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Monday, September 11, 2017

Autistic, Gifted, And Black: An Interview With Mike Buckholtz

Music producer, actor, and writer Michael "Hot Mike" Buckholtz is also an advocate for autistic people, especially those who, like himself, are part of the Black/POC communities. We recently chatted with Mike via email about his background, some specific challenges (and deadly prejudices) Black autistic people face, and ways he thinks younger autistic people of color can empower themselves. You can follow Mike on Twitter at @OfficialHotMike.

Mike Buckholtz
[image: Black-and-white photo of Mike Buckholtz: a Black man
wearing a silver suit, glasses with blue lenses, and pulled-back locs.]
TPGA: Can you tell us a bit about your fabulous career in music and entertainment, and whether being autistic has been a factor?

Mike Buckholtz: I started out as a Hip Hop music producer for MC Hammer beginning in 1989. Hammer and I met in 1984 in the U.S. NAVY as barracks roommates. MC made a fantastic statement about that time. (I'll let him tell it.) As of  November 2016, MC Hammer has sold 50 million records, some of which I've had the honor to work on.

After MC Hammer, I worked for other labels, signed a songwriter's deal with Warner/Chappell (whom I'm still with) started my own management corporation and authored a self-published book about autism. I'm, also, currently, doing the acting thing and another major book project is in the works.

As for the autistic factor, I've had some years to consider how it may have affected my career. The many tests and observations, from professionals involved in my diagnosis, helped me discover special abilities including a photographic memory, high audible sensitivity and a stubborn tunnel-visioned focus. I use every bit of these abilities in this industry and have sharpened them once becoming aware of their benefit.

TPGA: How did getting an official diagnosis, and understanding that you are an autistic person shift your self-awareness, if at all?

MB: Coming to the conclusion (after all the testing) that I wasn't crazy or losing my mind was an important discovery. Knowing that my brain is wired to do specific things helped me build a positive perception of myself as unique versus damaged. I'd say that was a massive shift for the better.

TPGA: What are some specific positive experiences of being both Black and autistic that are lost to people who don't share your experience?

MB: The positive for me? OK. Follow my logic, here. “Black” people on the spectrum are not covered in the media very much, if at all. So, the perception is, since very few, if any, POC (people of color) are on the spectrum, the large majority of “Black” people must be... "normal." This misperception allows me to do business "under the radar," because I can choose to avoid being patronized or pitied. Otherwise, because of stigma, it would be difficult for me to secure a decent living and do serious business. This prejudice is ten times worse for Black and POC. I can't do my work with that kind of hassle. It sucks, but that's my reality for the kind of work I do.

The other positive, I've been told, is that other Black and POC see the revealing of my autistic status as empowering for them. I don't see myself as a role model, but, if openness about my diagnosis empowers other POC toward the positive, I'm all for it.

TPGA: How connected are you to the Black and POC autistic community, or to other autistic individuals, and are those connections a source of strength and comfort?

MB: I have a few amazing intimate relationships with some, a cozy cordial relationship with groups of others and virtually no relationship with the majority of autistic POC. It's complicated. I have deeply private ways of drawing strength and comfort. I'll leave the matter there.

That said, I want to do more to connect with Black and POC in our autistic community. However, much is expected of me due to being a public figure. Being public is expensive. Folks want to see more of me and that's cool, but, I don't have some bottomless budget allowing me to do that. For those who want to see or hear from me in major public forums, sponsor my visit. I'll do it! I'm proud to be an autistic POC and really want to share my experiences. I have some pretty cool stories that may help other autistic POC persevere through our many difficult experiences or circumstances.

TPGA: We already know the rate of anxiety disorders among autistic people in general is already much higher than the non-autistic population. Can you talk about why that anxiety may be even more intense for Black autistic people, and how for you it sometimes feels like "living under occupation"?

MB: Black people (men, specifically) are seen, by many, in society as dangerous, suspicious, and without moral compulsion, first. This, I feel, has been by design for hundreds of years. I don't see it changing. This reality makes life even more intense for Black autistic men.

You may remember a very popular news video of therapist Charles Kinsey (lying down with hands up) and his autistic client, Arnaldo Rios, not moving at all, but, seen, by police, as dangerous—and shots were fired at both of them. Even a Black man attempting to protect an autistic person of color will get shot at...for no reason, apparently. We cannot assimilate. Our brown skin is not interchangeable.

Since simply being brown can be the reason a police officer beats, chokes or shoots me, that feels a lot like living under occupation. Intimidation via the threat of death. I never feel truly safe. The only adjustment I've made is how often I look over my shoulder to ensure I'm a safe distance from encountering any authority figure carrying a gun.

TPGA: Can you be incredibly frank with our readers about why being both disabled and a person of color puts a body at higher risk of a dangerous police encounter than being only in one category or the other? I am thinking of specific, horrifying recent incidents like the shootings of Keith Lamont Scott, and Alfred Olango.

MB: Right. Specifically in cases like those of Mr. Scott and Mr. Olango, Black men, again, in general, have endured a multi-century campaign of discrimination, mischaracterization, defamation and dehumanization. It's easy to destroy, discard, or even kill something not seen as having any societal value worth saving or caring about.

This is the risk Black men and other POC live with everyday. Add to this fact that the two aforementioned men were battling mental or emotional issues, Mr. Scott's brought on by an accident and Mr. Olango's less defined, the chances of them living through their encounters with police were slim to none.

TPGA: Why do you think discussions about autism and from autistic activists needs to be cleaner and simpler than they generally have been? What are some examples of the kind of communication you'd like to see?

MB: Too often discussions about autism or autistic people are muddied when people confuse co-occurring issues with being autistic. What do I mean? I have OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (think Howie Mandel). But OCD is not part of my autism.

By being clear about what autism is and what it isn't, we can keep discussions about autism or autistic accurate, as well as allowing people to get unvarnished stories directly from us. No political or partisan tangents. I believe this clarity will have a more powerful impact on those who aren't autistic, and hopefully lead to increased empathy for us and our challenges.

TPGA: Do you have any specific messages of reassurance or advice for today's younger Black and POC autistics?

MB: If you can, get evaluated. Yes, many Black and POC communities are still in the dark ages in terms of their attitude about neurological conditions. The stigma is widely known. Just know you're not broken or flawed. You're unique. You may even have special neurological wiring giving you an edge over your non-autistic contemporaries. Embrace it. Work with it. See it as an amazing thing. Feel free to connect with other seasoned (but positive) autistic adults as mentors. Remain hopeful. Focus on accomplishing the thing that will allow you the freedom to care for yourself and help others. Avoid using it as an excuse when you fail for other reasons, or, as something to exploit. Love yourself and others will be attracted to that.

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