A woman from my church – the leader of our church’s ministry for neurodivergent and disabled children, and the mother of one of those children – asked me what my thoughts were on the recent protests, the black lives matter movement, and how it relates to the autism community. To be completely honest, I’ve been pondering exactly that for a while now. It takes a long time for observations to settle into my network of concepts and data, and longer still for me to verbalize those new connections.
There are of course obvious similarities between the black community and the autistic community, as there are between any minority groups simply by virtue of being different from the majority. I’ve been listening to Morgan Jerkins essay collection This Will Be My Undoing, and her childhood longing for whiteness – for the ability to confidently belong in circles of popularity and influence – mirrors the longing autistic people often have to be neurotypical. (If you see that the way you innately are makes you a target for oppression and shuts down opportunities for careers, friendships, and more, it makes it a lot harder to live authentically.) Building a society in which all people can belong, can be treated fairly, can move with equal confidence – this is good and necessary for the full flourishing of all minorities, no matter their race, ability, gender identity, or so on.
But the two situations are also very different, and it wouldn’t be right to look at the black lives matter movement and only see it in light of how I, as an autistic person, can relate to it. Our country has harbored violent discrimination against black people for hundreds of years, and the recent occurrences of police brutality (especially combined with the default reaction of many white people to defend and excuse the officers involved) show that it still exists despite the last 70 years of almost completely nonviolent civil rights action. I believe our most recent presidential election was also in part a white backlash to the previous eight years during which the Obamas held their power and influence with dignity, intelligence, and principled character. To a lot of people in majority groups, the thought of a minority group gaining power is threatening – and to prevent it happening they preemptively threaten minorities instead. And in our county, black people have borne most of that scorn, fear, oppression, and discrimination.
One last point I want to make is that oppression compounds. A black, trans, autistic woman is going to be at a massive disadvantage against the norms and institutions of our culture, even more than the average black woman. Just looking at the intersection of blackness and autism, for example, autism has historically been significantly under diagnosed in the black community (though it is getting better, according to the CDC) and the voices of autistic self-advocates are overwhelmingly white. When I think about how much having a diagnosis can benefit an autistic person, it makes me angry that just having darker skin can make it more difficult for an autistic person to get that diagnosis – not to mention the social supports following diagnosis that can help autistic people fully flourish and thrive.
The Bible shows us a vision of society that is radically different than what we have in America today, with our myriad lines of division and discrimination. When the Psalms praise God specifically as King, they do not say that He brings equality. Instead, they say He brings justice, righteousness, and equity (see Psalm 99). He doesn’t place us all on an even footing; rather He gives more grace where more is needed. He forgives more where sin is greater, comforts more where sorrow is greater, provides more where need is greater. As Mary sang in the Magnificat, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty.” As we work to build God’s kingdom, it is important for those with power and privilege to set it aside (or to be made to set it aside, when they have used it unjustly), to learn humility, that those who have been outcast or oppressed can also experience those good things. His kingdom, being for all nations and tribes and peoples, is conceptually inconsistent with racism, with in-group power hoarding.
The path from where we are as a country today to a nation patterned after God’s kingdom – a nation of justice and equity rather than injustice and oppression – is not going to be short or easy, and I definitely do not have the expertise to outline public policy. But I do know that change has to happen individually as well as systemically, and I can speak a bit about how to change and grow on that level. Just as I recommend reading books written by and about autistic people to begin to understand the autistic lived experience, so too I would recommend reading books written by and about black people to being to understand their lived experience (and of course I include talking to real people about their experiences as “reading”, especially if you are not a socially anxious introvert like me, since good conversations can be as edifying as good books). Read widely, and let your preconceptions be proven wrong – so your mind can be changed. Read deeply, so you can begin to empathize with those who belong to a different group and see the world from a different perspective – so your heart can be softened. Read prayerfully, letting the Spirit teach and convict you – so your soul can be moved to confession and intercession. For it is only when we have those three things that we can truly know and love the other – whether they are colored or abled or gendered differently than we are – and begin to work together on the institutional and systemic changes that must also take place.