Black Autistic Voices: Meet Kala Allen Omeiza
By Melissa Lushington, "Don't Cut Corners...Unless It's Cake" - Blog Series Vol. 4, Slice #2
Photo courtesy of Kala Allen Omeiza
Happy Black History Month everyone, and welcome to another edition of the blog series: Black Autistic Voices! In this edition, I want to talk about a young woman whose work really grabbed my attention and blew me away. This woman wrote a story about a young teenage girl whose African American and autistic in her novel Afrotistic, and the author herself is autistic as well! This young woman needs to have the recognition she deserves not only for being true to who she is but also for writing a beautiful story that allows other autistic women of color to see themselves as the main character and resonate with many of the experiences she goes through. This young woman is a Writer, Author, Avid Reader, and Oatmeal Connoisseur. Her name is Kala Allen Omeiza, and this is her story.
In a YouTube Podcast video titled Afrotistic with Kala Allen Omeiza,Speaker, Author, Parent Coach, and Autistic individual/advocate Maria Davis-Pierre did an interview with Kala Omeiza about her experiences with autism and how it led her to write her novel Afrotistic. In the interview, the first subject that Maria discussed with Kala was getting an autism diagnosis later in life as an adult, and Maria asked Kala how she went about getting her diagnosis for autism, and Kala’s response was that she went to get therapy at the time due to her having a falling out with a group of people who she thought were her friends. She was accepted for the Fulbright Scholarship in Nigeria’s World Health Organization, and she was instructed to go to therapy for six months to receive the doctor’s approval to go to Nigeria. So, she had a group session with young adults that were between the age range of 16-24 years old, and she also attended individual therapy sessions as well. During the weekly individual sessions, Kala was asked questions such as whether she had PTSD or depression in order to figure out what the underline issue is with her. Kala’s therapist originally thought that she had a condition called borderline personality disorder (BPD) and has studied mental health Kala knew what borderline personality disorder was and just didn’t believe that it suited her well. She told her therapist that she believes she might be autistic, and the therapist asked her why she believed that was the case. Kala explained to her that she doesn’t wear clothes that are tight on her, and she read an article about autism and sensory issues, and her therapist signed her up to be evaluated by someone who officially gave Kala her autism diagnosis. Maria asked Kala how she felt about being diagnosed as autistic, and Kala replied by saying that she felt a sense of relief about getting a clear answer about her true diagnosis. Kala also explained that the person who evaluated her told her not to let anyone say that you’re high functioning and that you don’t need additional help with anything, and she told Kala that even if the functioning labels make sense don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t need help or assistance with anything when you need it. Kala then explained that she walked out of the therapy session with more compassion for herself, and she knew that from this day forward she was going to be a lot kinder to herself and feel prouder of herself for having worked so hard internally and externally as she did at the time, and most importantly Kala knew that there was going to be a new version of herself moving forward as well. Maria then told Kala that she loved how the evaluator had a conversation with her about functioning labels and advocating for herself, and she loved how the evaluator advised Kala to always advocate for herself when you need help no matter what functioning label you are. The next subject that came up in the discussion was Kala’s experience in higher ed, and when Maria asked Kala about what her experience was like navigating higher ed, Kala said that it was an interesting experience. She explains that whenever she talks to people about her experiences, she tells them that she’s never worked with or for another Black person before in anything at Harvard or Duke besides her experience in Nigeria, so being able to finally have that experience made her feel fortunate to have worked with a lot of researchers who were nice to her and she still stays in contact with them to this day, and during the few times that she worked with people who were not so great, she’s fortunate that she still had the emotional support that she had from the mentors before. She even had the financial privilege to quit and move on to something else, but overall, she really enjoyed working with many of her mentors. Then Maria asks Kala a very important question about her diagnosis. She asked Kala if she had received her autism diagnosis sooner, that it would have changed her outlook on some of the things in her experience. Kala responded by saying that she does believe that it would, but that she does give credit where it’s due to Ph.D. students in terms of things being different than when she was one herself. She said that being a Ph.D. student was so consuming daily that takes over her life, and she concluded that the Ph.D. life was not for her. She explained that she does wish that she had been diagnosed sooner in life, but it’s a hard question in terms of whether things would have been better, but she does know that she would have been happier if she had known sooner that she’s autistic back when she was in high school or early college. Kala also mentions how people would say to her that they would not tell their kids that they’re autistic because, for someone like her that doesn’t give the stereotypical appearance of an autistic person, they feel as though they don’t need to. Then Kala explains that her way of combatting that argument would be saying that if you don’t tell your kids that they’re autistic, then they’ll label themselves as something else such as a loser or lazy, and that if she had known sooner that she was autistic she would have been kinder to herself with more compassion as well. Maria stated that she completely agreed with Kala’s statement and explained that if she had known sooner that she was autistic it would have saved her from dealing with stress and depression during her years of middle school and high school. The next and most important subject of the interview was Kala’s debut autism novel Afrotistic. Maria asked Kala what inspired her to write this novel, and Kala responded by saying that she was always daydreaming about writing when she was a child, and she originally thought that she would one day write a memoir about herself. She attempted to write a memoir once, but it didn’t work out due to the words and her story not being compelling enough. Then when she was in graduate school, Kala started daydreaming about writing a novel eventually and she wanted to find a way to pay a tribute to all of the exciting research that she learned in the mental health field and all the research that she put into learning about neurodivergence as well. So, when she started getting invested in reading, she noticed that there weren’t any autism novels about neurodivergent women of color. Therefore, she naturally decided that she was going to write one of her own! So, Kala used her research in a way that coincides with a teenager's life, and she originally wrote the main character Noa in the first three chapters as a reflective representation of herself in a way that lets the reader know that she’s aware of herself being autistic.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t working out for her and she ended up deleting two of the three chapters and committed herself to make everything fictional. Her best reference to make the story more character-based, was to imagine herself having a teenage daughter with her husband right now with a young son so she could ask herself what challenges would she want her daughter to have while she’s under her protection and guidance as well as what obstacles would she want her children to overcome and what type of person that she would want her children to become that she would be
Photo courtesy of autisminblack.org of. this process worked out better for her because it allowed her to imagine herself as being part of the story, and her way of approaching the main character’s journey was done in a way that she would want her own child to pursue their journey. Maria then asked Kala to explain the synopsis of the novel, and Kala responded by saying that it’s a novel about a Black autistic teenager name Noa who moves from Florida to a fictional town in upstate New York. She’s in her sophomore year of high school, and she’s very much fixated on what makes a person equivalent for the national honor society. So, she works hard to make sure that she meets all the requirements needed to get into the program and one of those requirements is leadership experience. So, Noa creates a group at her school for autistic people including herself so she can obtain leadership experience. Maria also asked Kala about who is autistic in Noa’s family aside from Noa herself. Kala explains that everyone in Noa’s family is autistic except her mom, and she explains how the mom not being autistic plays a part in the story. Maria tells Kala how beautiful it is to have a black family that is mostly autistic because she was able to relate it to herself and say that aside from herself being autistic her oldest child is autistic and one of her twins is autistic as well. She also has a child with ADHD, and her husband is the only one in the family that doesn’t have a clinical diagnosis of autism, so to see the family dynamic take place in the story in terms of how each family navigates autism was something that Maria really appreciated seeing. She especially sees this novel as a groundbreaking piece of literature because of how it will impact other autistic women of color who have family members that are also autistic, and they will be able to see themselves and their families in this story. The last subject of the interview was the upcoming projects that Kala has in store for herself in the future. Maria asked Kala about the future projects that she has coming up for herself, and Kala responded by saying that she’s written a spin-off novel that’s middle-grade that’s about one of Noa’s friends named Samuel, and it’s a story told from his perspective about the events that took place two years before Afrotistic. Kala stated that she plans on publishing this novel in 2023, and she also said that she’s currently finishing up a nonfiction book that’s about the Black and autistic experience at large, and she’s interviewed almost twenty individuals including Maria herself. Most of them are black, and most of them are autistic, but some people are also interracial couples who have autistic children, there are researchers who are people of color for the most part, and it’s mainly about putting the Black autistic experience out there for people to understand their perspective on autism and how they navigate the world as Black autistic individuals, and it just adds more to the conversation. Kala’s not certain when the book will be published, but she’s hopeful that it will be published by the end of 2023 or somewhere in 2024.
In conclusion, after watching this interview on YouTube I realized that Kala’s intention for writing her novel is the same intention that I have for doing this mini blog series which is to help autistic people of color see themselves as the people who walk a mile in their shoes so that they can feel encouraged and empowered to see people like them being represented in a positive way. I thoroughly enjoyed this interview and getting to know Kala’s story as a writer and autistic individual, and as an autistic woman of color, I was able to see myself in her when she talked about being a daydreamer and visualizing herself as a writer as well as the stories she wanted to write as a writer. I myself am also a daydreamer, and I visualize many things that inspire my writings, especially the ones that you see in this blog. I also appreciated Kala talking about how important it is to advocate for yourself when you need help with something, and to not let anyone convince you that you don’t need help because of a functioning label. Everyone needs help with something, and all struggles are valid no matter the quantity. So, I appreciate Kala making me feel valid as an autistic individual who does struggle a lot and would like patience, understanding, and support like anyone else. I hope that a lot of you, especially people of color were able to appreciate and enjoy this blog and I hope to see you next year for another edition of Black Autistic Voices. Happy Black History Month! Also, if you would like to hear the podcast video yourself, please go to the following YouTube link here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZWOdx1pwE0&t=1s