Autistic? Here’s how you can help Black Lives Matter

If you’re autistic and white, you might want to get involved in Black Lives Matter but not really know how to. You might be afraid of doing it wrong. Or you might worry about harming your mental health.

I’m autistic and white too. I’ve been listening to a lot of black people lately and here are some ways you and I can get involved in Black Lives Matter.

How you get involved is up to you

I’ve seen lots and lots of ways of getting involved in Black Lives Matter.

  • You can donate to organisations.
  • You can donate to individuals.
  • You can learn about racism (for example, from these TED talks)
  • You can listen to black friends and colleagues.
  • You can listen to black activists.
  • You can go on protests.
  • You can share articles or your own thoughts on social media.
  • You can sign petitions.
  • You can challenge racist views.

When I’ve seen people exhort us to get involved, they’re often quite strident about what we should do. That’s understandable, but do remember that what you do is entirely up to you. It depends on your resources (financial, health, time, ability, and so on). It depends on where you can feel you can make the most difference.

It might feel that whatever you do, it’s not enough. That’s OK. It’s still better than doing nothing.

Protect your mental health

It seems very selfish in this climate to think about yourself first. After all, this isn’t really about us white people, is it?

But if you want to help, you must look after your mental health and only do what you can cope with.

I personally can’t bear to watch violence. I haven’t watched the video of George Floyd being murdered. I hate to read the stories of the terrible things that have happened to black people today, yesterday and for hundreds of years.

We’re being urged to learn about these things, and it’s important that we do. But for autistics, who are usually hyper-empathetic, too much graphic information can be upsetting, or even paralysing. And that can prevent us from taking action.

You don’t have to watch the videos, read the descriptions or read the details of what happened to people. You can even mute those topics on your social media if you want.

It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Be sensitive to your black friends

Understanding where other people are coming from does not come naturally to us autistics.

And when we are talking about experiences which we have never had and have probably not heard much about, it’s even harder.

So we need to be sensitive. And we can do this in 3 ways.

One way of doing this is to recognise that whatever we say about race, or Black Lives Matter or whatever – our black friends have probably heard it before. They’ve been asked the same questions, listened to your stories and heard “I don’t see colour” a million times. It doesn’t mean you can’t talk about stuff, it just means knowing that you’re not the first person to say it.

You also need to be sensitive to how your black friends perceive racism. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard so many times that black people are hurt when their white friends don’t believe that they’ve been victims of racism. They dismiss reports with “Maybe it was just a joke” or “Maybe she didn’t mean it like that.” Please, don’t do this! Come from a default position of believing them.

Finally, remember that not every black person is an activist. If someone is sharing a lot about Black Lives Matter or talking about race a lot, it’s fine for you to engage in that conversation, or to reach out privately to your friends and colleagues to check that they’re OK. But not everyone wants to get involved and not everyone can.

Understand your own biases, keep them to yourself, then challenge them

I saw a video the other day of black protesters on horseback.

My immediate reaction was “I didn’t know black people ride horses!”. That feels like quite a stupid thing to say, but I’d never actually seen a black person on a horse so it never crossed my mind before. And that’s an example of bias – having an opinion or prejudice without really being aware of it.

I read some of the comments underneath and one of them mentioned black cowboys. I recalled reading this before so I did a bit of digging (with the help of a history teacher friend) and learnt that a quarter of cowboys were black! We don’t see this in Westerns or in pictures of cowboys of course. So it’s up to us to challenge those implicit biases we have, to learn about history and then to share what we’ve learnt with others.

It’s OK that you have these biases, it’s not your fault you were raised on a diet of white culture. But it is something you need to keep thinking about and challenging.

What is not OK is to announce it loudly to your black friends or colleagues – again, something autistics are at risk of because we often engage our mouths before our brains.

First of all, a black person who’s in a job, space or activity where their race is significantly under-represented has heard all of this before.

Secondly, if you mention that you don’t see many black people doing X, Y or Z, there’s a risk that they hear that they don’t belong. Because again, that’s something they’ve heard before.

Be brave – and honest

When you engage with things that make you uncomfortable, you will probably get it wrong.

Autistics tend to be quite sensitive to getting told off. And when we’re trying to do the right thing and engage with Black Lives Matter, only to be told we’re doing it wrong, it can be quite hurtful.

But that’s no reason not to do it. We have to be brave and try our best. When we’re told we’ve got it wrong, yes it might hurt, but it’s also an opportunity to correct our language or our behaviour.

As an autistic, you might also be concerned about being hurtful to your black friends. This concern is from our hyper-empathy and our tendency to be blunt. I know this because I wrestle with it myself a lot! But it’s really important to your friends and colleagues to know you’re there for them, so it’s a risk you’ve got to take.

I’ve found honesty can help a lot with this. The Black Lives Matter movement encouraged and empowered me to reach out to non-white people in neurodiversity, which was something I’d been meaning to do for a while. Writing the messages felt totally cringey at first – I felt like I was jumping on a bandwagon, virtue-signalling, or only asking black people to get involved in my projects because I needed at least one to prove that I’m inclusive and right-on and everything.

So I tried the honest approach. I said there aren’t enough black or ethnic minority voices in neurodiversity, that we need them because of the problems in our field that disproportionately affect non-white people, and because I want to listen to and learn from other races and cultures.

And it worked. I was a bit apprehensive but I’ve had a really good response and interactions with all kinds of people since then and I’ve got loads more opportunities to learn now.

Acknowledging – to yourself and others – that this whole thing is uncomfortable can be helpful. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said lately that talking about race makes me uncomfortable! I feel it’s not my place, I’ve never really talked about it before, and I’m concerned that it’s all coming out wrong.

But uncomfortable is not the same as painful, and this cause is important enough for all of us – even autistics – to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Start to learn about black culture

There have been lots of recommendations for videos, books and articles on race, colonialism, black history and so on.

“White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge are the two I’ve seen mentioned most often.

But if you’re autistic, you might not want to read about race because you find it too much at the moment. It’s not just your hyper-empathy that comes into play here, it’s also the fierce sense of injustice a lot of us feel. Being so upset and frustrated that we become inert isn’t helpful.

Feeling like you can’t engage with difficult topics doesn’t mean you can’t learn about black culture. My house has an embarrassing paucity (lack) of books by black authors, films about black people and music by black artists. This is something that I need to change, and it needs to be a conscious effort.

I’ve found this a lot in white culture – we don’t get presented with much that isn’t white, so we have to go looking for it. I’m embarrassed that my kids only have one book with a black main character (“Corduroy”, which I also had as a child). I have some music by black artists but it tends to be only in certain genres – classical music is not very diverse.

Why should you learn about black culture if it’s not talking about racism?

Because it helps you understand other people, and it helps break down those biases I mentioned earlier. Most importantly (for me, anyway), it helps to chip away at the “them and us” view we’re often given of racial issues.

Do what you do anyway

This is possibly the most important piece of advice on Black Lives Matter. It was given to me by a number of colleagues who have been very vocal in their support of the cause.

When we’ve got so many options open to us, our autistic inertia kicks in and we don’t know where to start. So we don’t do anything. Especially when we add to the other issues I’ve mentioned – we don’t want to hurt people, or get upset, or do the wrong thing. So where do we start?

By doing what we do anyway.

So for work, my job is researching, writing and talking about neurodiversity. So that’s what I’m doing right now, with this post.

What’s your job? In its very broadest sense. Spreading information? Creating images? Sharing your opinions? Research? Whatever your tasks are for your day job, you can leverage that into helping Black Lives Matter.

And if you’re in a job where that’s not really possible, you can use what you do outside work to help. For example, most of you know I love cooking. So last week, I made a cake from a recipe by Malinda Russell, the first African-American woman to publish a cookbook. Now, you might think that’s not really doing much, and you’d be right. But in doing so, I’ve broken down my biases a bit, become aware that I need to expand my cookbook collection to include more non-white authors, and I’ve helped you learn about at least one black pioneer.

You will probably be able to do something more useful than that in your free time – some of the things I listed at the beginning of this article, like signing petitions, or writing to your MP, or joining a protest. Whatever you do, it will have more impact if it’s something you’re able to do and that you enjoy doing.

And it’s OK if those things are little. You’re still doing something. And as BrenĂ© Brown says, the world is made up of little things.

How do you feel?

As an autistic, you probably feel very deeply about these things. And maybe a bit confused. There’s the sense of unfairness that’s upsetting and frustrating, and the hyper-empathy for your friends. But there’s also space for optimism and even excitement about how big this shift is. Because it’s the first time white people have been invited to be part of the movement – certainly on this scale. And as an autistic, you know how much it means to feel included.

However you feel is fine – as my former counsellor told me, feelings aren’t wrong. We are privileged – as our black civil rights leaders tell us – not only because we’re white but because we’ve got the opportunity to help.


**Update**

I received this feedback on my use of the term “black culture”. It’s posted below with permission:

“I find the phrase “black culture” a little troublesome. It implies that culture is tied to race and being black can be so many different things – Jamaican, Nigerian, African American etc all with vastly different cultures. Not to mention being 1st or 2nd generation – many have little ties to their grandparent’s culture whilst still being black. The point you made is incredibly important though. Understanding history and surrounding yourself with diversity (including diversity of culture) is so important to help fight racism. “

I agree with the above points but I have chosen to post the feedback here instead of amending the article, so you can see my original error. Many thanks to my lovely colleague for taking the trouble to feedback on this and help educate me.


I only wrote this article because of the encouragement from, and example of, black colleagues, friends, communicators and activists. Some of whom I know personally and some I don’t. If you have any praise for this post, it should all be directed at them. If you want to criticise or debate, please come join me on Twitter.

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