When I envisioned motherhood, raising a child with a disability never crossed my mind.
It must have been written in the stars that I would as my son was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old. When I considered factors like him being male, Black and me being a single mom, it felt like the odds were against me.
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t completely shocked by his diagnosis. I had a hunch since he was two. I saw behaviors synonymous with autism like lining up toys, talking in a sing-song voice, echolalia, hand flapping and speech delay. However, the diagnosis made it real and meant I had to erase all the fantasies I had about who my son should be and how he should behave.
While I was devastated, the only option I had was to educate myself, build a network of support and move forward. I started by doing tons of reading, joining a Black Autism Moms group on Facebook and asking professionals for advice. Now my son has full-blown conversations, is emotionally intelligent, gives the best hugs and I embrace all of his quirks. Accepting him for who he is and not seeing him as broken has helped me grieve the loss of the child I imagined and wholeheartedly love the one I have.
Along the journey, I’ve learned autism isn’t a cookie cutter disability. There’s a spectrum, meaning each child’s capabilities and setbacks are different. Autism also isn’t a death sentence—autistic kids just see the world in a different way. To explore the many shapes and forms autistic kids come in and highlight the struggles of Black mothers of autistic kids, ESSENCE interviewed a range of super moms. They share the challenges they face, their greatest fears and ways their children bring them joy.
Alexandra Moragne, Henrico County (VA)—I love her personality. She really is who I wish I was growing up. She has no problem standing up for herself and setting boundaries. Things we struggle with as adults she has naturally. She’s loving but doesn’t give freely and that’s an asset. You have to earn her and I love it. Our biggest challenge right now is sleep. Melatonin and prescription medication doesn’t always work. This can throw off everyone’s days and nights.
Raquel Mays, Queens (NY)—I love to hear him sing. He was non-verbal for a long time and so I missed those toddler years where kids sing their favorite songs. Now as a teenager, I can hear him singing songs from his room or around the house. It brings the biggest smile to my face.
My biggest challenge is what our plan is for him after high school. We are leaning towards transitional schools away from us. Will he be ready when it’s time? Or do we keep him home and look for employment?
Tyonna Lomelin, Moberly (MO)—I love how independent my boy has become. He’s going to figure out how to do things no matter what. When we first got his diagnosis I was prepped for a “long road ahead.” That coupled with what I saw of autism on TV had me prepared for the worst. My baby can communicate and have actual conversations. He’s independent and is able to do most things on his own. He interacts and shows affection. Nothing like what we were told to be prepared for.
So far my biggest challenge has really been myself. I had to get over my own thoughts and feelings over his diagnosis. I was terrified of what it might mean for him and our family. I think coming to terms with that has been the biggest issue for me.
Ebony Lee, Brooklyn (NY)—My son’s smile is very unique. He will light up any room. He makes me laugh from being so silly. My biggest challenge is him being non-verbal. It’s hard sometimes when I can’t understand him. My greatest fear of being a Black mom to an autistic child is not being able to receive certain services in my community and how he would be treated by the police.
Ebony Phinisee, Loganville (GA)–-The one thing that I love about my Ausome son is that he is so loving. The milestone that he has reached from having a sensory to touch to now wanting so many hugs and kisses. I think my biggest challenge is that he isn’t what some of my family and friends expect when they interact with him. I am not really sure what they expect. But when he has one of his episodes or tantrums they relate it to him being bad or needing to be disciplined in a harsher way.
Quiana Darden, Richmond (VA)—I love her joy! No matter what challenges she faces she’s always finding the joy in life, laughing and shining her sunlight on others. It’s infectious. My biggest challenge is allowing her into the world and trusting others with her. People can be cruel and she may not always understand what’s appropriate and what’s not. My greatest fear is that she won’t be able to live up to her true potential because others are blinded by her autism and will try to limit her.
Audrey Miller, Aurora (CO)—One unique thing about my daughter is that she can make anyone smile through engagement. My biggest challenge is my lack of sleep since she only sleeps for five hours straight every night.
Andrea Shelman, Coral Springs (FL)—He’s an amazing beat maker since 4 years old, incredibly musical. He’s a thinker and encouraging to everyone to be organized. [My greatest fear] is that in a world where melanin is already misunderstood, having a child who doesn’t express himself the way society wants, and needs delicate love makes me fear for him to leave the house. Even at 7 years old he’s deemed a “threat” when others in class display the same behaviors and get coddled instead of “disciplined.”
Diondra Dunlap, Waldorf (MD)–-I love how AJ is so technology savvy and so thoughtful when someone is sad or crying. King has a photographic memory–teach him something one time he pretty much has it. The fact that they are not bothered by negativity. Challenges are them learning the importance of social skills. Trying to protect them from bullying and knowing if someone is a predator. My fear is being out in the world when the world [doesn’t] always have skills and training to identify invisible disabilities. Not knowing if they will have to be strongly dependent on me. Also, them not learning everything they need to learn because they don’t care to learn certain things.
Bianca Mitchell, Tampa (FL)–-One unique thing about my 4-year-old Ausome son Hashim is that he loves to garden like me. He knows how to plant, water, prune and harvest in our garden and has been since Covid hit. We hope to have a farm one day! My biggest challenge is finding resources for him that don’t have wait lists or are expensive to keep up with consistently. It shouldn’t be so hard to get my baby the help he needs with so many kids diagnosed! My greatest fear as a Black mom of my ‘Ausome’ son is dying and he’s in this world without an advocate. We have a language no one else understands and I hurt to think of no one being able to understand him when I’m gone.
Stephanie Hopkins-Winston, Oakland (CA)–-I love my son’s innocence. He sees the good in everyone. He wants everyone around him to be happy and wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s a super fast learner when it comes to technical skills. He [taught] himself how to play the keyboard by ear. He’s been tech support for every class he’s been in since he was in preschool. He [has] also known how to read since the age of two. My fear is the same fear of every mom raising a Black son but times 10. Right now it’s transitioning from elementary to junior high school. I’m afraid he will get bullied. Not knowing if he is fully grasping social skills although we’ve tried with therapy, I’m not sure if [he] will grasp it. I also wonder if he will ever be fully independent and able to take care of himself and have a family of his own. Will I have to take care of him for the rest of his life?
Lorraine Nowlin, Stamford (CT)–-My “ausome” girl is happy and upbeat. With all the chaos in the world, the positivity she possesses leaves me optimistic for her. My challenge as a Black mom raising an autistic daughter is childcare. Options for children with special needs are few and far between. That coupled with the fact that she’s vulnerable as an autistic girl and I will do whatever it takes to protect her.
Chakita Rodgers, Birmingham (AL)–-Solomon is non-verbal but he hums the most beautiful chants… it’s like he is a chief and he is calming his tribe after a long hard war! He’s able to talk to [you] with his eyes if [you] pay attention! Every day is a challenge with being a single mom and pushing myself to never give up because I almost did! Him being a Black young Male (13) period is a fear now .. sad to say .. and to top it with being non-verbal and having no awareness of safety gives me nightmares all the time!
Melanie Pinkney, Cleveland (OH)—One unique thing about my son, Shaiden, is his ability to inspire others to be themselves. He has over 21,000 followers on Instagram. My biggest challenge is getting those close to me to understand autism. They are accepting but some lack understanding. It makes our physical circle small.
Carleda Taylor, Chicago (IL)—I love how he never overlooks how beautiful the world is; how raindrops fall into puddles, how the sun feels on his face when he’s riding in the backseat, how the sand at the beach feels in between his toes, etc. And he literally speaks to EVERYONE! My biggest challenge is managing him when his emotions are heightened. We work on deep breathing and staying in the moment on a daily basis. I fear leaving him prematurely before I’ve taught him the best ways to navigate this often cruel world. I pray his crown never falls.