As a law student and longtime social activist, Lydia X.Z. Brown is a regular presence at legal and social justice events across the East Coast. Despite that, Brown says they often get a bewildered reaction when it's revealed they are autistic.
"People will look at me as if I am one of their peers, but as soon as I disclose that I am autistic, their voice register changes," Brown told NBC News. "They go 'Oh, good for you. You must have overcome so much.'"
The assumption that autism is a condition that should be considered shameful or that must be overcome is something Brown has devoted their entire life to changing. Now 23, the Northeastern University School of Law student has been advocating for disability rights since their early teens. As the author of the blog Autistic Hoya, they've covered topics ranging from police violence against disabled people of color to persistent ableist language in popular media.
The topics covered on Autistic Hoya are often the very ones Brown was discouraged from discussing or thinking about growing up. A transracial adoptee, Brown was born in China and moved to Massachusetts as a baby, where they was raised by their white American parents in a town that was overwhelmingly white.
"I was in middle school when I was identified as autistic," Brown said. "Like most young disabled people the only narrative I had available to me was that you could talk about being disabled only if you talked about doing so in an inspirational way. The other alternative was a narrative of shame — that disability is shameful so the only way to talk about it is to say 'I overcame it' 'I won this battle.'"
Brown recalled that one of the hardest parts of adjusting to being autistic was hearing the constant message that it was something that should be kept secret. "I was told, 'don't talk to anybody about this because if you do it will be another reason for people to bully you,'" Brown said. "And 'Don't talk about it publicly because it's a personal health problem.'"
That message is one Brown said no autistic child should ever hear. "The narrative that being autistic was something that I shouldn't really talk about, that in a quote unquote ideal world I would grow out of it that when I grew up I would get better, [those beliefs] have an underlying assumption that to be autistic means that there is something wrong, that to be autistic is to be broken," Brown said.
It was also a message that Brown internalized for years until they joined the Boston chapter of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, one of the largest policy-focused disability rights organizations run by autistic people, as a high schooler. "That was first time I connected with other autistic people that didn't think that way," Brown said. "For them, being autistic was not a defect wasn't something that needed to fixed or cured, but it was the way their brain worked. It was disabling to be sure, but it wasn't an inherent problem."
Working with the disability activist community also helped Brown realize their calling. "For the past seven years or so, I have been focused on issues of violence affecting disabled folks," they said. "Violence in schools, in institutions, in the context of police violence, and in the context of prisons."
As Brown notes, each of those areas often overlap, most recently in the shooting last month of Charles Kinsey, a mental health therapist who was shot by police as he was attending to his unarmed autistic patient Arnaldo Eliud Rios Soto outside of a facility in Florida. In an article written with two colleagues, Brown noted how racism and ableism both contributed to the erasure of autistic people of color in the conversation about the incident.
"The officer's claim that he wasn't aiming for the unarmed black man, but that he was aiming for the unarmed Hispanic autistic man was rooted in both race and ableism," Brown said. "[The officers were] communicating that autistic and other disabled people were threats, were violent and scary."
Much of Brown's work centers around the fact that autistics of color are disproportionately victims of police violence. Thinking about how they could help this community eventually led Brown towards pursuing a legal career.
"If you had asked me through most of college, 'Would you consider law school?' I would have said 'Over my dead body,'" Brown said, laughing. "But I ended up in law school because I thought it would give me additional tools. I don't believe the law is going to save people or the law is somehow going to magically get rid of oppression but I do believe the law can be an effective tool in reducing or stopping some forms of violence."
Brown continued, "whether that is helping someone overturn their civil commitment order, or through using litigation against a prison for their systemic abuse against people with disabilities, or through sending a scary letter to somebody's landlord that's signed esquire that scares the landlord enough that they stop, if my degree does any of those things then it would have been useful."