Discover SPARK

Black, Mother, Wife, and Autistic: The Intersectionality of Motherhood

Jibrielle Polite

Date Published July 26, 2022

“Mommy needs a battery recharge” is what Vonda Burris says to her sons every day. They are 5, 4, and 2 years old. She and her husband have a precise daily routine. They’re up and ready to start the day by 7:30 a.m. and in bed by 6:00 p.m. She finds it works best for their young sons and her husband’s work schedule. Along with keeping a routine mixed with learning sessions and playtime, Vonda says that their daily routine also always includes quiet playtime. It’s a period in the day when she has an opportunity to recharge and care for herself. All the electronics are turned off – the tv is off. She sits quietly and spends time drawing and recharging.

Vonda is an accomplished artist and former art teacher. Her art varies from hand-drawn portraits and watercolor paintings to abstract art. Vonda painted a self-portrait that shows how she viewed herself during her autism diagnosis process. Art for her is very personal. Art is how she processes her emotions and how she processes life, she says.

Vonda has always been artistic and viewed as a creative person by others. She thinks of herself as “a creative” who simply experiences life differently. She says that she has always been socially disconnected and socially awkward. She has sensitivities to clothing and has sensory seeking behaviors. She was in advanced school courses, but she struggled to process large amounts of information and learn multiple subjects at once. Her artistry was always praised throughout her schooling, and she was an excellent creative writer. In her family, education was paramount. She knew that although she had struggled in secondary school and her journey to college may be challenging, she would be expected to go. She received a teaching fellow scholarship and earned a teaching degree.

It wasn’t until Vonda was diagnosed with autism that she genuinely gained an understanding of what she had been experiencing in her life, both the positives and the negatives. Vonda said that finding out she was autistic was like unlocking a secret hidden level to her life. Although her diagnosis didn’t come easy–she had a series of misdiagnoses before she was diagnosed with autism–it led her to understand herself more. She better understands how she interacts with the world, interacts with her husband and mother, and how she mindfully mothers her three sons.

Vonda suspects that her children are also on the autism spectrum. They all show varying features that are often seen in people with autism. For Vonda and her husband, keeping a stable home is very important and they prioritize stability every day.

Executive functioning isn’t their best skill, she says, but they manage. Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. She believes that her autism diagnosis made her a better Mom. Vonda says, “understanding my meltdowns help me to manage my children’s meltdowns.”

She and her husband encourage their sons to do what they like. They’ve taken an interest in one of her favorite games, Minecraft, and she encourages them to play because she knows that it will help with their dexterity and understanding the concept of cause and effect.

Her sons are in the process of being evaluated for autism and have been referred to TEACCH® Autism Program. TEACCH is a university-based program that offers core services and unique programs that meet the clinical, training, and research needs of people with autism, their families, and professionals in North Carolina.

Vonda says that her own diagnosis experience makes her more determined to advocate for her sons during their evaluations. Vonda is an advocate for herself and her children. She is a caretaker and an artist. She wants to continue to effect positive change in the world as an African American, genderqueer, autistic person. This is why she was drawn to join the SPARK study to help advance our understanding of autism.