As society continues to evolve, celebrating the unique talents and perspectives of people with autism enriches our collective narrative and fosters a more inclusive world.
About 3% of Black, Hispanic and Asian or Pacific Islander children have an autism diagnosis, compared with about 2% of white kids.
In the Black community, autism is rarely a topic discussed, but it is imperative that we learn and understand what it means to have a neurodevelopmental disorder.
Autism, also referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by a range of challenges related to social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. Autism is often described as a spectrum because it manifests in a wide variety of ways and affects individuals differently. The term “spectrum” reflects the idea that people with autism can have a range of strengths and difficulties and the severity of symptoms can vary greatly from one person to another.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an autistic person can face challenges that may impact their day-to-day lives such as language development and communication, resulting in delayed speech or limited verbal communication. Autistic people can also be hypersensitive to sound, light, smells, or textures, which can impact their daily functioning and comfort.
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, around 1% of the world’s population has ASD. Traits of the condition can be detected in early childhood but many individuals are often diagnosed later in life.
What causes autism?
It’s unclear what causes autism. Researchers believe that the condition develops from a wide range of factors including environmental influences and genetics. These genes can be passed down from generation to generation. Early intervention, such as behavioral therapy and educational support, can significantly improve outcomes for individuals with autism, helping them develop essential skills and navigate the challenges they may face.
It’s important to note that individuals with autism sometimes possess unique strengths and talents. Some may excel in areas such as mathematics, music, sports, art or memory.
In the world of entertainment, several notable figures have been open about their experiences with autism, challenging stereotypes and inspiring others.
The stories of these stars and activists showcase the diversity within the spectrum and highlight the importance of embracing neurodiversity. By sharing their experiences, these individuals have not only shattered stereotypes but have also become advocates for increased awareness and acceptance.
Let’s take a look at some of these remarkable individuals who have embraced their neurodivergent identities.
1. Breanna ClarkSource:Getty
Decorated track and field star Breanna Clark won gold in the women’s 400-meter race for T20 classification at the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games. The shining athlete set a new world record with a time of 56.07 seconds. At the Rio Games in 2016, Clark took home a gold medal after she blazed through the track with a time of 57.79 seconds.
The star, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4, has also won World titles in 2017 and 2019. She took home a gold medal after competing in the Lima 2019 Parapan American Games women’s 400m T20.
2. John HowardSource:Getty
MMA fighter John Howard was clinically diagnosed with autism at the age of 33. The Boston native discovered that he was autistic after he underwent a series of non-invasive neurological tests, according to a 2016 interview with MMA Fighting.
Howard struggled with speech growing up and had difficulty learning in school. Making friends was also daunting for the professional fighter.
“Growing up, I was always in Special Education classes,” he told MMA Fighting. “I always struggled with learning disabilities. But back in the day, when I was coming up in school, we didn’t have autism, ADHD, all these things that we know about now. We didn’t have the science to understand it.”
When he was finally diagnosed with autism, Howard said that he felt like a huge weight was lifted off of his shoulders.
Howard hasn’t let his diagnosis stop him from achieving greatness. The star has 28 wins underneath his belt and has competed in professional boxing for over a decade, according to PS Academy Arizona.
3. Armani WilliamsSource:Getty
NASCAR star Armani Williams is the first driver to be openly diagnosed with autism. Williams was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2.
“I didn’t know until I was older,” the professional racer told Autism Speaks.
“It was around the time I was heading into middle school that my parents told me. They sat me down and did their best to explain what that meant to have autism. It immediately made me think back on all of the experiences that I had as a young child. That’s when it started to make sense for me. Once I could put all those memories together, that’s when I realized just what it meant to be on the autism spectrum.”
While Williams struggles at times with socializing and communication, the stock car driver credited his intense focus for his success out on the track. He was recognized as one of NASCAR’s national spotlight-level racers after he competed at the NASCAR Camping World Trucks Series. He also earned a coveted spot among NASCAR’s Top-10 Finish at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Canada.
4. Anita CameronSource:Getty
Disability activist Anita Cameron has spent over 35 years fighting for the civil rights and liberation of disability communities around the world. Cameron, who is autistic, has fought tooth a nail to improve voting rights, quality of healthcare and transportation accessibility for individuals with disabilities.
Cameron is a prominent figure behind Not Dead Yet, a disability rights group that opposes the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia.
5. Kalin BennettSource:Getty
In 2018, Kalin Bennett reportedly became the first player with autism to receive an NCAA scholarship at the Division I level after he accepted an offer from Kent State. His achievement is significant not only for his athletic prowess but also for breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes about individuals with autism in sports.
Bennett was diagnosed with autism at a young age. According to Cleveland.com, growing up doctors feared that he would never be able to walk or talk due to his condition, but he proved them wrong.
Now, he is on a mission to become a mentor for other athletes on the spectrum.
“I want to make an impact not just on the court, but with kids that are struggling with the same things I am,’’ Bennet told Cleveland.com.
“I want to use this platform to inspire other kids with autism and non-autism. I want to let them know, hey, if I can do this, you can do it, too. A lot of times they feel alone and by themselves, and I felt that same way growing up.’’
6. Dr. Lamar HardwickSource:Getty
Dr. Lamar Hardwick is an African-American pastor, author and speaker known for his advocacy and work in the autism community. He has been vocal about his journey as an individual with autism, seeking to raise awareness and understanding about the experiences of people on the spectrum.
In 2017, he published his bestselling book I Am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor which details his life living on the spectrum and how he used faith and courage as a catalyst to help others impacted by autism. The book aims to promote acceptance, inclusion and a better understanding of neurodiversity.
7. Tylan GrantSource:Getty
Tylan Grant, formerly Talia Grant, became the first autistic actress to star in a mainstream drama on British television after she was cast as Brooke Hathaway in the British soap opera Hollyoaks in 2018, according to Entertainment Daily.
8. Stephen WiltshireSource:Getty
Stephen Wiltshire is a cityscape artist, known for drawing life-like and detailed paintings of global skylines. In 2006, he was honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his amazing work.
According to his website, Wiltshire began drawing accurate impressions of city skylines across and streets around the UK at the age of 5. He was diagnosed with autism when he was three, DW News notes. Wiltshire only needs to see a glimpse of a city skyline to create his spectacular art.
Getting your hands on a custom drawing by the talented Brit will cost a pretty penny. According to DW News, Wiltshire’s work ranges from $1,200 to over $240,000.
9. Morgan Harper NicholsSource:Getty
Morgan Harper Nichols is a contemporary artist and poet known for her inspirational and motivational work. She gained popularity through her unique word art, which often carries powerful messages of hope, encouragement and self-discovery.
Nichols is recognized for her ability to create art that resonates with people on a personal and emotional level. Her work has been featured at Target, Anthropologie, Hallmark Stores, Kohls and other major brands.
Nichols has been open about the challenges of living with autism. In February 2021, the artist penned an open letter about the difficulty of trying to obtain an official diagnosis.
“Since I was young, this has been something that has been talked about in my family as a possibility before, however, many women and girls such as myself (and their families) find it extra hard to get diagnosed, or even just to get more information about getting tested, because there are so many misconceptions about how autism looks different in different people,” she wrote.
“As a result, I have gone years struggling in so many areas of my life, having no idea why.”
10. Kambel SmithSource:Getty
Sculptor and painter, Kambel Smith, is a self-taught artist with autism. The Germantown native builds large-scale, intricate sculptures of historical buildings out of cardboard collected from trash. Kambel’s pieces have quickly caught the attention of the art world.
According to his website, the star’s unique artwork has been purchased by the American Folk Art Museum and Philadelphia Eagles Lincoln Financial Field among other private investors. He often refers to himself as an “autisarian,” which is a person with superhuman abilities, according to Oc87 Recovery Diaries.