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?
I will be very interested in reader’s experiences with this issue. I started out accepting the conventional wisdom without question, but the observable evidence is the audiences sure suggests some other factor is at work. What might it be?