April is Autism Acceptance Month, previously recognized as Autism Awareness Month. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. Although autism can be diagnosed at any age, it is described as a developmental disorder because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention further explains that often nothing about how people with autism look sets them apart from others. The abilities of people with autism can vary significantly. Some people with autism may have advanced conversation skills whereas others may be nonverbal. Others with autism need a lot of help in their daily lives; others can work and live with little to no support.
On March 3, 2021, the American Autism Association published an article entitled “Obstacles Black Autistic Individuals Face.” The piece states, “With the notion of intersectionality, both Black and autistic communities are marginalized so some of the symptoms that appear with autism that are already stigmatized may amplify the stereotypes Black autistic individuals face.” On Feb. 21, 2022, the association published another article entitled, “Black History Month 2022: Black Health and Wellness in the Autism Community,” where resources are listed for Black families with autistic members. In addition, the article points out what a plethora of research reveals, which is that Black children are diagnosed much later than white children, and the lost time for early intervention affects them the rest of their lives. Their interactions with family, the public, healthcare providers, and work colleagues is negatively impacted.
This Denver Urban Spectrum interview provides a glimpse into the life of Latrice Owens, a 36-year-old African American woman who learned as an adult that she is autistic.
When and how did you learn that you are autistic?
I kickstarted my autism journey via TikTok two years ago. The algorithm kept showing me videos made by autistic content creators who were highlighting their life experiences. I dismissed them initially because I thought, “That’s not a thing. I do all those things.” After a while, I got curious and started to do some investigating. I found myself on embrace-autism.com taking dozens of tests that I scored highly on. Taking those tests and speaking to my mental health providers helped me put a name to the very specific set of gifts and challenges that I’ve always lived with.
What type of autism do you have?
I hesitate to answer this question. It’s not something that I share. I think labels like high functioning, low functioning, or referring to people in levels can be deceptive and harmful. In society, I think there is a very skewed sense of what autism looks like and how an autistic person should behave: how outwardly their struggles should appear. I also stand in solidarity with those who don’t have a formal diagnosis. I don’t have a type of autism because I don’t believe it’s a disorder. I think of it as an aspect of my personality. I am autistic.
How has your autism impacted your relationships with friends and family?
I have trouble with object permanence, even though I know people aren’t objects. I often forget that people exist if I don’t see or hear from them. This makes maintaining friendships and connections difficult. I see my best friend quarterly because this is how often I remember her. If I don’t call my mother every weekend, I may not call her for a month. I can mitigate this sometimes by setting alarms to check on people, but I often forget to do that.
How has your autism affected the way you, as a Black woman, navigate within the workforce?
Being a Black woman, who is also diagnosed in adulthood as autistic, has been a challenge. I have had to double down on assimilating into social situations that I did not fundamentally understand. For instance, living with social processing disorder has led to situations in the workplace where I’ve been taken advantage of and overworked without compensation.
Are you part of any autism support groups?
I am. There’s a local Meetup group based in Denver called “Adults With High Functioning Autism of Colorado” that I belong to. They host zoom meetings and do in-person activities. I’m a member of a discord group that was made for women who are all Black and autistic. I’m also in a Facebook support group for Black autistic people. I think that it’s important to surround myself with people whose life experiences closely mirror my own.
How do the support groups help you?
I like to log in to my groups to read others’ experiences. Doing that makes me feel a sense of community and helps me feel less alone. It’s hard being both a person of color and having neurological differences that society tries to minimize or deny. I enjoy my meetup group because the Zoom format lets me socialize without the stress or pressure of needing to interact if I don’t want to. I can log in and listen. Everyone will understand if I don’t say anything or if I choose to type all my responses if I’m feeling non-verbal.
Owens, who is a journalism student at Pikes Peak State College and does speaking engagements, recently spoke to the Colorado chapter of the National Association of People Supporting Employment First about toxic workplaces. The association is the only national organization with an inclusive focus on integrated employment and career advancement opportunities for people with disabilities. She says, “For some autistic people, their daily struggles are internal. You can’t tell how hard those struggles are outwardly. Some people mask to survive in society. About 58% of autistic adults are unemployed.”
She adds, “Afterward, I was told by the organizers that it was one of the biggest reasons why so many autistic individuals were leaving the workforce. The change that needs to happen in the working world is that management needs to protect their neurodivergent employees. They can do this by creating environments that are safe to work in.”
Editor’s note: Learn more about autism at www.myautism.org. Visit the Colorado chapter of the National Association of People Supporting Employment First at coloradoapse.org. To reach Latrice Owens, email Latricespeaksout@gmail.com.