Something Parallel, However Distant: Race and Autism

When our daughter Shannon was labeled autistic at twenty-one months, race wasn’t in my thoughts. Being white, it rarely is. Autism, though, was pervasive, as it will always be, a predominance that eventually injected an oblique empathy of its own when the Ferguson riots ripped the veneer off America’s congenital racial frets.

It wasn’t the only time Shannon provoked a racial awakening, the first one was just happier. She’s heavily impaired, so much so that when we bring her to a new professional – someone who sees several autistic people a day – most often their body language says, “Wow.” She doesn’t talk, has little receptive language, persists with jungle-at-night verbal tics, and bounds around like a jack rabbit. I’ve seen it in faces of every racial permutation. People would certainly identify her as white, but due to what she emanates they don’t see a white girl. Shannon will never know she’s white. Or American. Or a woman, or any of the cultural confections that help define people before their actions do. She’ll just know that she is, and such Edenic purity washes it all away – color, creed, everything – allowing us to glimpse the prejudicial divestiture we’ll forever covet. I’ve seen black people with Down’s Syndrome, Hispanic kids as autistic as Shan, and an array of others with an array of afflictions. The effect is the same. You see soul first, the rest second, and that only from habit.

Ferguson took it the other way, and only made sense through a prior incident. Sometime before, Gwen Ifill and David Brooks discussed race. Ifill fruitfully dropped her objectivity to ask Brooks if he ever talked about race within his family. He didn’t. She smiled, warmly. You don’t have to. We do. It’s with us. Always.

When I think about race it’s distant, nearly academic, and never personal. I’m not qualified to say what white privilege is or to what degree it exists, but Ferguson finalized what Ifill hatched, and her assertion only made sense because of Shannon.

If nothing else, white privilege frees you from color. I’ve never thought about my skin tone because I’ve never had to. It doesn’t define me. Autism, though, does. We’re an autistic family and always will be. It’s in our lives, our thoughts, our philosophy and theology. It sets our sleep patterns, our schedules, impedes our ability to earn money, drains it away in equal shares, profoundly affects how we relate to others, the world, and each other. We go to most public places, but not others. Shan’s little sister, Flannery, will live out her life variously succumbing to autism or thrusting her will upon it, a chronic cage-match.

I’ll never understand what Ifill meant, to have color be with you, always. I’m not black. If, though, it has any correlation to the dominion that a grossly affected family member imposes, then I can imagine with at least parallel empathy how frustrating, how maddening, such an encumbrance might be, and there is, of course, a galactic difference. Shannon is our child. We chose to have her and she came the way she came. We adore her, reveling in the numberless things she teaches as well as simply who she is. Color isn’t chosen, but it does define, and in America that’s rarely well. I don’t have that burden, but through Shannon at least have a piddling sense of what a burden it must be.