A Connection between Autism and Natural Hair

Esther Miller Dillard with sisterlocks

Esther’s Updated Sisterlocks look

I know that this post isn’t directly about autism, but it does have a connection. I’ll explain that later.

It’s been about one year and six months since I decided to change my hair to a style called sisterlocks. For those of you who aren’t familiar, in short — it’s a hair technique that is trademarked. A trained technician locks your hair with a special tool. The person takes tiny sections of hair and sort of knits it into micro-mini  upside-down braid. It’s a permanent technique. I can take them out but I’d more than likely cut my hair all off and start all over again because it would take so long to remove more than 450-500 braids.

This was at first a difficult decision. I was so used to a long process of doing my hair on a daily and weekly basis to maintain a straight or pressed look. As much as my immediate family encouraged education, learning about black history and black pride, natural hair (unless it was straight or lightly curly) was not embraced.

You can watch my first video on my hair journey at:

I wanted to briefly revisit this partially because this week I read an article that was posted on Facebook. It was originally written by a blogger on ebony.com in November 2013. The link is below:

We Aren’t All Curly, Girl

The article was well written by natural hair columnist named Jouelzy.  She went through a long extended explanation of hair types and curl patterns to explain to those who don’t quite understand that black natural hair has different curl patterns and textures. We as sisters of color are not all the same. We are different.  The main issue she addressed was that there was a rift among the natural hair movement to celebrate the lightly curly styles and ignore or shun the other natural hair styles that didn’t fit that pattern. In other words, if you have lightly curly hair and are natural you are ok. If you have a kinky/course grade of hair — like I have — it’s not ok. Jouelzy did not agree with this concept but was just pointing out that the attitude exists.

This does appear to be at least for now — true. Unless you are rocking a short afro, or straight braided extensions that flow in a straight pattern down your back, course hair styles are not usually something seen inside a fashion magazine. Occasionally, they will show a black woman with a blow out for a special artsy photo featuring an outfit. However, course hair, is not typically featured or celebrated. However, I think one point may have been missed in the article.

Social attitudes about hair texture and skin color are learned. It’s re-enforced ideas by people saying it and thinking it over and over.  The more you say it, the more you think it. The more it becomes your truth. The only way to change this thought pattern or belief is by changing the reinforced idea. And it doesn’t start with trying to change the caucasian culture’s attitudes about African-American or Latin hair. It starts with African-Americans and Latin people changing their attitudes about their hair.

It will probably take years, but Black and Latin women need to feel better about their own hair. If it’s straight- great. If it’s bouncy and lightly curly – great. If it’s course and kinky – great. If it’s light blonde — great. If it’s brown or black — great.  There shouldn’t be a celebration over one type over another. The child with the straight light-colored hair shouldn’t be praised in front of the kid who doesn’t have that type of hair. And then later the adult says — Oh, your hair is just fine it doesn’t matter. You have lied. You have subconsciously told that child they don’t measure up. Their hair isn’t on the same level. Their hair is “less than” and it’s not desirable. Kids get this message whether you verbally say it or not.

Check yourself the next time you run from the rain and say in front of your little girl that you don’t want your hair “turning frizzy or nappy”. Your message about embracing all hair as equal and beautiful has just gone out the window. You have lied. It may be unintentional but you are sending the wrong message. Your truth comes from within. The new message has to be internalized.

So how does this relate to autism? Well there is a split often between parents of children diagnosed with autism. I will try my best to categorize it in the simplest of terms. There is often a rift between parents with verbal children versus parents with non-verbal children. The verbal children are often categorized as more intelligent or somehow above the non-verbal kids. However, more and more people are learning that just because the kid isn’t talking doesn’t mean that the child doesn’t understand or isn’t intelligent. The child just might not be able to communicate the way society is used to communicating. It’s our job to figure out how to communicate with that child.

Again the issue lies with thought. How do you think about a subject? Why do you think this way?

Although my child is on The Spectrum and verbal, I have had to check myself when around parents of neurotypical children. I am often apologizing for my son not begin at their child’s level when it comes to various activities. I realized I have to stop. It’s sending a subconscious message to my son —  that he’s not “ok”. Children learn at different rates. Just because it takes my son a little longer than Johnny over there to do something — so what. Who cares what that parent thinks when they narrow their eyes at my child’s behavior. My thought should be: Why is my child reacting this way? Are they just tired? Or are they just being a kid? Everything that doesn’t fit into the accepted social pattern isn’t necessarily WRONG — it’s just different. Are there physical or sensory issues that my child is dealing with that is causing a set of behaviors?

And for the parents of non-verbal children — I’ve read from many experts and parents don’t focus on what the child can’t do but what they can do. Celebrate the small miracles. Who care’s what the other parent who is not dealing with your child or your situation thinks. You are the one living and dealing with your loved one every day. The others don’t see the progress you have seen.

Finally, I’ll end with a reminder to those who have African-American hair that does not fit the mainstream hair-styling look to sing the song featured in a Sesame Street video – I Love My Hair. We need to really learn to love our own hair before others can appreciate it.

Below are the links to the Sesame Street video and a link to the ABC News Story about the creator of the video.

Sesame Street Writer creates song and video for his daughter




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