Caregiver’s Chronicles: When Autism and Racism Collide

PsychCentral – Update for November 2021

Author: Lola Dada-Olley

Medically reviewed by Jacquelyn Johnson, PsyD.

As a parent, you know that difficult days are going to come to our child’s lives. Here’s the first time this happened to us and how we handled it.

Despite your best efforts, there are days when you can’t fully guard your child against what may hurt them.

You can prepare them, but you know that the circumstances may be beyond your control.

In one form, this past summer, that day came. It confirmed long-standing concerns about situations that arise when autism collides with racism on a day when mom and dad aren’t around.

My son is a 10-year-old Black autistic boy.

My husband and I decided to inform our child of his autism diagnosis years ago. We wanted him to know that there was a reason why he was different. That way, he could find ways to see the beauty in it.

We also hope that he finds ways to make his differences an advantage in his future life choices.

His brain is wired differently. So, while there’s a lot he can do, just like his peers, sometimes he sees the world differently.

Sometimes, he could be susceptible to missing a social cue that could make him less safe.

Enter summer camp and ‘exposure’

After much discussion, we decided to have my son attend an in-person summer camp.

Immediately following a long virtual school year, he looked forward to opportunities to engage with more kids his age.

My son’s both a people person and, generally, a rule follower. Rules help him better frame the world around him.

One day at camp, he overheard a fellow camper saying something that he thought was rude to the counselor. So, naturally, our son took it upon himself to tell the other child that he should be more respectful.

As though it was a reflex, the other boy looked in our son’s direction and told him, “Go back to Africa!”

What did my son do? He looked at the other child, chose not to engage, and walked over to the counselor to tell her what had transpired.

The counselor confirmed that she was within earshot and heard everything. She then properly escalated the matter, separated the children, and informed my husband when he came to pick up our son.

My husband immediately sat our child down to better understand the situation.

Our boy recounted the events in the same manner that the counselor explained them.

It happened to be our son’s second to last day of the camp. We wanted to make sure we understood the full context of all that had happened and that this was a first-time occurrence for our son at this camp.

How we experienced it

My husband knows the kind of wife he has. As soon as he put our kid in the car, he decided to call me. He knew that I would need the 20 minutes it took them to get home to process what had happened.

He first assured me that he had spoken to my son, and he was calm. He had undergone his self-soothing exercises and had processed the initial aftermath of emotions.

I was still going to ask our son so many questions when he got home, though.

Again, I knew this day would come. So did my husband. His initial reaction as he spoke to me was concerned but calm. He knew our 10-year-old was now sitting next to him in the passenger seat.

I’m glad that he didn’t have me on speaker, though. I was livid. It hurt my heart that my son would have this experience.

But I later found out that the boy who said those things was only 9 years old. He clearly learned this way of thinking from somewhere. Kids that young don’t tend to harbor such world views on their own.

How we handled it

The door opened, and I watched my son come in. He went on with his typical routine. He took off his shoes and washed his hands.

He then saw the look of concern on my face, moved close to me, and sat on my lap.

“Don’t worry, mom,“ he started. “ I’m OK.”

So much for my poker face.

“Tell me what happened, baby,“ I proceeded.

He told me the story he had just told his father not too long ago.

“How did you feel when that boy told you that?” I asked, trying to get a feel as to where his head was at.

“I was taken aback,“ he said quite bluntly. “So, I just walked away from him and told the counselor.”

Before this incident, my husband and I had explained to our son that sometimes people might treat him differently because of how he looks, not only because of his autism.

I remember him at age 8 taking it all in. He had looked up and told us, “Interesting that this is still a problem. I thought the Civil Rights Movement addressed these issues already.”

“One would think,“ I thought back then.

He’s always been such a logical kid. He simply couldn’t fathom why this was still an issue after so many people fought for equality, and some even died to make this a reality.

“Are you sure you are OK?” I asked once again as I put his hand in mine.

“Yes, I am OK. I’m better now, mom,“ he told me. He hugged me and went on about his day.

The very coping mechanisms he’s been taught since he was a small boy appeared to have helped him in that tough moment.

Looking forward

I stayed up late that night thinking about one of racism’s most powerful tools: the weapon of nuance.

As my son continues to grow up, I wondered if he’ll be able to grasp the nuance, the more potent form of racism. That which isn’t always easy to point out to someone else.

My mind drifted to all types of scenarios where not understanding social skills could make him more of a target for the cruelty of life.

Then, I remembered that I was going down a rabbit hole of future casting, and I had no idea what the future held.

All my husband and I can do is arm our son with as many tools as possible. Those that’ll help him keep his strong sense of identity, faith, and self-awareness as the challenges of life present themselves.

We teach him that his path to his ultimate purpose is within a God-given black body and an autistic mind.

My son’s here for a reason that only God and he can determine. Our job as parents is to set him on the course to be that person he’s called to be. We also need to have faith that, even when my husband and I are no longer here, he’ll not depart from it.

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