Adriana Lebrón White Talks Neurodiversity & Autism in Latinx Community

Adriana Lebrón White speaks about her experience as an autistic librarian, special ed teacher, and writer

Adriana Lebrón White Autism Awareness Month

Photo courtesy of Adriana Lebrón White

Even though there’s a larger awareness of neurodiversity in today’s mainstream culture, neurodivergent diagnoses like autism and Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are still taboo to talk about in the Latinx community. Parents of children who may have autism often experience feelings of shame or don’t even know that the diagnosis exists, which only makes the child’s growth and development more difficult and confusing. But when a neurodivergent diagnosis is caught early, families are able to access helpful resources, lower stress, and overall offer an easier transition into adulthood. Yet, in a scientific study from 2014, researchers found that for a variety of reasons, including cultural stigma and lack of quality access to medical care, Latinx children are diagnosed with autism two and half years later than white, non-Latinx children. They are also more likely to be misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all despite displaying all the characteristics. It’s also been found that girls are four times less likely to be diagnosed with autism than boys because symptoms often show up differently, which means Latinas are being doubly failed by the medical system.

That’s why it’s so important that autistic Latinas like Adriana Lebrón White continue to speak out, share their experiences, and advocate for the inclusivity of all neurodivergent experiences in our community. An autistic librarian, writer, and former special ed teacher, White, who is Puerto Rican and Mexican, didn’t receive her diagnosis until 2018 when she was in her 30s. Like many autistic Latinas, she went through a long journey toward feeling understood and seen.

“Receiving the diagnosis was incredibly validating for me because it told me that there wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with me,” she tells HipLatina. “My brain just worked differently than a neurotypical brain. And with that diagnosis, I was able to advocate for myself and the accommodations that I needed to be successful.”

But growing up, autism wasn’t something White thought about at all. As a child, her attention was on reading but she had her own way of pursuing this interest. Of course, she liked picture books but she also loved digging into her family’s set of encyclopedias for young readers. It came with an extra volume all about dinosaurs, which happened to be her favorite subject. One thing she enjoyed doing was to read each encyclopedia volume from beginning to end in order. Then, when she finished, she would flip back to the beginning of the first volume and start all over again. She didn’t know it yet, but this special interest in nonfiction materials, as well as her reading habit, was a sign of autism. Another sign? When she was in kindergarten, her mother began to notice that no matter how many times she would call for White at the foot of the stairs, she never seemed to hear her. It was only when White saw her mother in her eyesight that she realized she was being spoken to. She had to go to an audiologist to get her hearing checked but no autism diagnosis was considered at that time.

Years later, after graduating with a teaching degree, she decided to become a special ed teacher for kindergarteners. Even though she hadn’t been diagnosed, she wanted to fill gaps in the education system that routinely left autistic kids behind. She loved being able to connect with autistic students and their families, and help them embrace their special interests. But over time, she began to experience moments where she noticed discrepancies in the things she’d learned and what she was seeing in her classroom. This was especially true when she began teaching a group of Mexican triplets who all had autism.

“In grad school, the stories I had read about autism were exclusively about young white boys, many of whom were nonspeaking,” she explains. “But the triplets were able to speak, unless they were overwhelmed, and their behaviors didn’t entirely align with the autistic traits I had been taught in grad school.”

Motivated by this curiosity, White began looking for more stories, especially those that focused on autism in girls and autism in Latinx families, to see what else she had been missing. And the more she looked, the more she saw similarities between herself and the children she was reading about. Once, she read about a parent talking about their autistic daughter who never answered her when called, whether because she didn’t recognize her name or was so focused on a task that she tuned everything else out – just as White had done as a young girl.

This ultimately led to her going to a doctor with a specialized focus on autistic adults and by the time she was 34, she was officially diagnosed with autism and generalized anxiety disorder.

Now 40, she’s found that the diagnosis has changed her life in many ways. She was able to seek out a support system of other autistic adults and connect on an even deeper level with her students. Plus, knowing that there was a reason and explanation for her unique traits and special interests allowed her to be less apologetic about who she was. She grew bolder in advocating for herself at work and in other contexts, asking for accommodations on projects and tasks like more time or specific modes of communication.

But over time, she found that being a teacher wasn’t as fulfilling a role as she’d hoped it would be. For one, there was never enough time or resources for her special ed classroom. She had trouble creating a balanced environment that simultaneously catered to students who liked quiet and those who thrived in noisy conditions. Not to mention that she had so much paperwork to deal with on top of her regular workload that she found herself spending her time preparing for meetings while paraprofessionals taught her class.

Then, during the pandemic, she suddenly lost a close neurodivergent friend to suicide. Through research, she was able to find startling statistics about the horrifying connection between neurodivergency and suicide, how commonly these tragedies happen and yet the lack of care or outreach that’s done to save neurodivergent lives.

“I learned that suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, ages 10-34. I learned that autistic people are 9-10 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. I learned that far too many neurodivergent people suffer from mental health conditions like anxiety and depression,” she explains.

Even if she wasn’t a teacher anymore, White still wanted to help neurodivergent kids lead long, beautiful, fulfilling lives. She wanted to show them how to advocate for themselves and their needs. She wanted to help people like her but in a different way that felt truer to herself. Influenced by her love of reading and deep passion for advocacy, she decided to transition to a career as a librarian.

“My purpose became so clear,” she says. “I saw how the library could be a special place for disabled students, and heard from other librarians that they felt as if they lacked the specialized training needed to work with students in special education settings. I felt inspired to switch fields to librarianship in order to try and help those other librarians. Because I didn’t want these kids to have to suffer the way my friend did. The way I did, as an undiagnosed kid in the ’80s and ’90s. I want these kids to live happy and fulfilling lives, without all the barriers and issues that we faced.”

In doing so, she’s breaking down barriers and misconceptions about what autistic Latinxs look like. When Latinas and other marginalized communities continue to go without diagnoses, this work has never been more important. She continues to notice the number of people across racial and ethnic groups who still struggle to understand mental health at all, let alone neurodiversity, for a variety of reasons.

Sometimes it’s religion-based, sometimes it’s having outdated ideas of parenting and child development, or the belief that neurodivergent people should adapt to mainstream norms rather than the other way around. Add in language barriers, cultural differences, immigration statuses, or the possibility of autism running in the family, and there become a whole host of reasons why Latinx families hesitate to pursue a diagnosis for their children. As a librarian, she’s learning that it’s about taking baby steps to raise awareness of what an diagnosis really means and how they can benefit us all.

“As a community, I think the best thing we can do is fight back against the instinct to isolate ourselves from people who are different from us. People we don’t understand. Making sure that we don’t leave out the people who strike us as ‘weird,'” she says. “Because the isolation that autistic people feel is directly tied to all that anxiety and depression that we also experience. Without a strong sense of community, we falter and fall apart.”

Part of her work in bringing the community together in that way has been through advocating for more inclusivity in the library. This has included hosting storytimes and Lego club meetings for kids with special needs or sensory issues, purchasing books by disabled and neurodivergent authors, and creating displays centering on disabled and neurodivergent experiences. With the support of her community and fellow library staff, she’s been able to incorporate representation and storytelling into everything she does in her library practice.

“Storytelling as a whole is really such an underappreciated element of librarianship,” she says. “We share information with our patrons, but we also have to package and market that information to appeal to the people that it’s meant for. Our book displays, our collections, our programs – everything we do weaves a story about who we are and what we believe, what we want to hide and what we hold dear. All of these things help us carve out who we are, and who we aren’t. Stories are validating and essential.”

White’s even gone on to write original stories herself. As part of a mentorship program with Latinx in Publishing, she’s currently working on a middle-grade novel about “a young, autistic Latina who learns a big secret about her family, and she has to leave home for the first time to find some answers about her parents’ past.” The writing process has been able to offer her a new perspective on the books she reads: the time and care they take, how they can inspire all of us, how they can help us discover who we are.

In many ways, stories are not unlike a diagnosis, which, if done right, becomes a story about us. An aspect of who we are. Where we come from. How we move through the world. Of course, with the current state of medical care, the process isn’t always perfect. But it can empower us, help us understand ourselves better, raise larger cultural awareness, and help us connect with others in our community. She notes:

“I’ve spoken with so many other people who are considering a formal diagnosis, and there are so many variables. Cost is a huge one. I was privileged enough to have insurance that vastly reduced the cost of diagnosis. I had the money to pay the copay. I could afford to take the time off work to travel to Houston, multiple times. I wish that others were able to more easily receive a diagnosis, if they want one. In the meantime, I’m a big advocate for self-diagnosis, because sometimes that’s all we have. In a perfect world, we’d all have the opportunity to find out exactly who we are and how our brains work, and I hope that we do get there someday soon.”

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