Reflections on Neurodiversity at Oxford and the book ‘Afrotistic’
I recently had the joy of attending an event with neurodiverse people from all over the university community, to discuss a new young adult novel by Oxford resident and graduate Kala Allen Omeiza, called ‘Afrotistic’. Neurodiversity at Oxford is a new group set up by some of my tutors at St Anne’s, and I feel honoured to go to a college that has such a focus on intersectionality and welfare for all of its students.
The seminar allowed students and staff to share a space to think about intersectionality and disability. We started speaking about the cultural side of this, such as a great example taken from Allen Omeiza’s novel. At one point the protagonist, a 15-year-old black girl with a love of AI tech, writes an essay on the social responsiveness scale, and its use in diagnosing autism. Noa (the protagonist) tells it like it is, explaining how these tests use an outward perspective that ‘measures how cool you are.’ She points out that it’s not fair to compare the white American male archetype of autism to everyone. Why should, she argues, her relatives in Sierra Leone who have a very different social culture to Americans, be tested by its social standard?
From this, we moved to talking about intersectionality. One of my favourite quotes from one attendee was “Ableism isn’t racism, but for disabled people, and racism isn’t ableism but for ethnic minorities.”
Within the discussion there was definitely a sense of coming together over shared experience.
I can’t speak from personal experience about immigration, but I can share the brilliantly eloquent ideas of some of the young people around me. They elaborated on the socioeconomic pressures there are to succeed as a BAME immigrant, and how neurodivergence can be seen as a failure within that community structure. But they also spoke about how, despite the fact that autism, ADHD, OCD, and other conditions can be seen as weaknesses, this misguided concern comes from a place of love. There was so much nuance and understanding throughout this meeting.
Within the discussion there was definitely a sense of coming together over shared experience. Over the vibrant characters in Allen Omeiza’s book, and the joy of a neurodiverse hero. In my reading of Afrotistic, I personally found it really refreshing to see autism portrayed not as a ‘personality trait’ but as an innate part of who Noa is. She is unafraid of this label. Back in Oxford, this concept led us to discuss the neurodiverse embrace of labels, from gender and sexuality, to friendship groups (Noa names her autism group the Roaring Pebbles and it’s adorable). I found Allen Omeiza’s book to be really refreshing in terms of this representation. As our group discussed how ‘disabled’ is a negative label to some, one group member expressed that “The term ‘disabled’ for a disabled person grants innate recognition of the needs you have and, for me, that’s validating.”
Allen Omeiza creates a wonderful cast of characters, and a character-driven novel that highlights the teenage joy of finding your people. The Roaring Pebbles group welcomes anyone, autistic or not, and I found it so joyful to have a character whose parents were so kind. This kindness was really highlighted in a moment in the book where they install a ramp to the basement where the group meets, without asking questions. The conflict for this novel comes from within the characters themselves, not from miscommunication or a set antagonist. This meant that, for me, it really felt like a novel by an autistic person who truly understands her own experience and managed to capture a subtlety in her writing.
To have such an unabashed and clear example of a black, autistic teen girl as a star of a book for kids brings tears to my eyes.
To have such an unabashed and clear example of a black, autistic teen girl as a star of a book for kids brings tears to my eyes. I would have loved this book as a child, and I can’t wait to read more of what Allen Omeiza has to write, and attend more events from Neurodiversity at Oxford.
Kala Allen Omeiza’s book Afrotistic is available to purchase on Amazon, and make sure to also check out the Neurodiversity at Oxford group if you’re interested!
Featured image description: purple cover of the book ‘Afrotistic’ held by a hand against the background of a lawn and building