In celebration of Black History Month, the American Autism Association would like to a commemorate a few inspiring African Americans that have overcome their disabilities. A lesson can be learned from these honorable men and women that did not let the intersectionality of their dual-marginal identities keep them from achieving greatness.
Thomas Wiggins, also known as Blind Tom, was born into slavery in 1849. He lived on a plantation in Georgia along with his parents. Wiggins was blind and believed to be an autistic savant. He had an affinity to noise and could mimic any noise he heard. He could repeat conversations up to 10 minutes along, but could not communicate his wants and needs and would resort to whining and grunting, according to A Tribute to Blind Tom. Wiggins discovered the piano at the age of four and began playing what he would hear the plantation owner’s daughter play. It wasn’t long before he became a piano prodigy, repeating any composition he heard no matter the difficulty. At the age of six, he was performing sold out shows in Georgia. Wiggins toured the South throughout his teen years and was eventually invited to the White House by President James Buchanan. He was the first African American musician to officially perform in the White House. Wiggins later toured the rest of the United States and Europe, dying at the age of sixty from a stroke.
Stephen Wiltshire, famous for his ability to draw lifelike, accurate representation of cities with only a brief observation, was born in 1974. At the age of 3, he was diagnosed with autism and as a mute. Though he could not communicate through language, he found drawing to be his way of expression. His love for art grew, so much in fact that his teachers used Wiltshire’s art supplies as motivation to talk. They would temporarily take away his supplies until Wiltshire had no other choice but to ask for them. His first word was “paper”, according to stephenwiltshire.co.uk. At the age of 9, he learned to fully speak and received his first commission from the British Prime Minister to sketch the Salisbury Cathedral. Throughout his life, Wiltshire has traveled to various countries, published four books of drawings, been recognized by Queen Elizabeth II as a Member of the Order of the British Empire, and founded his own art gallery in London.
Harriet Tubman, while in her teen years, was walking to a dry good store when she was approached by a slave master to help him restrain a fellow slave that had left the field without permission. She refused and the man struck her head with a two-pound weight, states biography.com. This injury resulted in Tubman’s lifelong struggle with epilepsy, narcolepsy, and severe headaches. Once she escaped slavery, she went back and led hundreds of slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad. She was also a spy for the North during the Civil War and established a home for the elderly. In honor of her life, the Department of Treasury announced, in 2016, Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson on the twenty-dollar bill.
At the age of 8 living in rural Jamaica, Claudia Gordon began to experience severe pain in her middle ears. Without medical help nearby, Gordon went deaf and her life changed overnight. According to deafpeople.com, she “was pulled out of school, lost her friends, stayed home, and became an object of ridicule”. She moved to the United States at age eleven, where she graduated valedictorian from her high school. Gordon studied law and earned a degree in disability-rights law and policy at American University’s Washington College of Law, becoming the first known deaf African-American woman to earn a law degree. She was appointed by the Obama Administration as Special Assistant to the Director of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in the Department of Labor.
At a young age, Simone Biles was diagnosed with ADHD, but she has never let her diagnosis get in the way. At the age of 10, Biles was already competing as a level 8 gymnast. She went on to win a gold at the World Championships at the age of 16, becoming the first female African-American athlete to win gold in the all-around, as reported by biography.com. She secured her spot on the U.S women’s gymnastics team at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where she won four gold medals. She is the most decorated American gymnast in history, with 19 Olympic and World Championship medals. When controversy arose about her use of Ritalin at the Rio Olympics, both a treatment for ADHD and a restricted medication, Biles opened up about having ADHD and criticized the stigma around mental illnesses.