April is Autism Awareness Month and the final month of classes for the semester. As we all reflect on the semester, it’s not only important for us to celebrate all of our students who are on the spectrum but celebrate and embrace Black neurodiversity across our campus. Black neurodiversity is the intersectionality of being Black and neurodivergent.
According to the National Symposium on Neurodiversity, held at Syracuse University, neurodiversity is “…a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled with dyspraxia, dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, Tourette syndrome, and others.”
We all have our reasons for attending this university, but one of those reasons is most likely to find a sense of community and a safe space that embraces the diversity and unique experiences of our Black intellectual students. If I were to ask any Howard student right now what is their favorite part of attending our university, my best bet would be the sense of community that is prevalent at this institution. I have had the pleasure and privilege to be an advocate across the campus throughout my time here at Howard.
I am on the autism spectrum, and I have grown to be more comfortable with the fact that I’m on the spectrum and my belonging at this great institution. Throughout my time here at Howard University, I have had unique experiences, especially from professors that showed that we must do a better job of acknowledging, respecting, and accepting our students with neurodivergence. Within the past several years, I’ve experienced an egregious level of oppression and abhorrence toward me because of my advocacy surrounding being Black and autistic.
A specific experience that I had in my sophomore year has shaped my pain into a passion for advocating on behalf of the acceptance of Black neurodiversity across our campus and all HBCUs. No less than two weeks into the fall semester, a professor harshly judged one of my assignments and told me directly, “You must have some kind of mental hindrance or disturbance for you to even write this paper.” This comment was made in a disgusted tone by this professor, who was utterly disgusted at the fact that I was in his class. He followed up the comment by asking me in front of other students if I had some kind of “mental illness.”
I felt utterly embarrassed to be able to express who I was, given how harshly the comments were. I lied and said, “No.” He further persisted and challenged my frail response. After asking me repeatedly, I eventually admitted that I am on the autism spectrum but pushed back by saying that by no means that you should treat people on the spectrum with absolute disrespect. I received a warning from the professor that I would not be capable enough to handle the academic rigor of the class and was recommended to withdraw from the class: I completed his class with a 96 percent as my final grade at the end of the semester.
I want this experience to be the epitome of why neurodiversity needs to be respected and supported within our campus. Students with neurodiversity need our entire community to support them and embrace them, and combat the common stereotypes that remain prevalent within the black community. I ultimately wrote out a tweet expressing my concern when it pertains to the treatment that professors have when it comes to students with neurodiversity and how they see us.
A response is needed by our university president, Wayne A. I. Fredrick in support and the call for spreading awareness of the Black neurodiversity that is prevalent on our campus. President Fredrick and student government leaders should also celebrate the black neurodiversity that we have within our campus.
I have had the pleasure of serving as a campus advocate throughout my time here at Howard, and I have seen countless examples of how isolating it feels when professors or even peers view neurodiversity. It is the responsibility of all of us within the Howard community to become more empathetic, understanding, and open-minded in learning about the neurodiversity that is on our campus and to learn to break stereotypes that become harmful to the neurodivergent community at Howard.
A personal stereotype I’ve commonly seen and experienced myself is the fact that because we are at an intellectually premier institution and that we are successful within our fields means that we could not be neurodivergent, this cannot be further from the truth. Black neurodiversity impacts our students in every social, academic, and professional setting. Neurodiversity affects the smallest of interactions as much as it does larger ones. As we begin to understand how these examples of these stereotypical judgments harm the community, we can become more aware of it and mindful of neurodiverse students.
One of the biggest disconnects between neurodivergent and neurotypical members of our community is that interpretation is everything. I’ve experienced several instances where I would be at the end of a frustrated peer or professor because I’ve interpreted a conversation differently than what was originally intended. We have to do better in being well-informed about the importance of communicating with the neurodiversity community on our campus. Just like everyone on campus, we all process and intake information differently, and neurodivergent students are no different.
For a long time, it took me a long time to be comfortable with who I am because I was so afraid of how people would see me. Even now despite the opposition towards my advocacy surrounding my autism, I am proud of the platform that I have built and hope to continue to help build other platforms for people. I want all students with neuro-divergencies to understand that your voice is powerful, your presence is wanted, and that you matter. I share these experiences with the student body and HBCUs across this country to inspire and uplift the voices that feel like they aren’t being heard. I hope that this inspires and moves more students to become more comfortable about their identity and their neurodiversity and embrace it.
Tye R. Compton is a junior political science major, strategic legal communications and management minor at Howard University.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew