Autism Interview #136 Part 1: Eric Evans on the Intersectionality of Race and Autism

Eric Evans is a Communication Specialist from Philadelphia with an interest in developing innovative solutions to communication-based conflicts, as well as curriculum development for educational seminars ranging from mental disabilities to community outreach. He has developed training programs for police to learn to identify Autistic civilians and interact with them in safe and appropriate ways. In Part One of his interview, he shared some of his experiences growing up Autistic and Black as well as his advocacy work training police officers in Philadelphia.

In the recent webinar you participated in, the host discusses ‘the talk’ that every Black person receives. Was your ‘talk’ different because you are both Black and on the autism spectrum?

It was actually approached by my mother as two separate conversations, but always found its way to naturally mesh with the other. Throughout my early elementary years, my mother quite frequently reminded me that my struggles in school were due to the teacher’s teaching methods rather than my intellect. That usually opened the door to her explaining that the way I perceive things are different than others, and my interpretation of concepts is not right or wrong, but rather different, but that I also had to play their game in order to pass, succeed or win. This was all related to me being on the spectrum of course, but it could also be applied to being black.

A good example of them seemingly meshing was my mother’s no toy gun rule. I liked toy guns like most boys in America, all types of guns. Water, Nerf, BB, Pellet, Cap, all kinds really. But my mother wouldn’t ever buy me one. She told me that she did not want me to emulate what I saw in the streets and media, and that guns are not meant to be toys at all. She also told me that I would be looked at as a threat by police, and that black boys that play with toy guns get shot. The correlation that has with having Aspergers is that my form of approach to understanding requests comes from a place of questioning. Direct and hard “Why?”, “What for?”, “Why should I?”. All of which are perceived by society as being combative, resisting, or rebellious. That combined with society’s fascination with authority figures is a recipe for disaster for anyone looked at as a potential threat by law enforcement, let alone someone black. 

I remember arguing with my mom about buying me a super ridiculous and oddly shaped/colored toy gun which resembled a real gun in no way shape or form, and she still told me I couldn’t get it. In a lot of ways, I felt trapped and isolated from being an honest and expressive person as a child because I had this burden of being black and thinking differently. 

What kinds of microaggressions have you experienced (or experience on a regular basis)?

Related to being black, just generally things I’m sure most people are aware of. Looks of fear, body language becoming defensive, being tailed and eye-stalked in stores, etc. The one microaggression that seems to always trigger my emotions are the stares and looks of white people being inconvenienced by my presence. I’m not sure I could accurately put in words how that actually makes me feel. I’m used to my presence not being wanted or desired based on me being on the spectrum and operating differently, but I can hide that in public places. I felt severely unwelcomed and unwanted while working at Costco because I couldn’t hide it after so many years.

I felt the same way in school because my brain and spirit was constantly attacked by the education system. But in the doctor office, concerts, job interviews, playing sports on a team, etc, pretty much any environment that didn’t involve picking at my brain was a easy way to “hide” it because in reality it’s problematic for society, and I need to hide it in order to blend in and be deemed acceptable.

However, I can’t hide being black. Not only that, my skin color does not affect my speech, posture, walk, balance, or other things that Aspergers can affect. I could see how all of those could be unwanted by society. But the thought that I can walk into a nice restaurant and instantly get looks of disgust from faces being hidden behind forced fake smiles that resemble a crying child being told to smile cannot be put into words. The thought that someone’s night out with their family was going so well, reliving memories through storytelling, and exchanging light-hearted jokes would all be ruined by the sight of my skin color walking through the door. Me sitting down and feeling the stares all around me, triggering my anxiety, now making it extremely hard to blend in with proper societal social cues and manners, it’s just an awful feeling.

I’m described by most of my peers as a bit of a hermit when it comes to “going out,” but it’s not because it does not sound like fun. I’m just black and on the spectrum. I wish I could but somedays I truly can’t. 

Microaggressions related to being on the spectrum are a lot less stressful, but more directly insulting. “But you seem so smart and well spoken!”, “Are you sure you’re on the spectrum?”, “I couldn’t tell, so it can’t be all that bad” are some of my favorites. I’m never harsh on those comments or respond in a harsh way if it’s related to me being on the spectrum. But I get the similar “compliments” just being black as well.

One of effects of my diagnosis is being a “fixer.” One of my “fixes” is combating unwanted and negative attention to myself. Because I’m black, I had to be very creative. In short, I purposely try to dress nice, consciously speak as clear as possible, be polite as possible, walk as “normal” as possible, pretty much anything that combats black male stereotypes. It’s a defense mechanism to avoid conflict and fit in, but the irony of it is that it brings more attention to me (as mentioned by the “compliments”). I can’t win, but it’s all I know right now.

In your past training of police officers, what have you found participants are most surprised to learn? Or what do you think is the most important thing you teach them?

I’d say they are most surprised by the sensory demo. The bright lights, loud sirens, direct commands, aggressive tone, and so many other things that police use and do without a second thought could have such a catastrophic reaction from someone with extreme and heightened sensory, causing a sensory overload. When you get police to feel a sensory overload, you can see the lightbulbs over their heads light up.

The most important thing I teach them is: Analyzing and identifying the spectrum’s range. Acknowledgement of the communication barriers, properly interpreting body language and facial expressions, using emotional support system and objects to prevent sensory overload, and understanding impulsive reaction versus articulated responses. I essentially instruct them to look out for key identifying traits of someone on the spectrum so they can act accordingly to make both parties more comfortable and safer.

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