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Viewpoint

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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News

University files brief defending affirmative action in Supreme Court cases

Last week, the Supreme Court heard two concurrent cases on the state of affirmative action in college admissions, Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. The petitioner in both cases — Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit that has taken issue with the race-conscious admission policies at UNC and Harvard — has argued that those policies constitute racial discrimination, especially against Asian-Americans.

The University of Notre Dame has taken a side in the case, signing onto an amicus brief alongside 56 other Catholic colleges and universities, supporting the institutions that have employed affirmative action in their admissions. The brief at one point quotes Notre Dame’s mission statement, which says that “the intellectual interchange essential to a university requires, and is enriched by, the presence and voices of diverse scholars and students.”

Asked for comment on why Notre Dame chose to weigh in on the case, University spokesman Dennis Brown said the school’s “position as stated in the brief speaks for itself.”

Jennifer Mason McAward ‘94, a Notre Dame law professor who serves as director of the Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights, said there is some incentive for institutions like Notre Dame to defend race-conscious admissions. 

“I would think that, at a Catholic university that really does come from a faith tradition that values diversity and inclusivity, it is a core part of who we are to recognize that there are many parts of the body of Christ, and we want to have all of them represented at our school,” she said.

Richard Garnett, a law professor with concurrent appointment to the political science department, said that it’s unlikely that Notre Dame’s stated concerns on racial diversity and the religious freedom to consider race will be primary considerations for the court.

“Because Notre Dame is a private institution, its ability to consider race is not limited by the Constitution, only by its acceptance of federal funds. It is unlikely, in any event, that the justices will rely explicitly on considerations of institutional religious freedom or of Catholic mission,” he wrote in an email to The Observer.

Mason McAward explained that the legal history of these affirmative action cases goes back to 1978, when the Supreme Court decided a case called Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, when a white man seeking admission to medical school was rejected twice despite qualifications exceeding those of 16 minority students admitted in reserved seats. 

“The controlling opinion in that case ended up being Justice Lewis Powell’s solo opinion, which concluded that, although racial classifications are ‘inherently suspect,’ such consideration could be justified ‘under some circumstances,’ when necessary to the ‘goal of achieving a diverse student body,’” Garnett wrote. “The Court has never embraced the position that four justices took in Bakke, namely, that affirmative action in admissions is justified as a reparative or remedial measure.”

According to Mason McAward, Bakke was the law of the land through 2003, when the Supreme Court heard Grutter v. Bollinger.

Grutter “reaffirmed that diversity was an acceptable goal for universities to have and that race-conscious admissions were permissible,” Mason McAward said. “Race could be only one factor among many that schools could consider and so they had to be very careful in how they use race as one factor in a broader picture understanding of what diversity really means.”

Harvard has been specifically accused of discriminating against Asians in a variety of ways. The Trump administration had taken up the case of those students, siding with the petitioner’s argument. Under the Biden administration, the solicitor general’s office has reversed course, arguing in favor of the universities and affirmative action processes. Mason McAward says the broader questions around affirmative action expand these critiques.

“Those questions that are swirling about whether promoting racial diversity in some sense leads to racial discrimination in another sense is a concern that is underlying some of the justices approaches to the case. And there’s their assessment that really, maybe we should just take race out of the conversation altogether, because there’s just no good way to make sure that everybody has equal opportunity, that it’s a kind of zero-sum game,” she said, drawing from oral arguments.

Garnett identified two questions facing the court.

“The questions for the justices are, first, whether ‘diversity’ in these institutions is such an interest and, second, whether race-conscious admissions practices are necessary to accomplish it,” he wrote.

Ultimately, the justices are tasked with setting out a legal view of race and admissions, and whether to overrule Grutter. Mason McAward outlined a number of possibilities.

“One big question that the justices have to decide is whether the US Constitution ever allows the consideration of race in any context, but especially in the university admissions context. So the court might say that race just can never be considered at all. Or the court could say ‘we think that diversity is an excellent goal, but schools can’t use race as one of that one piece of that constellation.’ The court might say, we actually don’t think diversity is a concept that is concrete or constrained enough that would justify the use of race,” she said.

Garnett said that the court is dealing less with whether these practices are discriminatory, but rather if they’re justifiable in light of the government’s interest.

“In addition, in part because a majority of the current justices embrace the textualist and originalist methodologies, it seems clear that they will be asking whether the text of the federal civil-rights law, and the original understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment, permit race-based government policies,” he wrote. “Both of these questions are, of course, challenging and much-debated.”

Garnett said that the impact of the ruling relies on how much the court chooses to address.

It “ will depend on, among other things, whether the justices address the constitutional question, the statutory question, or both. This is because only state-run institutions are constrained by the Fourteenth Amendment,” he wrote. “A Court ruling against race-based admissions would not prevent universities from aiming at diversity, in various forms, including but not limited to racial diversity.  Instead, it would require them to develop new strategies for achieving this goal.”

In the case that the consideration of race is totally prohibited in the admissions process, Mason McAward anticipates the path forward that institutions might take.

“Some state university systems have been precluded from using race for some time. I think the experience in California was that the number of racial minorities in the flagship California schools dropped precipitously when race conscious admissions were initially taken away. But what I think you’re going to see over time is that schools try and come up with other ways of creating a diverse student body,” she said.

Mason McAward said there are other ways to ensuring diversity with explicit racial considerations.

“So whether it’s a focus on socioeconomic diversity, whether it’s, as we see in Texas, a top 10% program where the top 10% of high school graduating classes are guaranteed admission to certain schools, I think that what you will see is a continuing commitment to diversity and an experimentation in other ways to get there,” she added.

You can contact Isa Sheikh at isheikh@nd.edu.