Autistic, Adult, Brown, Alive and Still Invisible

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Autism Society 47th National Conference panel discussion action
In New Orleans on The Autism Society 47th National Conference panel with keynote speaker and New York Times Best Selling Author, of the book ‘NeuroTribes’, Steve Silberman (far left) and (left to right) Alex Plank, Jeff Staley, Chloe Rothschild, Lindsey Nebeker and John Newman-Miller.

Awareness concerning the existence of autistic children is unprecedented in the United States and around the world, today. Endless stats, research, PSA’s, dedicated months for recognition, the powerful moneyed messaging from non-profit organizations, staged regional and national events (e.g., walk-a-thons, celebrity hosted dinners, etc.) have all promoted the, so-called, “epidemic learning disability disorder” that is autism. Who wouldn’t want to do all they could to ‘save children in trouble’, right? Of course. By all means, let’s do what we can to help every child reach their potential. Here’s the problem: All these people, platforms and power brokers stifle our humane message of acceptance for all people on the spectrum. The current messaging focuses too narrowly on autism as tragic, needing endless funding to cure it and children. The only tragedy is how some on the spectrum are paraded, berated or patronized by others. Autistic children grow up. Autism does not, suddenly, vanish when that child becomes an adult. There are, even, tools often taught to children on the autism spectrum in an effort to help them navigate the conventional world they must survive in with their unconventional manner of processing environments they experience. In fact, I should say ‘our’ unconventional manner. Yes. I’m one of many autistic people of color, Multiethnicity, black, brown, African-American, or, whichever Blumenbachian ideological label suits one’s upbringing.

“I’m Multiethnic with brown skin. In today’s societies that’s called being ‘black’.”

platinum 1cWho am I, you ask? Well, I’m a musician…that just happens to be on the autism spectrum. I’m a multi-instrumentalist. I’ve worked on and helped produced a few multi-platinum selling GRAMMY winning albums, worked at some record labels and toured the world. I’m a military veteran. I’m an author. I’m a contributing editor for an award winning entertainment magazine. I’m an award winning entrepreneur. I’m a father. According to family stories passed down to me from my parents and theirs, I’m a mixture of many ethnicities, possibly American Aboriginal, Arab, Caribbean, German and Spanish. Clearly, I’m Multiethnic with brown skin. In today’s societies that’s called being ‘black’. So, there you go. Hello, out there!

“Much of what I feel is amplified by my neurological condition causing the need for me to completely shut down and tune out, sometimes for days, from overload.”

Me with acoustic bass3
Photo by Calvin Evans

Most would see this description and maybe think, ‘This person seems to be doing rather well for himself’, and you would not be wrong to surmise that. Those accomplishments were (and continue to be) a combination of a conscious effort to maintain an optimistic approach to life, much hard work (no task or routine too menial), targeted education, many mentors (both real and virtual), multiple levels of experiences, tons of mistakes and sometimes painful sacrifices. What many do not see are the multiple mental, emotional and societal gymnastics I must master in order to stay alive in a world which continues to teach it’s citizenry that peoples with brown skin are less valuable than those who are not. Look, I’m just a musician. I want to create musical memories. I’m pro human race. I’m anti-hate. I’m pro peace and love. None of these feelings are a stretch for me. In many ways, much of what I feel is amplified by my neurological condition causing the need for me to completely shut down and tune out, sometimes for days, from information overload. Regardless, my regular routine is to over prepare for leaving my house. For starters, I dare not leave my ID (my papers). My auto registration and insurance is strategically tucked into the passenger side visor, overhead, so when I’m stopped by police, my hands will be in clear view and up in the air. I do not dress according to today’s fads. I’m either casually dressed (no ripped jeans or sagging pants) or I’m in a suit and tie two days during the week. I rehearse, out loud, the exact wording for responses to questions I may get from people in authority so as to remain neutral and pleasant. I do not engage in small talk. I’m bad at it, anyway. I do not reach out to touch people. That’s easy due to my developing the co-morbid condition, OCD. Shaking hands is out of the question. If I accidentally do, I will be internally freaking out until I can wash my hands. I’m used to being profiled, considered threatening or followed (when shopping or in public), but, it increases my anxiety making me, simply, want to hurry and leave wherever I am. The nervous behavior just makes some think I’m up to something when that’s not the case. The planning involved in me leaving the house, to do basic things, is an undertaking of epic proportions. Still, on top of all that, I am afraid someone will call 9.1.1. saying they ‘saw some black guy’ driving, walking, shopping, standing, pointing, etc. and I’ll be targeted by police because of someone’s learned blind fear or hatred. The way I’m treated keeps me hyper vigilant. It’s like living under occupation. Life under these conditions is overwhelming and exhausting, but, I manage. I feel I’ve become stronger because of it and more compassionate in spite of it.

“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than loyal love and I’ve found it.”

Me and Morna pic B&WContrary to popular belief, black, brown, African-American, Multiethnic folks on the spectrum feel deeply and know how to love. While some in the media seem to enjoy quoting dubious studies claiming nearly all brown peoples are prone to criminality, I choose to focus on actual facts, like, my own life. For those people who care about me in a heartfelt way, I never forget them. Loyalty is a big deal with me. In fact, I’ve loved one woman, for the past 7 years. Like me, she’s proudly on the spectrum. She is fiercely loyal and protective of me, as I am of her. She has a fantastic sense of humor, is way smarter than me and has an especially pleasing tone of voice. Yes, her voice. That detail may not seem important to many, but, as an audible learner and lifelong musician, the impact of tones on my nervous system is massive. Her voice, literally, calms me. I can listen to her non-stop. It’s pretty awesome. There’s nothing in the world more powerful than loyal love and I’ve found it.

“We remain invisible.”

Hot Mike Silver Suit b
Photo by Calvin Evans

Even though, autistic, male, adult, brown, compassionate, loyal and productive people, like me, exist, we remain invisible. We’re, summarily, not considered (brown autistic men or women) when regular conversations are being had concerning autism, how broken social and justice systems uniquely impact our emotional, mental and physical well-being and what it’s like for us to experience loving loyal relationships, such as friendships and marriage. We’re just like anyone else, but, time and again brown autistic peoples are forgotten; seemingly viewed through the broad lens of ‘the standard black stereotype’. Maybe there’s the view that we couldn’t possibly be interested in sharing our experiences. Maybe, because we’ve been publicly dehumanized and mischaracterized in front of people for so long (helped along by corporate media, politicians and some social elites), many are unable to show compassion for a people they perceive as dangerous and destructive; making some feel unsafe and that we’re responsible for bringing down their quality of life, materially. Whatever the apprehension, our stories need to be told. I’m, also, savvy enough to know much of this behavior isn’t as intentional as it is societally learned. As the renowned educator Jane Elliott bluntly points out, “Racism is learned. It can be unlearned.” Until such a time, I and my brown Multiethnic autistic brothers and sisters will have to remain vigilant in the hope that enough people will someday say, ‘Enough. We see you. Let’s talk. Let’s learn’.

Michael “Hot Mike” Buckholtz

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