Morgan Harper Nichols Was Just Diagnosed With Autism — Now She’s Inspiring Black Women On Similar Journeys
Morgan Harper Nichols has been autistic since childhood, but it wasn’t until her recent diagnosis that things became clear for her.
“Since I was young, [autism] has been something that has been talked about in my family as a possibility before,” she writes in a recent blog post. “However, many women and girls such as myself (and their families) find it extra hard to get diagnosed, or even just to get more information about getting tested, because there are so many misconceptions about how autism looks different in different people.”
This is especially true for Black women. According to Spectrum, a lack of research on Black people with autism makes it especially difficult for Black autistic women to navigate the world. And because of this, she spent years struggling throughout multiple areas of her life without understanding why. Nichols says that she struggled to make and maintain friendships as a child. She also dealt with sensory issues, and struggled with many day-to-day skills. When she asked her primary care doctor to refer her to a specialist because she suspected she may be on the autism spectrum, he dismissed her concern and told her she had “nothing to worry about.”
Now 31 and officially diagnosed, Nichols is on a mission to help others like her find the clarity she did. Her diagnosis helped her to understand herself more fully and gave context to the challenges she faced growing up. And her latest book, How Far You Have Come, is testament to such obstacles, and the power in looking back at the ways we overcome them. Based on photos from road trips she took as a young girl, the collection of essays — which was illustrated by Nichols herself — serves as a reminder that there is beauty in even the smallest of things, even if some experiences are particularly difficult in the moment.
“I want to encourage people to go through their phones, cameras and find those moments in your own life, your own story that say, ‘Oh, I really have come so far. I did that. I went there. I made it through that year. I made it through that month. That day,’ she shares with R29Unbothered. “I think all of that is super important and it might not feel like it when you look at it the first time. But I just want to encourage people to see the richness of their own story and to honour that as they prepare for whatever lies ahead.”
Below, we talk to Nichols about finding courage even in the most uncertain times, and what it means to empower our future by looking back on our past.
R29Unbothered: Thanks for making the time to talk with us, Morgan. How are you feeling about the release of your new book?
Morgan Harper Nichols: “You know, it's an interesting feeling. I started working on this book at the beginning of the first lockdown, and I started wrapping it up last summer when everything was going on in the country. I’m just wanting to share something that just gives a sense of, ‘OK, we can still look at how far we've come, even though we still have so far to go.’ Like, ‘Let's still take time to honour our journeys and honour our progress.’ A year ago, I was feeling the same way. I’m wanting that message of courage to be out there, and that's something that I'm seeking in my own life. I want to share that with others, too.”
It's needed right now, so I feel like this is coming at a really appropriate time. What was that writing and illustration process like? You noted that you were working on this while we were navigating last year’s social uprisings. Did you hit any creative slumps?
“Yes, I definitely experienced that. I was like, ‘What am I going to write about?’ Because I said yes to this before I knew that the whole world was going to shut down. So I was like, ‘It's really hard to look ahead right now, but I can look back.’ The book actually started with going through my phone's camera roll and just looking at different chapters in my life in different moments. The first one that I landed on is actually the cover of the book. It was a photo that I took leaving Albuquerque, New Mexico one morning years ago, and it just became one of my favourite photos. It was just sunrise and mountain rock faces. And as I was looking at that photo, I thought, ‘Isn't this interesting how this photo to me represents so much beauty?’ At the same time, I was in a really uncertain season of my life when that photo was taken, and that led me on this journey of looking at other moments in my life that have been like that, where I've been somewhere that was aesthetically beautiful and at the same time there was internal struggle happening. That combination helped me see in my own story, ‘Wow, like you really made it. You physically have traveled so many miles in your life and internally you traveled so many miles and and you've been through so many things.’
Were there any memories that came up that were difficult to confront?
“I ended up deciding to write the book about a road trip that I took as a kid from Georgia to California, and I had a story for every state. I kept avoiding this one [Alabama] story. I had gone to college on the Georgia-Alabama state line, and I experienced a major failure there. That was a huge source of shame for me, and I had not written about that or talked about that. But I had already committed to writing this whole journey, so I was like, ‘I have to tell this story in Alabama.’ It took so much. I come from a family where there were not a lot of college graduates. And I felt like, ‘OK, if you're going to go here, you need to do great.’ When I failed, it felt fatal, it felt final, and it felt like I had let my family down. I suddenly had this moment. I was like, ‘Morgan, when you were a sophomore in college, you were feeling that way. There is another sophomore out there who feels the same way, so I'm going to own it and try to tell the story.’ I just ultimately think I felt that it was very important to try to lean into that."
What's one of the biggest things that you learned about yourself while writing this book and embarking on this journey?
“That's such a good question. I learned that my story is worth sharing. I oftentimes will hide behind poetry and art because I have never really felt like my story was interesting enough or worth really sharing and spending time with looking at what I've been through. I just didn't have that level of comfort, but I think at this point with this book, I was sitting at home writing it with the lockdowns going on, and I'm like, ‘I've got to dig. I've got to dig into my own story. I have to sit here and reflect and go deeper into the life I'm living and the life I've already lived.’ That was new for me. That's something I don't even know I could have done before last year. I'm definitely really, really proud of myself for doing that.”
You recently shared that you were diagnosed with autism and you spoke about the relief that you felt when you were able to connect your past experiences leading up to now with your diagnosis. Considering that you struggled with feeling comfortable with putting yourself out there, what other feelings came up for you?
“I was so nervous and anxious about sharing. I ultimately ended up deciding on sharing because, very similar to what I said about thinking about the girl in college who may be like me, I thought of the very same thing in terms of there's not a lot of information out there for Black autistic women. I have just been continually shocked over and over at how people in my personal life and online are open to learning and open to wanting to know more. I think that for many people who are marginalized or part of a minority group, you can get so used to people not really caring or just dismissing your story. And I've been surprised by how many people are like, ‘No, tell me more. What is your experience like?’
I’ve been learning how to trust that amidst all of the people that will dismiss you, there are other people out there who will support you. And that's just something I have to continue to tell myself, because it's hard. My experience with getting diagnosed started with a doctor who dismissed me, and unfortunately, I believed him for too many years. And it took me years to get the courage to ask another doctor and get help. I’ve been really grateful for the people who have been supportive, and it really does give me hope.”
Do you have anything that you can share with other Black women who may be on a similar journey?
“I would say the first thing is it's so important that you have a support system, even if it's your sister, your mom. My mom has a chronic pain disorder. And as a Black woman who has been through the healthcare system, it's just been atrocious. At the same time, she's someone that I can talk to who has given me a lot of courage to seek help again. Don't be afraid to reach out to someone, even if they don't have the same diagnosis, even if it's just someone that you can text when you're about to go into the doctor's office. I just think that makes a huge difference. We need each other and I want everybody to have that.