I was recently asked how I came to understand and appreciate my son’s expressions of Autistic Joy. How is joy usually characterized? The absence of sadness? Unbridled gladness and glee? That is Knox, every. single. day. He emanates a spark and a joy that always reminds me that life is worth living, that waking up in the morning can and should have purpose. That taking the time to capture that radiance can be a light, showing how Knox interacts with happiness itself when surrounded by the heaviness of this world. For the past seven years I have used my camera to capture Knox’s story as he chooses to tell it—through his interactions, his spinning, his soulfulness, and yes, his unbridled joy.
|Photo © Jennifer White-Johnson|
Sharing visual narratives of my son’s Autistic Joy has allowed me to highlight what I often didn’t see depicted in the media. When Knox was diagnosed as Autistic at three years old, our community was supportive, but the common expectation after a diagnosis is instant behavioral intervention and treatment. The common expectations from Black and Brown parents is that you keep your Autistic kids in line. Keep them steady, not letting them waiver in fear of what they may face as they grow. Families of color are often forced into silos, not knowing where to turn next, afraid of unjust stigmas sometimes coming from within their own communities.
The depiction and representation of #AutisticJoy and especially #AutisticBlackJoy in media has been slim, often overshadowed by the same predominate white narratives. Autistic communities of color aren’t always given the consistent equitable freedom or space in media, printed or electronic. I spent time trying to find and connect to viable Autistic Community celebrating Autistic lives of color in my state, and didn’t find many. I realized I had to reclaim the narrative and begin sharing through my art making space for dialogue and engagement.
|Photo © Jennifer White-Johnson
[image: Photo of an ecstatic Black toddler boy chasing bubbles.]
I finally began to find it when connecting with other Neurodivergent families of color and Autistic adults. Reading, listening, watching Autistic adults practicing self advocacy within their communities and platforms. I knew Knox’s self advocacy was exemplified through his joy as a true act of resistance.
Not long ago I encountered a few people who tried to challenge the validity of Knox’s joy: I posted and shared a video for an Autistic dancer, friend and activist of color, and in the video Knox was shown spinning, stimming, and dancing during his birthday week. A few questioned how his joy can be seen as a form of self advocacy.
Why anyone would want to stifle an Autistic kid’s joy? The Autistic community immediately came to my rescue showing Autistic Joy at its finest!
|Photo © Jennifer White-Johnson
[Image: Overhead photo of a young Black boy with magnetic plastic letters and Lego trains, on a train track play mat. Next to him is a magnetic whiteboard with letters spelling, “RESist Hate”.]
The importance of showing Knox’s joy increases the visibility in the lives of Autistic children of color. Moments that show the world that being Autistic isn’t something to be ashamed of, it is beautiful, luminous and shows that being joyful shouldn’t be masked. It is a natural and valuable form of human diversity. Equipping Knox with an endless and unconditional amount of love is what carries him through each day. We see kids and adults of color being attacked everyday for just living their lives. Acceptance and support is what encourages Autistic kids like Knox to advocate for themselves. This joy cannot and will not be robbed from Autistic kids of color.
Often the Neurodiverse community are excluded from artistic narratives and creative spaces, thus we gladly create our own, taking ownership of our stories and telling them how we choose to tell them. Unfiltered and honest. My role as a mom is to help my Autistic son embrace his playfulness, as I continue to embrace mine. As a black and brown mom I want to focus on the joy of my kid’s beautifully Autistic self. Amplifying that JOY is what can unite us, breaking the cycle of assimilation, breaking the cycle of unjust stigmas, and infusing the narrative of soul in the lives of Autistic kids and adults!
We instill in Knox that every unique aspect of who he is beautiful. Using joy and creativity to create the framework setting our own tone for Autism Acceptance. There is heart and soul in the journey that breaks through the stigma of highlighting #AutisticJoy in Black & Brown lives. It is up to artists and designers to use our tools to further the narrative of Autism Acceptance and its visibility in the lives of people of color! The conversation must continue, the path must be set, making space for those who choose to honor the beauty and the soul of Autistic Joy.