr. Napoleon Higgins, a Texas psychiatrist, points out in an interview with CHADD that “Black young men … [are] more likely to be diagnosed with conduct disorder or oppositional disorder” and that “a young Black woman who is inattentive, who’s struggling in school, may be perceived as being slow.” In these situations, criminalizing and demeaning stereotypes of Black people contribute to neurodivergent African Americans being regarded with scorn rather than with compassion. Furthermore, African Americans already have to navigate a broader society that disregards Black culture as disorderly and disruptive; these negative conceptions can prove especially harmful for neurodivergent African Americans, who might also be viewed as disruptive due to the characteristics resulting from their specific conditions. 

These constitute just a couple examples of the implications of racial experiences of neurodivergence. They demonstrate how it is crucial to understand neurodivergence as one facet of an intersectional lens, one that acknowledges how multiple identity factors can play a role in one’s relationship with culture and society. While there is a multiplicity of other people’s stories that exist, far more than I could cover in a 700-word column, I can still leave you with an important reminder: Avoid narrow, stereotypical, trope-laden thinking. Whenever you’re asked about neurodivergent people, don’t rely on the stereotypical image of the white boys with trains. Doing so erases a myriad of people who are also trying to navigate the neurotypical world.

Jack Griffiths is a senior at Notre Dame majoring in English with a supplementary major in global affairs. His areas of interest include neurodivergence, migration and the intersection between faith and public policy. When he’s not writing, you can find him singing with the Liturgical Choir, walking around the lakes or playing Super Smash Bros. with folks in his dorm. He can be reached at jgriff22@nd.edu.

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