Black History Month | Olivia's Story
Amplifying Black Neurodivergent Voices
by Olivia Wilson
In school as an undiagnosed autistic child, I felt like a misfit. Like everyone except me got a script on how to act. In spaces where I was the minority, I thought it was just because of my race. But sometimes it felt like I didn’t fit into my race or culture either. I felt alienated from people who shared that part of my identity too. I now know it was because I am autistic, and what separated me back then was that I was an undiagnosed black autistic girl. The diagnostic criteria was not made for me, a minority within minority. This contributes heavily to why I and so many other girls go undiagnosed.
In Primary school, I was quiet, overwhelmed, and misunderstood. I masked for survival and struggled with regulating and expressing emotions. My need to know why was seen as rude and defiant. I stimmed in subtle and obvious ways. I’d walk around the playground not knowing how to interact or what to say. Occasionally the mask dropped resulting in small meltdowns. I experienced shutdowns and burnout, but explosive meltdowns happened in the safety of my home. Looking back now, the signs of autism were clear. School was anxiety inducing, especially at lunch where the focus was socialising. I could only maintain one close friend at a time as I struggled to form friendships. When that friend got a new friend, I assumed their friendship with me was over. I managed during 1 on 1 interactions and spoke to teachers but didn’t understand social hierarchy. Group dynamics were difficult to navigate. I was isolated and bullied for being quiet, overly sensitive, weird, and too much. My idea of playing was different to others. I needed help in class, but I didn’t want to raise my hand and draw more unwanted attention to myself. Teachers thought I was shy, “quirky,” and always in my own world. My parents thought I was just a typical sensitive old soul.
Secondary school was similar but with it’s own issues. I struggled with the transition from Primary School as the focus was socialising not playing. I spent time alone in the library or quiet corridors. I disliked changes (unexpected and expected), struggled to regulate my emotions and was sensitive to the new smells and loud noises. The canteen was my worst nightmare. It heightened my anxiety because of sensory overload. I was vulnerable and gullible, leading to me misunderstanding the intentions of others and being manipulated into uncompromising situations. I masked using phrases from popular culture because I had no clue what to talk about. I googled what to say in conversations and how to make and keep friendships. Peers got annoyed when I repeated them without realising. I wandered between groups and was always on the outside looking in. Wanting to belong but never feeling a part of anything. I was called clingy and too intense. It felt like no one understood me because I couldn’t express what was going on in my head as I didn’t know or understand. When I found a friendship group, I still felt out of place. I became close friends with a fellow outcast girl in year 8. We’d hang out at lunchtime, outside of school, and just talk for ages. We’d draw, watch things, and enjoy music together. I wouldn’t have gotten through school without her.
My escape was found in the world of creative arts. My special interests were also a form of escapism but the nature of them and my intense knowledge was frowned upon if I tried to share them with others. Throughout school family members told me ‘don’t worry’, ‘be yourself’ and ‘stand up for yourself’ but I couldn’t. They told my parents ‘She’ll grow out of her shyness’. Coming from a Caribbean background I struggled with that. I felt weak, not strong enough as a granddaughter of Jamaican grandparents. At Church, I was told to pray but I didn’t need prayer. I needed intervention and support but didn’t get access to it because someone like me couldn’t be autistic.
I did not know what autism was until accidentally stumbling upon the word watching an episode of Hollyoaks a few years ago. Tylan Grant, an autistic actor, played an autistic character having a meltdown. It was the catalyst to my self diagnosis journey. I started to look into autism online. At first, all the information was catered to white boys. So, specifically searched for autistic girls and women.
With the rise of social media, I realised people could be autistic and look like me. I had never seen other Black autistic adults and I cried because I related to nearly every experience! Representation is important! I was diagnosed a few years later at 25. I was a misfit who always felt alone in a group of people and sometimes still do, in the black autistic community especially, I know I belong. My experiences are understood, and I can connect with people who are not only wired like me but also look like me.
Although growing up peers thought I was attention seeking and teachers didn’t know what to do with me or understand my behaviour, the reality is I tried so hard it was exhausting. They saw it as my fault for not trying to make more friends. But I was bullied for being odd when I tried. When everyone else was interested in boys, hair, and make-up, I had my special interests. I would cry and ask my parents what was wrong with me. The reasons behind my behaviour and experiences weren’t investigated and that goes far deeper than masking. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if that wasn’t the case. I didn’t fit the stereotype of autistic people in the media and still don’t. More research needs to be done on autistic females. Especially Black autistic girls and women as we’re usually excluded from studies. We exist!
Keep up with Olivia on instagram @oliviatheautie