Autism and intersectionality

Intersectionality considers how an individual can experience a variety of identities, be it around neurodiversity, race, gender, class, sexuality or otherwise. With regard to autism, we have moved forward in that it was previously regarded as a deficit or disorder; where only barriers and challenges were considered, and it was originally perceived through the lens of medicine – and just abnormality more generally.

We’re now at a stage where neurodiversity is viewed as a difference in neurology and seen as a unique form of human diversity. This has more recently been translated into recognising the many strengths in neurodiversity – and celebrating these.

Also, when considering autism, we are making progress in that it was initially perceived as being a male-centred difference, where only these experiences were reported, known about, or shown. Awareness has grown over the years, and we now understand gender differences in the presentation of autism, and how women are more likely to mask than men. This means camouflaging our behaviours, so learning to behave in a particular way; performing certain roles and suppressing parts of ourselves – all in order to fit in.

Though gender has been considered in the narrative around autism, other forms of intersectionality, for instance ethnicity, is not so well known or researched, and there is also little visible representation in terms of diverse role models.

I know this is definitely something I noticed since my diagnosis – the lack of role models to look upon and drawn inspiration and encouragement from. There are vast differences in the Caucasian representation of autism, and I therefore feel it’s important to have alternate examples to call upon. When it comes to diagnosis of autism in ethnic minorities, there is an underrepresentation. This is sadly sometimes due to stigmas attached with gaining a diagnosis, and how this can reflect badly upon parents or communities, or in some cases it is believed that autism can be cured with traditional remedies or that it can be grown out of. I’ve heard a myriad of reasons over the years, including how being autistic can be inherited from previous life forms or seen as lessons for growth, expansion or even punishment in our current lives. Though this isn’t my story, as an ethnic minority, I can certainly relate to these narratives, and consequently empathise.

Being autistic is a part of my identity, but so is my ethnicity, in addition to many other facets of self that I identify with.

As a brown person, with parents from different countries, born in Britain, and having lived in different countries, with friends and family across the world – this adds layerage to my experience of the world and the lens in which I view it through. And this just considers my heritage. Within the context of work, I naturally bring these identities with me. And because of that, I feel it’s really important for organisations to not only consider neurodiversity as an individual facet of diversity and inclusion.

Often is the case that organisations look to address each aspect of diversity sequentially, as if gender equality could have no bearing upon race or class parity. This type of sequential inclusion only ends up leaving people behind.

Employees are humans, after all: complex and multi-faceted.

So given all of this, on a personal level, have I been discriminated against? I honestly couldn’t say. Most probably. Definitely on an unconscious level. And I wouldn’t know what aspect of my diversity this would have been directed at, because in all likelihood it probably wasn’t just one part of me.

And what can organisations do to raise awareness, understanding and consequently acceptance of intersectional diversity? Firstly, I’d say they need to acknowledge that it exists and the different forms it can take, and to include this in its trainings. When communicating and celebrating particular events/notable days, acknowledging again the intersectionality that coexists within this. But these should always just be the beginning of a dialogue to be had. It needs to be an ongoing narrative that then becomes embedded into a culture of overall openness and inclusion. And I feel everyone should be a part of this, as each employee can help progress to be made in terms of increasing their understanding of peoples’ lived experiences, by remaining open, curious and asking questions – and ultimately being prepared to expand, learn and to stand corrected. I feel this is the only real way we can make progress – both at work and at society at large.

The culture of a workplace ultimately needs to be that of systemic inclusion that considers all aspects of intersectionality and addresses this at all facets of the organisation and employee journey: recruitment, onboarding, training, progression and departure.

In terms of staff surveys and feedback more generally, intersectional marginalisation is rarely captured, and this needs to change to incorporate this. All processes need to be thoughtfully inclusive, and the organisation’s design must reflect this. Once this deliberate inclusive design has been achieved, the grounds have been set for a space that is tolerant, respectful and accepting, where intersectionality can be openly recognised and celebrated. Where is your organisation at? I’d really like to see more organisations taking on diversity and inclusion at a more holistic level, with intersectionality beating from the heart of this.

Mahlia Amatina

October 2022

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