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Autism and Black History

Lamar Francois, autistic photographer, shares the importance of Black History and recognising black autistic people in the creative field, as well as exploring relevant theories – outlining that autism exists across many different cultures and heritage backgrounds.

 An introduction

I thought I’d share some thoughts being autistic and from a black heritage – with my family being born and raised in Jamaica before naturalising in the UK in the mid-80s just before I was born in Nottingham.

What I want to get across here is that autism exists across many different cultures and heritage backgrounds and people have needs – and not just the predominant majority.

Autism and recognising Black History

For various historical reasons relating to the colonialism of many Western countries  – which is beyond the scope of this article, people from Black amongst other heritages don’t always have their contributions properly recognised – and this is also true as far as the way autism is presented.

Autism is simply a difference in neurology and therefore it must be said this can affect people from all culture and ethnic backgrounds – regardless of culture and other factors.

The role of bias in autism diagnosis and history

I want to talk about the “refrigerator mother” theory to highlight how unconscious bias can play a part in hindering good outcomes for autistic people in terms of recognising diagnoses.

The refrigerator mother theory – in which it is alleged that autism was seen as a consequence of mental trauma – due to lack of emotional warmth on the part of parents as a form of neglect was originally proposed by Leo Kanner in the 1930s . This was because he perceived that many of the parents of autistic children were cold and aloof in their personalities (seemingly a form of confirmation bias – which he later retracted).

Despite this, it was then popularised by Bruno Bettelheim who believed in Freudian psychology and wanted to make a name for himself as an autism specialist in the 1950s despite apparently not empirically testing his theories.

I will say that society’s understanding of autism and neurodiversity is a rapidly developing field – and in the absence of other theories these took hold before they can be debunked – which had resulted in consequences for a lot of autistic people, not being recognised.

Similar biases with the image of autism being presented as a white male middle class thing have excluded, for example women from being recognised because they would present their autism in a different way.

Black autistic figures to be celebrated

Some historical autistic figures from an African American background:

Eugene Hoskins: https://slate.com/technology/2012/02/eugene-hoskins-the-black-autistic-man-who-crossed-paths-with-william-faulkner.html

Thomas Fuller: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Fuller_(mental_calculator)

Some current Autistic artists from a Black British background to look at (asides from myself!):

Stephen Wiltshire: https://www.stephenwiltshire.co.uk/

Jamal Sterett: https://city-arts.org.uk/dance-and-art-in-the-age-of-covid-with-jamal-sterrett-phoenix/

Visit Lamar’s Photography website – Pictured by Lamar – here: https://www.picturedbylamar.co.uk/

50p of each sale is donated to Autism East Midlands.