Tiffany Hammond didn’t set out to write A Day With No Words as a children’s book featuring a Black family with autism. The founder of the digital community Fidgets and Fries just wanted a published vehicle to educate people about autistic children.
“Every day we leave our home, something happens,” she declares to EBONY. “Someone will say something. Someone will make a comment. They will twist up their face. They claim to fear my child’s noises. They will say they are too old to love the swing set at the park. They will invite law enforcement into our lives if we threaten their safety simply by being.”
The need to address those issues in a child-friendly form became painfully evident. “My family faces so much and is governed by so much. If we were to be a message for others regardless of whether we wanted to or not, I wanted to control that message as much as I could and inform them of who we actually are in this diagnosis as well as this skin.” A Day With No Words highlights the bond between mother and child who use a tablet to communicate with others.
Hammond shares more about her family life and grappling with her own autistic diagnosis at age 18. She also shares incredible advice on autistic diagnoses and how we can all support and nurture families with autistic members.
EBONY: You decided to write your family's autism story as a children's book.
Tiffany Hammond: I had already been approached twice before and many of my followers suggested I was “perfect” for a children’s book. Soon, the idea of a children’s book was no longer a suggestion placed upon me but rather something I felt I needed to do. This world expects so much from us, things it doesn’t require of itself. And it wants so much from my children, especially my oldest, Aidan, who the book is centered on. Society will think what it wants of us, treat us how it feels we deserve to be treated, assign labels to our person and tell us what it is to exist in the skin they don’t know. They think they have all the answers as to who we are by a glance, a small moment in time or some show or movie they watched. They will claim to know us better than we know ourselves and attempt to silence us when we speak. But many don’t take the time to get to know us.
That must be extremely challenging for you and your children.
My children catch the brunt of the negativity our family faces. They mask less than I do. I have somewhat figured out how to navigate this world. They still have not. The first time my children noticed that they were different was around first grade. They went from having all the kids want to play with them regardless of who they were and what diagnosis they had to being the “weird or scary one” over the course of one summer. I wanted to have a conversation with children through this book. I didn’t want other children to go through what my children and I went through.
How did you learn of your boys' autism, especially when it seems to be a taboo subject in the Black community?
My oldest son, Aidan, was 17 months old when he was diagnosed. He didn’t speak. And at that age, we felt that it might have been a bit old for him to not say anything. We saw an ad for Autism Speaks where they detailed some symptoms, and we thought that Aidan fit several of them. The next day we reached out to our local state Mental Health office, and they helped us to get an assessment for our son. My youngest presents more like me. He is the one that made me come to terms with my own diagnosis that I received at age 18. I didn’t want him to get a diagnosis at first for the same reasons that I didn’t often tell people I was autistic in the first place. It is incredibly taboo in our community. I have seen how our families and friends can treat those who are disabled, especially those who have diagnoses that are developmental in nature. So, when I began to suspect autism in my youngest, Josiah, at age 3, I listened to the doctors when they told me to “wait and see.” I didn’t want him to have this label that would put a target on his back. There was already too much that he would face. But eventually, we knew that we couldn’t do that to him. He had to know. And so did we. Because there is power in knowing.
What is a typical day in your home to make life work for your sons?
How we make our home life work is to make it as autism friendly as possible. This means schedules, labels, sensory items and more. Our schedules are not rigid at all, but they do keep us focused throughout the day. We leave ourselves room for things to change on us or for us to modify it as we see, or disregard it for that day. We have one schedule on the wall, but we mostly keep the kids' schedules on their iPads. Visual timers are only useful if they are used as suggestions and not something that is rigid and must be adhered to or else there's some negative consequence attached. We keep sensory items (headphones, fidget toys, etc.) in each room for easy access. Our television always has captions on to help build literacy skills and sometimes we just like to watch with the sound down. Home is about making it as comfortable and functional as possible for all of us. Home is a safe space, especially when this world can be harsh, cruel and unaccommodating. Home shouldn't be like that.
What advice do you give to Black parents who receive a diagnosis that their child is autistic?
When your child finally receives that diagnosis, you are probably exhausted. Take time to sit with the diagnosis and what that will mean for you and for your family. It has most likely been a battle and you might even be a bit frustrated with medical systems and schools, and maybe even with feeling as though you don’t know how to help your child. You are sitting with a lot by the time that diagnosis comes. Take some time to breathe before you take on the challenge of telling friends and family. Be sure to enjoy your child during this time. They are still the same child they were before the diagnosis. The only difference is you now know more about them, and you will be better able to tend to their needs.
What about telling other family members and friends about your child's diagnosis?
Share when you are ready and not a moment sooner. One of the biggest mistakes I made when the boys were younger is that I felt I shared their diagnoses far too soon with others. This is something that is deeply personal to you, but especially to your child. You feel a lot of emotions after a diagnosis and sometimes you can feel pressured to reveal their diagnosis to whoever has something to say about their behavior. Learn what you can about their diagnosis and process what it means. Because when you have a deeper understanding of autism, and you don’t have to know everything, it is easier to talk about it with others, answer any questions they may have and clear up any misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding autism.
Telling families and friends about your children’s diagnosis is difficult because of how disability, especially disabilities that are neurodevelopmental, like autism, is perceived within the Black community. Our relationships with our family and friends can change because of an autism diagnosis. Some loved ones will be there, but sadly, some will not. Many will not accept your child’s diagnosis. They might think you just don’t want to discipline them. You cannot make others accept autism, but you can provide them with as many opportunities as you can to learn about it. Visual aids, movies, infographics, etc. help when sharing with loved ones about your child’s autism. There are some amazing creators, many of whom are autistic, like me, that have generated great visual content that you can use to talk with your family. One of the main reasons people love my platform is because of the stories I tell about myself and my boys. I make it a point to show who we are beyond diagnostic presentations. Simplicity is key.
What can the Black community do to support children with autism and their families?
Recognize that this diagnosis is not “overdiagnosed.” It is not something that “everyone has.” Autism is a spectrum and there are many ways that one can exist in this diagnosis. Be supportive of families like ours and educate yourself about autism. Accept that the diagnosis does nothing to hurt you but denying it does so much to hurt families. For family gatherings and holidays, be welcoming and inclusive. Show families like ours that we are accepted and loved. Invite our children to play with yours. A common misconception about autism is that we don’t want friends or social connections. That is not true for so many of us. We struggle with communication but that doesn’t mean we do not want to communicate with others. Playdates are a great way for families to get together and our children to learn and play with one another.
What do your sons think of the book?
I don’t know if they understand the importance of this book, but they do love it. My youngest son loves to see his brother on the pages of the book and thinks it’s amazing that my hair is this blue afro with baby hair. I worried that he wouldn’t like the story at first because he can be so protective of how we share his brother and his life. We all are. But he felt as though I did a really good job with the book. Aidan, who the book is about, is nonspeaking and while he communicates with an iPad and a tablet, he won’t always let you know what he is thinking at any given moment. But he will let you know how he feels about something with his hands, his eyes, his smile. The way he laughs and how his face lights up when he sees himself on the pages of this book tells me everything. How he falls asleep with it on the same page and then wakes to turn it back to the same page before he drifts back to sleep tells me that he loves it.