Saturday, February 28, 2009

The myth of the black Aspergian

When I began learning about Asperger’s and autism, one of the first things I read was that its incidence was virtually the same across all races. It was more common in males, but was otherwise evenly distributed throughout the world.

It was with that conventional wisdom in mind that I embarked upon my new career speaking to readers and other groups on life with Asperger’s. I began in the summer of 2007. Since then, I’ve made over 100 public appearances and spoken to some thousands of people who have a personal stake in Asperger’s or autism. One interesting point stands out.

The number of black Aspergians I’ve met can be counted on one or possibly two hands. Why might that be?

I have met many Asian Aspergians. When I went West, I met Mexican Aspergians. In some communities in the East, I meet Aspergians from Puerto Rico. In many cities I see Russian Aspergians, and indeed I see Aspergians from all the European countries. The fact that I have met so many Aspergians from America’s other “minority populations” suggests something is up.

If black and Hispanic people are the largest minority populations in America, why don’t I meet them in similar numbers? Hispanic Aspergians are common at my city events. Black Aspergians are nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps they are shy, you say. Maybe they visit me online. Maybe that’s true. I have no way to know the ethnicity of blog visitors. I will offer this tidbit: Look Me in the Eye is sold in over 20 countries, and in the last 30 days my blog saw traffic from 88 countries. That suggests Asperger's does indeed reach across many races, countries and cultures.

I have considered several possible explanations for the absence of black Aspergians at my events.

It’s been suggested that the population is smaller - fewer black kids are diagnosed with Asperger’s because they receive a lower level of care than other kids. But if you believe that, how do you explain the Hispanic and immigrant kids I meet with Asperger’s? Do you believe their schools and care are better?

It's been suggested that they are poor, which is another marginally insulting explanation that I don't buy. I meet plenty of poor white Aspergians. They come to events even though they don't have money to buy books. Why should they be different?

It’s been suggested that most books are read by white females, and my audience at events is simply a reflection of this demographic reality. That readership statement is borne out by much market research, and I can accept it. It may explain the makeup of the largest portion of my audience at events. But it does not explain why I see members of the other groups (Hispanic, Asian, etc) in greater numbers than black people.

I confronted this question last fall, when I spoke at the annual convention of the Asperger Association of New England. There were 750 people in the crowd that day, and one black female said, “Where are the black guys with Asperger’s?” They certainly were not in that room. We had affluent Aspergians, and poor Aspergians. We had tekkies and animalists. We had all sorts of people. What we didn’t have in that group were black Aspergians.

Some people have suggested racism holds the key. Maybe black Aspergians don’t feel welcome in groups like the AANE, they say. Anything is possible, I guess, but when I think of racism in the context of my own life, one thing stands out: Part of my obliviousness to non verbal cues includes obliviousness to the race or appearance of any other person. If my own life is any guide, we Aspergians may be largely oblivious to the triggers for racism in neurotypicals. So my own life experience makes me doubt that explanation.

I’ve now got some questions of my own about this:

Could there be something different about black American culture that somehow better integrates Asperger’s into the general population, thereby rendering them invisible? I think Asian cultures integrate Aspergian behaviors into society at large, but Asian Aspergians remain visible. Do black Aspergians have a secret the rest of us might want to know?

Is there some (genetic) difference in black people that makes them less susceptible to Asperger’s? If so, what is it?

We have culture and genetics. What else is there?


China said...

This could possibly be support for the Vitamin D defiency theory as a cause for the increase in autism.( Black people get outside more and aren't so afraid of the sun as most of us have become, so they aren't D deficient - maybe.
Or it could be a cultural thing. I have two children with albinism (one also with ASD) and it seems that black people are a little under-represented in the albinism groups I've been a part of too.
I met a black woman at the store once whose child obviously had albinism. The child's unique light complexion, pale eyes, and obvious vision impairment were my clues. I tried to introduce myself and told her my daughter had albinism (is albino) also, but she adamantly denied that her child had albinism. She did not claim she was bi-racial though. I thought it sad and strange. In some cultures impairments or differences are more shameful. Could this be the reason?

smauge said...

VERY interesting - as an Australian (mother to an aspie) I have no valuable input to your discussion, but the theory of black Americans having some secret better way of intergrating aspies into their community could prove valuable if there is some truth found in it. I look forward to updates on this subject.

John Elder Robison said...

Thanks for your comments. I had some photos to upload too, so I copied this post to my blog at Psychology Today. We'll see what comments it draws there

Strange Behaviour said...

I'm hoping for a reasonable, non-political/racist discussion here.

I have often wondered if there is some kind of genetic link between autism and the hispanic population. As a casual observation, there seems to be a far greater representation in my kid's social skills groups and special ed classes. Is it that these kids are evaluated more frequently for educational placement due to the 'english as a second language' issue? I remember being asked over and over if my son had ANY hispanic origin and if I was SURE about it. Granted this was more than 10 years when less was known about autism and AS. I was surprised to encounter this question even at UCLA, where they are really supposed to know their stuff. (I haven't found any studies to support or debunk this notion.)

Kim Stagliano said...

Perhaps less access to full prenatal and post natal healthcare?

Dejahmi by Beth Respess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
D & M said...

I'm an African American mom of an autistic child. Many Black kids are late to get diagnosed and then they live in areas where services are lacking. Having Aspergers probably makes the situation much more difficult because many Aspies are mis-diagnosed (ADHD, bi-polar, schizophrenic, etc...) I live in an area where there is plenty of awareness and a bounty of services. Plus, parents here will take school districts and insurers to court at the drop of a dime, so we are overrun with excellent, autism services. That can't be said for inner city and blighted, urban areas.

I am very active in my community, but I have never met an adult Aspie or HFA. Go figure! It makes no sense. But, there is also something Smauge hinted at that may/may not have validity. Because of our struggles, I do feel Blacks have a coping mechanism that could have physiological implications. I see it in myself. It's hard to explain, but it's almost like a Darwinian survival thing...putting us in survival mode quite often and I feel that may be applicable to the children subconsciously. If they're higher functioning, they may have this inert ability to grasp what is demanded of them socially. My son is making remarkable recovery and I attribute some of that survival mechanism in him.

John, I really loved your book. Literature by adult Aspies/Autistics themselves have given me so much hope and insight into our journey than anything else. It's an education in and of itself.

D & M said...

Sorry, I meant to say that I've never met a Black, adult Aspie/Autistic. I've met plenty of them of other races/cultures.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

A significant proportion of the African American adult population is currently incarcerated. (I believe the statistic is 1 in 3 adult black males----staggering). It could possibly be that a lot of the undiagnosed autistics/Aspies in that population are among the incarcerated, due in part to their difficulties in adapting socially, which are then exacerbated by the existing social problems in inner cities.

I have no other data or science to back this up, I'm just speculating. But it seems plausible, since autism/AS occurs so much more frequently in males.

Dennis Sanders said...

Well, I'm 39 year old man, who is African American and was diagnosed with Aspergers last year.

I wonder if part of the problem is that the lack of services and the cost. Luckily, I have a good health care, but that's not the case with everybody. Going to see a specialist and in my case a psychiatrist as well and the price of medications means that the cost can be really expensive.

Another reason that I remember hearing years ago is about how African Americans were slow to go to mental health professionals- going to one was percieved as being weak.

I try to attend the support groups the autism society of Minnesota offers for adults with Aspergers and I happen to see a good number of fellow African Americans there.

We Black Aspies are out there, though.

Thomas said...

Traditionally, African American males seeking any kind of mental health services at all (the most common complaint being stress, and the most common disorders being depression and the impacts of trauma) have been most often diagnosed with schizophrenia, despite the relatively low prevalence of schizophrenia within the African American community. I believe it has to do with racism -- African American males are considered "scary," things to be controlled rather than reasoned with, and people with schizophrenia are considered "scary," things to be controlled rather than reasoned with, so they're often lumped together. There are very few African American male psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists, and the doctors' stereotypes can go a long way in clouding their judgment.

thegrauels said...

Yes, I feel all of your comments, Jill as well, have validity. I myself have wondered about the un-diagnosed, Black autistic population and incarceration. I can see how not understanding one's psyche or disorder can lead to big social programs, even sociopathological behavior, if unchecked. It is very sad to think about.

Our culture is very closed-minded when it comes to seeking psychological services. I got over that type of thinking real quick with my child and he does have a Psychologist, even thoug he's very young. She's ABA trained, has a Family Counselling Background and 10 years working with autistics. She came recommended by one of our autism support groups.

Dennis, I'm curous about the African American in your support group. Are they younger, older or a combo of both?

I'm happy to see my sista's like Tisha Campbell, Toni Braxton, and Holly Robinson Peete speaking openly about autism. Our community needs all the awareness it can get. There's also a prominent Black female attorney in LA with an autistic son who created an organization to create awareness amongst us, but I can't think of her name right now.

I think the reason why my child will grow up with a sense of respect and understanding for his condition is due to where we live and the services/projects he gets to participate in. We benefit from all the efforts of affluent, White moms who don't take shi* off of doctors and school districts and to me are at the cutting edge of autism treatment and intervention. They've paved the way and we're kinda riding that coat-tail, so to speak. But, I'm grateful for them because they have opened doors that I would not have been able to.

I want other Black autistics to get the same treatment, services and acknowledgement.

Sue said...

Hi John,
Thank you so much for writing such a wonderful memoir.
I first read Running with Scissors and found out about your book.
I knew little about Asperger's in spite of knowing the child of a good friend who also has it.
Your sensitivity and sweet kindness shines in your book. I am so happy for you that you have the life you worked hard to get.
I wish you all the happiness you deserve.
And....... I believe your father would be very happy and proud of your memoir :)
Thanks again for educating me.

Sue said...

Hi John,
I just listened to the audio version of The Wolf at the Table. Wow, I cried my head off at the end. I am really saddened by your brother's experience with your father. I am also amazed at his warmth and kind heart, in spite of all he went through.
I understand how two brothers can have the same parents and live completely differently, as is apparent in each of your books. I've seen it in my own family of origin. Both you and Augusten have touched me deeply with your writing.
I wish you both the very best and hope to find more of your work in the future.
Thank you!!! :)

Aspie_chav said...

When you talk about black, I assume you are talking about decadence from slaves. Being a slave was the biggest factor in wiping out the aspie gene in black people. As you probably already know, having Asperger syndrome can have an advantage to the civilization in general; but being an Aspie black slave, there was no opportunities for education, or any opportunities to progress, find like minded people, or express any interest any hobbies. The only thing they had was all their weaknesses to deal with by themselves with no support.

I have more to say about this, but I have things to do at moment

deletedblog said...

It has nothing to do with lack of access, poverty, or any of those things mentioned.

However, it is rooted in slavery. Yes, slavery. Regardless of disability, blacks have to be normal. If you aren't, you'll learn, even if your caretakers have to whip it out of you.

Meltdowns? don't exist because "you can't act like that in public, and if you do, I'll whip your a---" Thus, most of us are some of the most well behaved children you will ever meet. In fact, all of the behavior commonly associated with Aspergers is quickly "fixed" when witnessed, whether through intimidation, or discipline.

I slipped through the cracks. No one can tell me that the little 'weird" child who turned over her bike to spin the tires, collected and counted rocks, avoided eye contact, stayed in a fantasy world, sat upside down to watch TV, wall crawled, stared in any reflectile object, spoke like a news anchorwoman, disturbed by the buzzing noise of the flourescent lights and smells,felt sorry for walls, learned how to play a B3 hammond on her own, loved to imitate cats and any other sound was not an aspie.

Yet, no one recognized it and just felt safer calling me the weird one. I survived life by joining the military where there was structure. Yet, I had a hard time there because people thought I was aloof, arrogant, rude, narcissistic, gay, etc. So I left, only to wander from state to state, hospital to hospital as a sonographer. The profession suited me well, yet I am always read with the aforementioned disclaimers.

Now I know who I am, only as a result of my daughter who was recently diagnosed. I watch a mirror image of myself. We exist. Unfortunately, we are labeled with "angry black woman" because we are sometimes stand-offish.

Rasha Hamid said...

I think Black/brown boys, in particular, are more likely to be seen as difficult than Aspie. So while there's definitely the piece about how mental disorders are seen in Black communities, that's not the extent of the issue. When Black boys have social difficulties in classrooms, teachers and school staff often see them as aggressive and angry, preventing them from noting Aspie traits that may actually lie at the root of the problem. If these same boys are offered services that help them navigate social situations, they'd benefit. Instead, they're punished or suspended.