The verdict is in: it is legal in America to presume that Black boys are a threat worthy of death. What else is new? As the mother of three African-American sons, I have always worried about how many of their birthdays I will get to celebrate with them. But now, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, have awakened a new fear in me that is strongest for my youngest, most vulnerable child. Trayvon was killed because he did not submit to the imagined authority of George Zimmerman. And my adorable 5-year-old boy has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), autism, and ADHD, all of which make it more difficult for him to submit to any authority, real or imagined. And when he sheds his innocence with his baby fat and grows into a young Black man who is also managing these disorders, I fear he will be even more of a walking target than the average Black boy.
Before his third birthday, I noticed my son was different. He cried for hours and would not allow anyone to comfort him. He hated being hugged. Once, on a family trip to the zoo, he was so overwhelmed by the crowd and all of the different noises that he was inconsolable. I brought up some of his strange habits to his pediatrician and my husband and I were referred to a developmental pediatrician for testing. I was clueless as to what the possible reasons could be and devastated when, a few months later, he was officially diagnosed with behavioral disorders.
Most African-American parents with sons understand that there is a great chance that your offspring will be viewed as aggressive, defiant and resistant to authority simply because they are Black. For my son, these perceptions will be even greater because aggressiveness, defiance and resistance to authority are characteristics of living with ODD. Multiple times a day, I cry with my son in frustration though I know he simply cannot help his behavior. It is not his fault.
At first, I criticized myself for having a child at 36 when I’d just had a healthy daughter at 35. I believed I gave my son autism and I thought God was punishing me for being greedy. But after spending a few weeks funneling through the stages of grief, I sprang into action. I knew if I didn’t become my son’s number one advocate he would be lost in a system of misunderstanding, devaluation and apathy. I didn’t have time to fall apart or feel sorry for not having the perfect child. I had the child that I was supposed to have and he needed me.
It was nothing but love that allowed me to lock myself in a room with him, prepared to take whatever he delivered during the worst of his outbursts. I knew it would be easier to handle his hits while they were toddler-sized. I’m doing everything in my power to get his behavior under control before he doubles in size and triples in strength. It takes a team of knowledgeable and dedicated professionals to help manage my 5-year old’s tantrums, daily: at home, school and in therapy. I teach my son appropriate behavior, right from wrong and how to manage his disability. But unlike a child without ODD, ADHD and autism, I have to reinforce these lesson several times a day, every day. And there are bound to be setbacks, off days—he’s still human like the rest of us. And he’s not alone.
The CDC reports that one in every 88 children—and one in every 54 boys—are being diagnosed with autism, with the largest increase reported among Hispanics and African-Americans. Researchers also say that Black children are being diagnosed with autism much later in life than other children, due to society’s mental health stigmas and a lack of access to affordable health care, which can lead to “longer, more intensive treatment.” These are our boys whose lives are at an even greater risk, and we need to become educated about these disorders and their symptoms as they become more prevalent in our society. It is impossible for parents to do everything that is needed by ourselves.
The cost of caring for an autistic child is nearly double that of a child without autism. Caregivers need support from grandparents, relatives, friends and neighbors. Respite care shouldn’t be a luxury, but a covered cost in insurance plans for those with disabled family members. Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy must be an option to families whose loved one could benefit from such an intervention. Access to affordable treatment for these disorders must be made available for all families. And personal counseling for the primary caregiver ought to be a requirement.
But more than anything, we need a society that empathizes with and values the lives of our children—especially those with disorders whose behavior can quickly be misunderstood. We need a community that will stand for them and fight for their lives. Who will teach the police and the wannabe police, the George Zimmermans of the world, not to victimize our sons for Walking While Disabled and Black?
Sharisse T. Smith is a writer and essayist with an MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared on the New York Times’ parenting blog, Motherlode. Follow her on Twitter @SharisseTSmith.