There is an article in a paper called The Daily Net, about singer Toni Braxton’s 16-year-old son Diezel working as a professional model for the past two years. The article refers to him as “formerly autistic.” It goes on to say he has, “fortunately, moved past” autism and is now a celebrity himself.
Apparently, when her son was thirteen, Ms. Braxton was told he no longer met the criteria for autism. According to the article, she goes on to say:
“I am one of the lucky parents. Early diagnosis changes everything. I will tell you this. I will shout it from the rooftops. My son Diezel is off the spectrum. Off the spectrum being autistic.”
I beg to differ. There is no cure for autism.
Autism is a neurological divergence that doesn’t just go away. One doesn’t “move past” the wiring of a brain that has obvious neurological and physical differences. Calling current interventions for autism “treatments” is a misnomer that confuses parents. These interventions do not cure autism. They suppress visible signs of neurodivergent minds, forcing a type of behavioral code-switching that allows an autistic person to appear to navigate the world around them, such that they blend in with nonautistic peers.
This is not a cure. The price paid when forced training in compliance and the suppression of coping mechanisms is pursued—instead of investigating and addressing the root causes of coping mechanisms and misunderstood behaviors—may later manifest later in “formerly autistic” adults as mental health challenges, and PTSD.
A parental demand that Diezel should not display any sign that he is autistic has been issued for public consumption, from a mother who has no understanding of being autistic—except to view her son’s brain as an enemy he must fight, and defeat. Is telling your adult son to hate his own brain, and how it works, a good thing? This sounds more like the very definition of how internalized ableism happens.
Toni Braxton would not tell her son that his melanin and hair are abhorrent things that he must combat and chemically suppress so he can be “indistinguishable from his white peers.” I wonder why its okay to tell him to hate the nature of his own neurology? Most of the innovations, discoveries, and creative artistry in this world came from neurodivergent minds. Nina Simone was bipolar, as were many other great musicians. Many creative people are autistic. Presumption of a cure when the symptoms of a divergent mind are no longer apparent deprives neurodivergent individuals of their future rights to critical mental health, and other supports they may need to access going forward.
It is truly harmful to hold up an autistic teen and call him “formerly” autistic. If he has trauma, anxiety, or any future issues, his own mother’s insistence that his lifelong disability is gone might lead him to hesitate in seeking help, to feel inadequate, to feel unable to request critical accommodations and supports that might significantly improve the quality of his life—or save it.
Diezel is the son of a celebrity, so his life is at this moment might appear significantly better than that of his African American peers. But this path of using an incorrect term for his becoming indistinguishable from his peers is dangerous to our community, and wrong.
Toni Braxton’s type of rhetoric, along with parading her teen son around as inspiration porn, could have other parents exerting increased pressure on their own offspring to be “formerly autistic”—and if those young people have a degree of disability that makes becoming indistinguishable from their peers unrealistic, it could irrevocably harm them.
The author’s idea of an autism positive autistic male model.
With permission, and yes, we have matching Neurodiversity 3.0
t-shirts. He is wearing his, bought deliberately
large because the collar would disturb him otherwise.
The photo matters because it defies professional
assessments of his degree of disability.
He is facing me while I’m photographing him,
he’s looking right at me, and he’s sending a
kiss in my direction.
[Image of a multiracial teen with curly hair
at a table in a black t-shirt with a
drawing of a human brain
colored to look like a physical map of the world
with the word Neurodiversity in all caps
and green lettering beneath it.
A refrigerator can be seen in the background as
can parts of a sitting room behind him. © Kerima Cevik]
The crushing element of structural ableism, which breeds internalized ableism when nurtured by this type of parental gaslighting, may have emotional consequences at a later time in Diezel’s life, and that truly concerns me. His mother clearly hates the autism label, and views autism in the same way she views the Lupus diagnosis she carries. I wonder how this has informed his identity and his sense of self-worth? I wonder if Diezel has been assessed for conditions like prosopagnosia, synesthesia, or auditory processing disorders? Has he been tested for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)? These common autism traits and co-occurring conditions are rarely tested for, or addressed, in African American autistic populations.
As African Americans, we are forced to code switch, to suppress African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and cultural differences that make us who we are—unless those differences in language and manner have already been culturally appropriated. Ebonics is still deliberately treated as something less than acceptable. It is still a major issue when natural hair is worn to school, or work. It is still a risk when AAVE is used in traditional work settings, or public spaces. The suppression of Black identity that necessitates code-switching to gain employment perpetuates structural racism. This type of racism has been exposed, deconstructed, and understood to be harmful. We now insist on being ourselves, and this has direct positive effects on the acceptance of our own Black identities. This reduces internalized racism and has created an entirely new generation of young Black activists who are able to continue to fight for the basic human rights we deserve as African Americans.
Toni Braxton’s celebrity, and her wrongheaded understanding of autism, have been used for years to muddle the African American community’s attitudes about autism. She allowed herself to be used to present autistic brains as things to be eradicated, and this is unacceptable. Her attitude sets up a dangerous mentality that is unsustainable, as you cannot eradicate your child’s brain.
Braxton has been vocal and public in her portrayal of autism as a disease to be suppressed and defeated, rather than as a lifelong disability, and this has had a devastating impact on how our people view their own autistic children. We have a disproportionate number of autistic high school graduates who could succeed in college with the understanding that supports exist to help them navigate university life on every college campus. Our community views autism as a mark of shame, an embarrassment, and celebrity parents like Ms. Braxton continue to be instrumental in perpetuating these attitudes of ableism that hold multitudes of autistic youth back, when her intention appears to give our people some sort of hope and inspiration.
It is time to make the harm Braxton is causing clear, and speak up for the sake of so many autistic young adults and teens who live with self-loathing in part because of celebrity parents who inadvertently gaslight them with the attitudes that the things that make a young person autistic must be code switched off, suppressed—and who they really are must be either hidden away, or eradicated.
The average life expectancy of an autistic person is 36. I would argue that what makes navigating this world as an autistic person so risky is not just being autistic; it is the way every layer of society bakes ableism into the structure of autistic lives, such that from childhood to adolescence it becomes internalized, and increases risks of harm. We parents have to stop contributing to this cycle of loathing and alienation with misinformation, myths, and false narratives. It’s time we understand the impact that our words and actions have on our children, and on the entire autism community.
I can’t keep Toni Braxton from misinforming the public about her opinions on autism or her son. I can’t keep her from continuing to speak about him without him, although he is now a celebrity in his own right and supposedly capable of speaking for himself. But what I can do is point out what is wrong about her behavior, and the damage it is doing. What we can all do is recognize what Braxton is doing, and not pave the road to autism hell by allowing ourselves to be led by celebrity or personalities. We need to seek peer-reviewed factual knowledge of what autism is, and understand how we can facilitate a better life for our children, by arming them with accurate, empowering facts.