Friday, January 22, 2016

Autistic While Black: The Erasure of Blacks From Histories of Autism

Autistic Savant Artist Stephen Wiltshire completing a panoramic cityscape
 from memory credit Atlantic BlackStar
In the struggle to have the voices of intersected autistic populations heard, the critical importance of Black autistic savants and the need to include them in autism history cannot be understated. Their existence and the inadvertent documentation of their lives due to savant qualities despite their historic status as an oppressed minority serves as a series of timeline markers in periods of history particularly when African Americans were enslaved; therefore neurodivergence would not have been noted except as a serious detriment to be dealt with through deadly force. In a present day autism conversation rife with structural racism and stereotypical conclusions and analyses drawn from misinterpretation of research on disparities in healthcare, education, and services for the Black autistic population, these indicators that intersected autistics existed long before Kanner and Asperger were tweaking theoretical pathologies  of what autism was should be part of any timeline in autism history. Just look through a few people generally accepted as fitting the criteria for autistic savant by virtue of the observations of characteristics each expressed while others documented their savant abilities.

Thomas Fuller

"Thomas Fuller, an African sold into slavery in 1724 at the age of 14, was sometimes known as the “Virginia Calculator” for his extraordinary ability to solve complex math problems in his head. Rumors circulated that he was a savant,  since he could not read or write, but that was not uncommon among slaves at the time. Some believed that he may have gained his skills with math in his homeland in Africa. His owners, Presley and Elizabeth Cox of Alexandria, Virginia were also illiterate. They never sold him so that all his life he remained in one place'.

"Thomas Fuller was significant in that his abilities were used as proof that enslaved Blacks were equal to whites in intelligence, which fueled some pro-abolitionist discussion."  (Wikipedia)

Thomas Wiggins
Tom Wiggins 1861 credit Wikimedia Commons
"Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins was an African American musical prodigy on the piano. He had numerous original compositions published and had a lengthy and largely successful performing career throughout the United States. " Wikipedia
Tom was blind at birth and descriptions of his behavior onstage and off have experts concluding he was an autistic savant.
Tom was also called "The Last Slave In America" because his owners had him declared non compos mentis in order to continue ownership of him after the Civil War.

Born: May 25, 1849, Harris County, Georgia, GA
Died: June 14, 1908, Hoboken, NJ

Eugene Hoskins
It is quite clear that Eugene Hoskins was an autistic savant. Eugene was 24 years old in 1920 when  Hiram Byrd used him as the subject of a a research paper about his calendar savant abilities. Hoskins loved trains and hung out at the train station in Oxford, Mississippi. Byrd's vulgar description of him concluded that he was entirely African no doubt based upon a superficial evaluation of how dark his skin was rather than any proper research of Mr. Hoskins' origins or kin. In the article "Eugene Hoskins Is His Name" subtitled "The long-forgotten story of a black autistic man in Oxford, Miss., who crossed paths with William Faulkner," it was said that Hoskins refused any money for displaying his abilities of helping people learn when their train was scheduled to come or go from the station. He lived with a white family who owned a store near the train station. Byrd's documentation of his existence and symptoms marks a place in autism history that makes it clear that Black autistics were known when researchers were doing work on defining autism. Mr. Hoskins' existence therefore belongs in any history of autism.

Noel Patterson
Noel Patterson was the subject of intense study who lead to breakthroughs in understanding the mechanics of autistic savant syndrome. He was 19 during the period of the study in 1986, part of a documentary on autistic savants called "The Foolish Wise Ones" that aired the same year. He was a musical savant whose ability involved tonal structures and relationships. He could faithfully reproduce any musical composition he heard on the piano and could play said tune on the piano with one hand while picking out correct notes on a guitar with the other. Unlike other musical savants, Patterson, who was in a group home in Britain, was not given the intensive musical training, exclusive of everything else needed to fully develop his talent. Instead his talent was treated not much differently than Blind Tom Wiggins' gift, a curiosity to be displayed for researchers or visitors to the group home. Noel wasted his days spending a limited amount of time on the piano and the guitar.

 Noel Patterson's story is a good example of how Black Autistics are seen by researchers, care providers and others as resources for amassing data who can also serve as scenery for those who write about them or film them. Savant abilities were only of use as lab research data and parlor tricks. No one ever thought to enrich Mr. Patterson's musical skills to the degree that Blind Tom Wiggins' or  Derek Paravicini 's abilities were nurtured and perhaps carve out a career for him. Instead, books were written about him and he was the subject of a documentary, after which, they decided he should spend his days weaving and being made to use wood shop tools.

I wish I could say that this attitude towards Blacks who are not upper middle class or wealthy has changed. I don't see much change. 

Stephen Wiltshire
Wiltshire drawing Madrid credit
Stephen Wiltshire MBE, Hon.FSAI, Hon.FSSAA is a British architectural artist. He is known for his ability to draw from memory a landscape after seeing it just once. His work has gained worldwide popularity. Wikipedia
Born: April 24, 1974 (age 41), London, United Kingdom
Education: City and Guilds of London Art School
Artistic savant Stephen Wiltshire is another good example of how erasure works in the history of race and autism. Oliver Sacks devoted an essay to him in his book "An Anthropologist on Mars." Sad isn't it, that he is mentioned four times in Steve Silberman's NeuroTribes: The Legacy Of Autism And the Future Of Neurodiversity" only as someone Sacks wrote about who helped develop his theories of autism, as an object of Sack's compassion rather than a Black autistic savant who is one of the most famous artists in England. Unlike Noel Patterson, Wiltshire, who was very young when he was featured in the documentary "The Foolish Wise Ones" had the advantage of a school and family who recognized his talent and professional architects who acknowledged it and stressed he be educated and this talent nurtured and developed fully. He is able to support himself and with his sister's help, he travels the world, drawing huge urban landscapes viewed through helicopter flights over the cities themselves.  Stephen Wiltshire was allowed to develop his potential. Savants are so rare that regardless of race, their talents should be supported, developed and encouraged. My disappointment that Mr. Silberman's publishers did not see the need to move this important role model for autistic children of color to the role of a historical figure but rather relegated him to scenery in the narrative of Oliver Sacks' research is deep, moreso because Mr. Silberman did exhaustive research on this book. 

This quick,  tiny list of individuals excludes African American men and women who were inventors, academics, musicians, performing artists and researchers who, while not in the savant range, had documented trait descriptions that point to classic autistic expressions. No mainstream history of autism to date has bothered to discuss these individuals as people rather than scenery for those who documented their existence or used them as money making curiosities or experimental subjects.

Consider that the existence in history of Black autistic savants shows genetic links to autism that might have helped African American families recognize, reconcile, and accept the divergence in their family members more readily.

This took me a single page and roughly  8 minutes to research. Any of the authors who have published histories of autism could have done so as well.

Meaning that erasure of people of color in general, and African Americans in particular from autism histories and autism policy is blatantly alive and well.  Worse, few voices are shouting in protest about it.

Until intersected populations within our community are acknowledged as more than genetic research material, until the very real disparities in health and therapeutic supports, assistive technology supports in educational settings, and race based special education disparities within public schools are addressed,  until nonwhite stakeholders are made true and viable participants in building diversity centric autism policy on a national scale, structural racism will remain the ugly reality seated at the table of the autism community. As long as wealthy, white, cis parents dominate this conversation by excluding intersected community members nothing will change. This deeply embedded structural racism that is silencing everyone who is not white and well off enough to use their privilege to impact public autism policy has been festering a very long time. The policies driven by this small privileged group benefit only a certain class and race of autistic people and their families while harming entire intersected autistic populations and those who care for them.

The injustice in this reality is that much more shameful because so few stakeholders with privilege care as long as they believe their own offspring or their own agendas are not affected.

I have been giving voice to this for four years. The new histories of autism make it clear that voices of dissent like mine are lost in the perceived triumphs of all who benefit from histories presenting autism in ways that have not deviated much from what Dorothy Groomer relates in her account of what she confronted from medical professionals during her search for a diagnosis of her son Stephen's divergence in the documentary Refrigerator Mothers:

Particularly NeuroTribes is a fine if imperfect history. I find, however that no history of autism appears to be worried about including nonwhite people in any capacity that is not objectifying. I look forward to this changing, but I'm not hopeful.

The Eight minute Black Autistic Savant Research exercise sample of resources
(intended to make the point that this could have been done easily by anyone researching the topic):
Atlanta BlackStar
search topic: Black Autistic Savants
Wikipedia Thomas Fuller (Mental Calculator)
The Ballad of Blind Tom
The Wise Foolish Ones documentary
Eugene Hoskins Was His Name
An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver Sacks

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