Supporting Diversity Within the Neurodiverse Community: How Do We Turn the Tide?
Posted on 12/06/19 in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion by Dr. Lamar Hardwick
Over the last decade, the words “diversity” and “inclusion” have become the anchor for advocacy and justice efforts for an emerging generation of scholars, activists, faith communities, and a number of other civic-minded and social conscious movements.
Diversity and inclusion are important. They are values that are essential to the growth and development of our world. Our culture craves diversity across all facets and within all disciplines because we live in an age where social media and the power that comes from a newly found global connectedness, has called into question the absence of certain voices.
The discussion about diversity must however be strongly connected to the disability community. The largest minority group in the world are persons with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities. This includes autism.
I was diagnosed with autism later in life. I was 36 years old when I sat across from a clinical psychologist and heard the words "Autism Spectrum Disorder" used to describe my life-long struggle with sensory processing issues, social anxiety, social communication challenges, and a host of other unnamed and unidentified challenges.
Learning about neurodiversity and the number of others whose lives were similar to mine gave me a sense of hope until I discovered the glaring lack of diversity within neurodiversity and its community.
Just two years following my diagnosis in 2014, I searched for autism conferences where I could go and learn and more importantly find a community to belong to that would be empathetic to my new discovery. While the results of my Google search returned plenty of options all over the country and even abroad, one glaringly obvious observation began to grieve me. Many of the autism conferences had no keynote speakers that were people of color. As I spent over three hours combing through event after event and conference after conference, I discovered an overwhelming disparity in the lack of diversity within our neurodiverse community.
To be fair, there are many great organizations that are focused on African Americans and other people of color who are impacted by autism. These organizations are doing tremendous work. The problem was that the majority of what many may consider to be the major autism conferences with the large budgets and big-name self-advocates as keynote speakers, lacked diversity. Most of the presenters, parent advocates, experts, and those who make a living communicating about autism didn’t look like me.
The little black boy in me frantically searched for faces that looked like mine. Where are the voices of self-advocates who look like me? Where were the keynote speakers and facilitators of workshops and webinars that I could identify with? Without much resolution to my search it was then that the term invisible disability took on an entirely different meaning for me. It was in that moment that I truly felt invisible. I was never more aware of the color of my skin then when I searched for a home within the autism community. People of color just seemed to be grossly underrepresented when it came to the value of their voices and experiences with autism.
When statistics show that African American children are diagnosed with autism sometimes as late as two years later than white children, I believe we need to discover more ways to intentionally include advocates who look like those little boys and girls of color. When some reports show that regressive autism may occur as much as 50% more in black children than in white children, our community must do a better job at reflecting diversity by including the voices of black individuals on the spectrum into the main stream so that parents and children have someone to identify with and someone to help make them feel at home in the autism community.
Autism is a spectrum that can often feel segregated. From services provided to speakers who have a platform, people of color within the autism community can be left on the margins in an already marginalized people group. They can become minorities within the largest minority group in the world.
How can we turn the tide?
Open stages to more voices of color. Call on those in the community that can provide our neurodiverse community with new experiences, new insight, and new learning opportunities. Create space for advocates who help build more beauty and strength into our movement by bringing ideas and resources to the discussion of autism. Help close the diagnostic gap between black children and white children by offering more faces of color to the conversation of early intervention and services. Let’s make neurodiversity a movement not just focused on diversity of cognition but also diversity of color. We must learn to push for equality within our community as we simultaneously push for equality, diversity, and inclusion within the global community.
Milestones is proud to welcome Dr. Hardwick as one of our keynotes at the 2020 Milestones National Autism Conference, June 11-12. You can register here!
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dr. Lamar Hardwick is a father, husband, pastor and author. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University as well as a Doctor of Ministry degree from Liberty University School of Divinity. In addition, Dr. Hardwick is a graduate of the Yale School of Divinity Clergy Scholar Program. He is a contributing writer to multiple blogs and magazines including The Mighty, Key Ministry, Christianity Today, Huffington Post, Autism Parenting Magazine, and Zoom Autism Magazine. In 2014, after years of silently struggling with social anxiety and sensory processing issues, Dr. Hardwick was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of 36. He is the author of I Am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor (2017). He is currently the lead pastor of Tri-Cities Church located in Atlanta, GA.
This article was written by a guest writer for Milestones Autism Resources.Views and opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own. Milestones strives to create conversation around important topics in the autism community and to provide members of the community with a platform to share their honest perspective. In addition, while Milestones Autism Resources’ policy is to practice person-first language, we encourage all self-advocates to identify themselves as they wish, so you may see language throughout the blog that does not align with Milestones’ internal person-first language policy.