April is Autism Awareness Month, an often disappointing period of time for the autistic community. We watch public spaces implement increased accessibility measures only to promptly remove them on May 1, as if autistic individuals only deserve inclusion during this one month.
We also spend a lot of our time explaining to people around us why well-known campaigns like Light It Up Blue, promoted by Autism Speaks, do more harm than good for our community by perpetuating prejudice and myths. For example, blue was selected as the campaign color based on the mistaken idea that autism is more common among males when in reality, autistic girls, women and nonbinary people are much less likely to be identified as autistic due to gender bias.
Another common critique of Autism Awareness Month is related to the limitations of representation politics: Increased awareness is not synonymous with increased access, leading the month to be rebranded by some organizations and companies as Autism Acceptance Month. This shift has brought with it more emphasis on accommodating autistic support needs and elevating the language, symbols and culture originating within the autistic community.
But even “acceptance” campaigns don’t automatically lead to improved material conditions for autistic individuals, who experience heightened rates of housing instability, unemployment and social isolation compared to non-autistic people. Nothing could demonstrate the limitations of such campaigns better than the annual Autism Awareness/Acceptance Day held by the New York Police Department (NYPD) and its accompanying autism awareness squad car.
The squad car, which is covered with rainbow infinity signs and an assortment of words like “respect” and “celebrate” all over the hood, was brought out in Manhattan last weekend when the 34th Precinct co-hosted an NYPD Autism Awareness Day event.
Police Co-opt Language of the Neurodiversity Movement
The neurodiversity paradigm was introduced by autistic sociologist Judy Singer in the 1990s to reimagine the medical model that categorizes neurological, emotional, and mental experiences into a binary of either “normal” or “defective.” Whereas the medical model describes people’s brains and minds as disordered, the neurodiversity paradigm argues mental illnesses or madness, developmental disabilities, and/or neurological conditions are part of the natural neurobiological diversity of human beings.
The term “neurodivergent” was later coined by Kassiane Asasumasu as a complementary but distinct concept to describe a person whose neurological or mental experiences fall outside of what society treats as “normal” and experience specific oppression related to their neurodivergence. “Neurodivergent” is a social and political term that unites all people who are subject to this specific type of ableism, the system of supremacy that privileges some bodyminds over others and is deeply interconnected with capitalism, colonialism and white supremacy.
The rainbow infinity symbol represents the neurodiversity-based conception of autism and was adopted by the autistic community to replace the commonly used puzzle piece symbol for autism, which has its roots in the dehumanizing idea that autistic children and adults are confusing puzzles to be solved, rather than whole human beings. At the NYPD’s first Autism Awareness Day four years ago, the decorated car was covered in puzzle pieces, so when it unveiled a new car in 2022 at the first Autism Awareness event since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it was clear the NYPD had undertaken a rebrand focused on aligning imagery and language with the neurodiversity movement.
But using the “preferred” language and symbols for decorated squad cars is meaningless when policing and prisons are inherently incompatible with the neurodiversity paradigm and the liberation of autistic and other neurodivergent people and the broader disability community.
The medicalized psychiatric perspective that the neurodiversity paradigm was created to challenge mirrors the carceral ethos of policing and prisons by relegating neurodivergent and otherwise disabled people to an immutable “bad” category to justify restrictions on their autonomy. This oppression takes many forms, for example via conservatorships, which were recently put under the spotlight due to the Free Britney movement. In contrast, the neurodiversity paradigm considers neurological and mental disabilities as common human experiences instead of viewing neurodivergent people as problems to be fixed or controlled.
Disabled people, especially Black and other disabled people of color, experience disproportionately high rates of policing and incarceration. An estimated 66 percent of the incarcerated population in the United States was disabled in 2016. A report from the same year by the Center for American Progress found that neurological or mental disabilities — for example dementia, mental illness/madness, and autism and other intellectual/developmental disabilities (IDDs) including Down syndrome — are especially common among incarcerated people, reporting that those in prison were four times more likely to report a cognitive disability than the unincarcerated population.
Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people are often stopped by the police or arrested for common behaviors such as stimming that are misidentified as dangerous. A study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders in 2017 found that 20 percent of young autistic people had been stopped and questioned by police by age 21, and nearly 5 percent had been arrested.
Disabled people are also disproportionately subjected to police violence, especially autistic and d/Deaf people, often in connection with appearing non-compliant due to signing or stimming, tone differences or being non-speaking. Sixteen-year-old Eric Parsa was killed by police in 2020 while he was experiencing an autistic meltdown in a mall parking lot in Louisiana.
On Thursday, New York City Council members announced a new bill that would mandate autism awareness training for the NYPD to be repeated every two years. But in many documented cases of police brutality, officers are aware the individual they are interacting with is autistic, seemingly including the officers who killed Eric Parsa, suggesting that autism awareness training for law enforcement is insufficient for disrupting the harm caused by systems of oppression, as with all anti-bias training for police.
Not only do the impacts of structural racism lead to racial health inequalities and higher rates of disability in the Black community, racism and ableism also interact to increase the vulnerability of Black disabled people to police brutality. According to a lawsuit filed in 2015, NYPD officers beat a Black autistic teen, Troy Canales, who was sitting outside his home in the Bronx. Disabled Black, Indigenous, and other activists of color have long focused their organizing around the intersections of white supremacist and ableist state violence through cross-movement work, integrating racial justice and abolitionist politics into disability activism in alignment with the intersectional Disability Justice framework.
Moving Away From Pathologizing Toward Disability Justice
The disproportionate rates of disability among incarcerated populations are related to the historical and present day psychiatric institutionalization of disabled people, especially racialized neurodivergent people. Laws across the U.S. permit the involuntary commitment of neurodivergent people in order to control disabled and mentally ill/mad people rather than support them, leading to the rights of disabled people being routinely violated in the name of psychiatric “treatment.”
In late 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams ordered the city’s law enforcement and emergency medical workers to involuntarily hospitalize people considered unable to care for themselves due to mental illness, leading civil rights organizations to criticize the order as an unconstitutional violation of human rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Other disability advocates noted the order’s historical roots in the so-called “Ugly Laws” that were enacted in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries to criminalize poor and disabled people for simply existing in public on the grounds their appearance would negatively impact the well-being of their communities.
The NYPD neurodiversity-themed car is an attempt to reconcile two fundamentally incompatible perspectives: a carceral culture that disproportionately harms disabled and neurodivergent people, and a movement that at its core resists the pathologization of human beings. It’s also an ahistorical, apolitical version of something claiming to be neurodiversity that is disconnected from the powerful work of disability justice and Mad Liberation activists in centering the roles of state violence and white supremacy in the oppression of disabled and neurodivergent people.
The existence of this absurdly oxymoronic vehicle is supported by unchecked white supremacy within the disability rights and neurodiversity communities, especially the autistic community. Black autistic advocates, including Kayla Smith and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, have performed extensive labor to integrate anti-racism into autistic advocacy and call out what Kerima Çevik has described as “structural bigotry” in the autism community, especially at influential autism organizations with predominantly white leadership.
The similar lack of intersectionality of the larger Disability Rights Movement, focused primarily on achieving legal rights, contributed to the creation of the Disability Justice framework. The principles of Disability Justice were developed by a collective of multiply marginalized disabled activists including Patty Berne, Mia Mingus, Sebastian Margaret, Leroy F. Moore and Stacey Park Milbern.
Disability Justice is oriented toward cross-movement and cross-disability liberation by understanding disability to be inherently intersectional and centering the leadership, access needs, and liberation of our most marginalized disabled community members, especially Black and Indigenous disabled people and those with higher support needs.
In the autistic and broader neurodivergent communities, Disability Justice shows us the liberation of Black neurodivergent people, especially those who are unable to mask stigmatized behaviors for safety, must always be at the forefront of our activism and access work.
Disability and neurodiversity advocates with racial and class privilege must do more to truly center intersectionality in our work and elevate the work of disability justice organizers of color. We also must call out the hypocritical co-optation of transformative concepts developed by and for the disability community, especially by institutions like the NYPD that uphold the very systems that oppress us.
Rainbow infinity sign vehicle appliques do nothing to advance us toward disability liberation. The only path toward true liberation for the entire disability community necessarily involves the abolition of the police and prisons in all their forms.
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