Personal Story

Feature Issue on Disability Rights, Disability Justice

Blossoming into Justice as a Black Autistic Man


Timotheus “T.J.” Gordon Jr. is a writer, activist, and blogger who lives in Chicago, Illinois.

A man with black glasses a cane wearing a black hoodie walks down a busy Chicago street.

T.J. Gordon walks in his Chicago neighborhood.

If you had told me ten years ago that I would be an instrumental part of the Disability Justice Movement and disability arts and culture, I would have laughed and not believed you. All I wanted to do was get a job, live independently in my apartment, and use my writing background and degrees to write lots of non-fiction work or teach creative writing.

But here I am, blessed to work full time as a researcher at one of the top disability studies programs in the United States, and as an artist-advocate. My artistic advocacy work includes my role in The Code of Freaks, an influential 2020 documentary. I’ve met and worked with major players in movements for disability rights, inclusion, pride, and justice. As a Black autistic man from Chicago, it feels pretty good to acknowledge how far I’ve come in my journey toward disability justice.

I use my writing, storytelling, lust for justice and inclusion, and research skills to create a freer, more inclusive world for all disabled, neurodivergent, Deaf, and autistic people. Here, we are free to thrive, start families, and enjoy life’s adventures. I have found my calling.

The Camouflage

I once wanted to do whatever it took to fit in with people without disabilities; to find “the cure.” I thought I had to “beat autism,” to not be my full, autistic self in front of my peers in the hoods of Chicago. As a teen, I tried so hard to hide my autism by diving deep into hip-hop culture, learning the vocabulary of what people in the neighborhood and my high school would say, and dressing ‘fly’ like the people around me. There was no access to disability support groups at the time, and I had limited connections with people who shared my love for anime. I had to learn how to survive as a closeted autistic in the streets of Chicago. If I didn’t, I would have been subjected to gang initiations, bullying, or police violence due to my misunderstood autistic traits, such as stimming and obscure interests (such as, in my case, Biblical stories).

Luckily, sports helped me mask at a comfortable level, and even connected me with many people. I felt more at home when I either played sports, followed sports, or participated in sports debates with family and friends. Sports has always been a cross-cultural bridge that connected me to people, including people with disabilities and people from various ethnic backgrounds. It also helps that one of my autistic interests is, drumroll, please, sports! This includes the X’s and O’s, inclusion in sports, coaching philosophies, and sports history and culture. Sports are seen as a neurotypical interest. People assume that autistic people prefer trains, equations, and anything STEM-related. I played two years of varsity football at my high school and even started some games my senior year, and in track and field, I set my high school’s shot put record at 30.5 feet. I don’t feel lost in the neurotypical world when I talk about sports in person or online, or when I try a sport. I agree with Jason McElwain, the athlete and commentator, who has said sports are his equalizer, because he can connect with more people and not be seen as different.

Taking off the Mask

I slowly came out of my cocoon and into my skin when I moved to Minnesota for college. Perhaps it was the first time I got to truly explore things beyond just the classroom, an educational program, or a sports team. I found more interests I could dive into, and met people. Thanks to my budding interests in poetry, spoken word, music, left-wing politics, anime, and Black history and culture, I met quite a few. This was also the period where I joined a fraternity that accepted me for who I am, including my quirks, such as making animal noises for the hell of it.

As I started to find my groove socially, I also started to unmask my disability identity.

The Disability Resource Center at the University of Minnesota, along with the University’s chapter of Active Minds, an organization that raises awareness about mental health, taught me about disability and neurodivergence. In addition to learning more about the Disability Rights Movement and ways to respect the agency of people being supported, I also connected with more disabled students and shared my struggles and triumphs with my disability identity through these organizations. By the time I arrived in Atlanta for my graduate degree in 2010, I had grown more accustomed to connecting and befriending people within the autistic community. One of the first self advocates I worked with was Larkin Taylor-Parker, who helped lead an autistic/neurodivergent self-advocacy group at Agnes Scott College.

A man wearing glasses and a black hoodie sits in a coffee shop.

Gordon, at a café near his home.

On the Frontlines

I joined protests and spread awareness about why people should support organizations working for school accommodations, independent living, employment, and autism-friendly interventions instead of those focusing on cures. I began to use my writing and social media knowledge to share my story about my intersections with Blackness and autism. I started my current blog, the Black Autist, ( in April 2015. It is a culmination of my writing and journalism background, my passion for photography and social media, and my dedication to using my artistic talents to promote autism acceptance, pride, and inclusion as it intersects with race and culture. Throughout all of the Black Autist links, I have more than 4,000 followers. I am thankful for getting the opportunity to educate people, including white autistic folx, on the intersections of race, gender, and autism/neurodivergence.

I also joined Advance Your Leadership Power, a racial/disability justice group within Access Living, Chicago’s independent living center, an experience that eventually helped me become a researcher and advocate.

I didn’t want to be on the front lines at first. For starters, I am afraid of getting arrested and experiencing police violence as a Black autistic man with locs. Plus, I thought I could do more than just holler. So, I started by taking pictures of any campaigns that AYLP launched and helping them plan campaigns. After a while, I became more accustomed to being on panels and speaking about my advocacy and life story as a Black autistic man. I was one of the key self advocates who got a statewide bill passed called the Community Emergency Supports and Services Act (CESSA), which shifts the focus from relying on law enforcement to respond to mental and behavioral health emergencies to putting emergency responses in the hands of trained responders. Our organization also led campaigns on keeping diverse learning, or special education, in Chicago Public Schools; combating police violence towards people with disabilities from historically marginalized groups in the Chicagoland area; and fighting the school-to-prison pipeline that many students of color, particularly those with disabilities, face.

I have also done work as a student and then as a staff member at the University of Illinois Chicago. I assisted with several public awareness campaigns and coalitions, and helped create plain-language information and videos about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Defining Disability Justice

Working with Akemi Nishida and Leroy Moore helped open my eyes to what disability justice could be.

I am all for disability rights. I want folks with disabilities to have the right to go to any school and college they choose, build a family, get affordable housing, travel anywhere they please, work for a living, and more. I, myself, benefit from disability rights legislation, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But that is not enough. I don’t want to just be satisfied living a fair life as a U. S. citizen, or at least dream about a fair life given my many marginalized identities, such as my neurodivergence and Blackness.

My vision for the world is for all people to be free, to live to their fullest potential, and to pursue their happiness. Everyone has a role to play, and our societies must adjust to fit the needs and dreams of every person.

That’s disability justice. It is as important to me as disability rights, maybe even more so. I absolutely want access to the tools to live a full life, but I also need the personal, emotional, and community-centered aspects that justice brings. I take pride in seeing organizations and initiatives that are centered on and led by marginalized communities, including the disability community.