Accepting Tom Wiggins and #autisticblackpride
By Katrina Naoko Frank, an #actuallyautistic Afro-Asian Indigenous Latina (editorial support from Dr. Fari Nzinga)
Black Autistic Awareness
With April marking Autism Acceptance month, take a moment to clear your mind. When you hear the word “autism” what do you think of?
For many, the image of a thin, white, male–usually with a short haircut, blank expression and dry humor comes to mind. Looking past the American “ideal” of autism, autistic folks are as diverse in race, intellect, emotional intelligence, and ability, as any other group. We are Black, we are Latinx, we are Indigenous, we are Asian. We are of all gender identities and economic status–we are not a monolith.
And in fact, this month’s 19 story proves just that, by highlighting Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, a renowned Black, blind, autistic musical mastermind of the mid-19th century.
What is Autism?
For those unaware, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is defined as “a complex developmental condition involving persistent challenges with social communication, restricted interests, and repetitive behavior.” People with ASD have brains and neurosystems that work differently which is why we use the term “neurodivergent” to describe them. And just like with human sexuality, ASD exists on a spectrum with various outward manifestations.
A famous Autistic American from the annals of history, Thomas Wiggins was classified as “idiotic,” a medical term used at the time to describe “a person with profound intellectual disability.” It has been documented that Wiggins was “mostly non-speaking and used sounds and body language to communicate with others [he] rocked, twitched, and echoed people around him.” Based on his method of communication and his musical genius current historians “believe that Wiggins was an autistic savant” (NOSmag.org, Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence).
Tom Wiggins AKA “Blind Tom”
Thomas Greene Wiggins, known as “Blind Tom” was born into slavery on May 25, 1849 in Columbus, Georgia to Charity and Domingo Wiggins. As an infant Tom and his family came under the enslaver, General James Bethune, a Columbus lawyer that both fostered Tom’s gift and exploited him for his own gain.
There have been many accounts of Tom mimicking the sounds around him without error as a toddler. Around the age of eight, “Tom was licensed out to a traveling showman named Perry Oliver who promoted him as a barnum-styled freak” along with many other outlandish descriptors (Who Was Blind Tom?). By age eleven he was the first African American artist to perform at the White House while at age fifteen Wiggins “composed his most famous piece ‘The Battle of Manassas,’ a song evoking the sounds of battle interspersed with train sounds and whistles, which [he] made himself” (New Georgia Encyclopedia, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins).
Although Tom was considered an international celebrity, he was both oppressed and taken advantage of. Not only was his neurodivergence used as a ploy to collect more money during his travels, but his musical talents, and his nontraditional way of interacting with others would keep him enslaved under the Bethune family even after emancipation during the Civil War.
Tom Greene Wiggins was unique, intelligent, empathetic, and resilient. To share Finn Gardiner’s sentiment in his article “Blind Tom Wiggins: Black Neurodivergent Excellence,”
“[…] we can still look to [Tom] as an example of black neurodivergent excellence. His deep connection to the world around him and his remarkable musical ability led him to create music that resonated within his own soul and the souls of others. We must remember, too, that the talents of black neurodivergent people should be nurtured without exploitation. We belong to ourselves. Tom Wiggins may not have had this freedom, but we can claim our own freedom today.”
Black and Autistic
Although we are working towards a better, more inclusive and socially just world, there are still specific stereotypes and stigmas that are hurting and killing autistic Black, Indigenous and other people of color (Elijah McClain and Osaze Osagie). For instance, in research unveiling the correlation between late diagnosis for Black children and provider racial bias, “Black children usually obtain a diagnosis for autism one and a half years later than white children.” Due to this delay, Black autistic children are being disadvantaged from the beginning. To create positive change in both autistic and neurotypical communities it is imperative that we honor and share the stories of Black autistic individuals, identify and openly discuss their challenges as well as their triumphs.
Want to learn more? Listed below are a handful of extraordinary Black autistic people and Black leaders based in the autistic community:
- Kayla Smith is a Black Autistic Disability Rights Advocate and the creator of the hashtag #AutisticBlackPride and Black Autistic Pride Day.
- Stephen Wiltshire is a talented, British architectural artist.
- Morénike Giwa Onaiwu is “a proactive, resourceful professional and disabled woman of color in a multicultural, neurodiverse, serodifferent family. [She is also an] educator, writer, public speaker, parent, and global advocate”
- Mary Agyapong, Desi Jones, Cliona Kelly and Termara Parker are Black autistic researchers
- Malia Hudson and Cat Morton – hosts of the podcast, The Autistic Tea Party
- Brian Boyd, Constance Smith-Hicks, and Damien Fair are Black scientists devoted to autism research.