At the Intersection of Race and Disability: Sophia’s Story

When I was three years old and had no words for it, my parents took me to a specialist. She was the first of many to tell them that I was not different, but difficult. That did not encourage my parents to hold space and time and patience, but instead to be afraid and prepare for a future where I would never go to college, never look them in the eye, never have a “normal” life. They told my parents that I was retarded. Their words, not mine.

Having an aneurotypical child was not presented as a gift, as all children are, but instead as a curse to my parents by their judgmental doctors in Eastern Washington in the late 90s. The doctors told them that I would never leave the special education track.

(I hate the term “special education.” Education for aneurotypical children should not be “special.” It should be accessible, practical, preparatory, professional, holistic, anything but that simplistic, insulting word: special. However, I will call it by its name here, because that was how little me knew it, even though I couldn’t say it yet.)

I worked with many special education professionals over the years. Some supported and healed me — speech therapists, doctors, and other teachers — but there were others who treated me without any respect for my personhood. We need to talk about how Special Education affects students because of the intersectional relationship between the oppressions of living as an aneurotypical person of color.

I still remember the first day of my “Special Education” pre-K play group.

I quietly walked around the room, taking in all the sounds and colors and textures of the disorganized, vibrant room that day, I did not hear my teacher calling me to storytime. I was hyper-focused and attempting to process everything — I was overloaded. That’s when I felt a hand grip my arm — hard.

I looked up. It was my teacher. She was upset that I was not sitting down, and was apparently already done with trying to get me to. She uttered a swift “let’s go,” and took me to the principal’s office. As we waited, I reached out to a puzzle on the nearby coffee table. She whisked my hand away.

“You can’t have that,” she said. “You’ve been bad.” She later told my parents that I had been disruptive and uncontrollable, and that I made her feel uncomfortable to handle me on her own in her classroom.

I was three years old.

To clarify, I am not autistic. That misdiagnosis carried consequences for me when I was younger, but no longer affects me today, as I was later re-categorized into having a developmental delay instead. That really only means that I took a little bit more time with things, and as it turns out, a lot of kiddos do! I was lucky. I am lucky. My first-grade teacher spoke in support of me. She was my first advocate outside of my family.

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However, many aneurotypical children do not have that teacher or adult in their lives, especially if they are Black or of color. I am a light-skinned East Asian mixed-race person of color with a white father — my experience was impactful, but not nearly as traumatic as the abuses that aneurotypical Black and non-white students of color are often subjected to in programs, schools, and communities that do not do enough to protect them.

Black children are subjected to abuse and unfair punishment on a far more frequent basis than their white counterparts on an observable level. A study by the American Psychological Association found that Black boys are generally viewed as being older and less innocent— beginning at the age of 10. “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” said researcher and author Phillip Goff, who contributed to the study. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

Another 2017 study entitled Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Equality found that hyper-maturation affected Black girls as young as five years old.

“Survey respondents were more likely to say that black girls, compared to white girls, need less nurturing, less protection, to be supported less, to be comforted less, are more independent, know more about adult topics, and know more about sex,” according to research conclusions.

However, stories of abuse against aneurotypical Black children often do not surface until it is too late, or in traumatizing viral videos that only serve to re-victimize these children over, and over, and over. These clips often featured these children in dangerous and humiliating positions as they are being forcefully restrained, pinned down, or otherwise violated by the people who are supposed to protect them.

Aneurotypical Black children and children of color need people to speak with them, to stand with them, to hear them not in spite of, but because of who they are. We need more stories of the beauty and joy and humanity of aneurotypical Black children, aneurotypical children of color, and that also includes stories of aneurotypical children simply living their lives as themselves.

Aneurotypical Black children and children of color deserve unequivocal support in our schools. They deserve to have their autonomy, ability, and personhood be respected, always — even if they are not looking you in the eye as you speak to them.

Organizations such as the National Black Disability Coalition, the PEAL Center, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and the Special Olympics advocate for the protected rights of aneurotypical and disabled children with an intersectional lens. I have volunteered with the Special Olympics in the past, and it was an awesome experience that I have had the pleasure of doing more than once. Whether you donate a dollar or a minute of your time, these organizations will carry your investment and gift it forward to those who need it most.

All aneurotypical children of color deserve unwavering love and support to become the people they are meant to be. They deserve to be believed, heard, listened to, spoken with, advocated for, protected, and most importantly loved for who they are.

I am proud of the child I was, because in the glory of her differences — not in spite of them — she became the person I am today.