Autistic activist Kayla Smith wants to see people like herself on TV

To honor the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), In The Know is asking young people with disabilities about growing up with the law, and how it’s impacted their lives.

Kayla Smith never thought she’d be an activist.

Until a few years ago, she wasn’t even sure what that would even look like. Smith, who is autistic, joined Twitter about five years ago, just hoping to “find some people.”

Now, she has nearly 12,000 followers. She’s called out representation issues on podcasts, collaborated with the Disability Rights Network and shared her life experiences on YouTube.

Today, “activist” is a word Smith uses openly. She even created her own hashtag, #AutisticBlackPride, which she uses to communicate her message online.

Smith told In The Know that she created the hashtag after she first started educating herself about how autism has historically been diagnosed. The more she learned, the more problems she saw.

“As I learned about disparities when it comes to autism and people who are diagnosed — especially with people of color — I decided to create the hashtag,” she told In The Know.

In the U.S., those disparities are palpable. Black children are 19 percent less likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with autism, according to the Organization for Autism Research. For Hispanic children, the difference is as high as 65 percent.

Then there’s the media. Smith points to shows like “Atypical” and “The Good Doctor” as examples of what many Americans imagine when they think of an autistic person. In both shows, that person a white man.

“There’s some progress in representing people like me [on TV], but I just wish it was more,” she said. “Not every autistic person is like that.”

That’s why Smith was so excited when #AutisticBlackPride took off on Twitter. The hashtag, which she created in late 2017, is now used widely by activists, influencers and disability organizations.

Smith laughs when she talks about the hashtag’s popularity. She still gets surprised when she sees it being used by university professors or at disability conferences. Much like her activism in general, she’s still getting used to having to her words connect so strongly with others.

“Two years after I put it up, people started loving it. [People told me], ‘Finally we have a hashtag for us,'” Smith said.

That attention comes with plenty of responsibility, too. Smith said it sometimes gets overwhelming to give her opinion on so many issues and campaigns, especially given how toxic social media can be.

In a year marked by nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality, Smith has only gotten more vocal — but so have the Twitter trolls.

“I don’t know how they find me,” she said of the negative replies she’s gotten. “Sometimes, I’m just like, ‘Oh gosh, why do they put me in [their] nonsense.’”

Smith isn’t getting discouraged, though. That said, she doesn’t feel the need to talk about current events in every tweet, video or Instagram post. Sometimes, she just talks about herself, “enjoying life as usual.”

That’s why pieces of Smith’s everyday life — college classes, her retail job — are just as present in her posts. To her, showing that part of her life is just as much a part of her advocacy. She understands how crucial it is just to let others, especially autistic Black people, know she’s there.

“I just want to be a role model for a future generation, whether I impact their lives or not,” she told In The Know. “Especially those who look like me. [So they know], ‘You’re in this too. I’m here. Be you.’ I want to be that example.”

Of course, she wants non-autistic people to learn from her experience too. Smith told In The Know that she views allyship as a form of education — the more you learn, the better you can help.

Her advice for non-autistic allies? Always get better. Be patient, and focus on understanding the nuance and intersectionality in everyone’s identity.

“Listen to us, don’t exclude us from conversations,” she added. Just listen to what we’re saying and don’t get offended when we tell you things.”

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s interview with Drew Dees, the student journalist using his platform to advocate for people with disabilities.

More from In The Know:

Starbucks is opening its first sign language store in Japan

Blind skateboarder Ryusei Ouchi has never let his disability hold him back

Costume designer makes masks with windows so people can read lips

Disabled drag queens exist. This newly-minted queen proves it.

Listen to the latest episode of our pop culture podcast, We Should Talk: