Is Police Abolition a Neurodiversity Issue, Too?

Understanding the policing and incarceration of neurodivergence.

Posted Jul 02, 2020

In recent months, largely in light of the protests against police brutality following the death of George Floyd, the proposal to defund or even abolish the police has been widely discussed (e.g., here or here). 

The main focus has, quite rightly, been on the issue of race and the ways in which police and prison systems disproportionately target and incarcerate members of ethnic minorities, especially Black men. Abolitionists vary in their perspectives, but many agree that the police force needs to be replaced by more specific services in order to increase effectiveness while minimising the risk of harm or abuse. Moreover, those who want to defund the police typically stress that the same funding should instead go toward initiatives that prevent the social causes of crime

My aim here is not to repeat the existing arguments for abolition. Rather, I want to draw attention, through the examples of the U.S. and the U.K., to how neurodivergent communities face strikingly similar problems to those emphasised by the Black Lives Matter movement. To the extent this is so, it raises the question of whether police abolition is a neurodiversity issue, too.

Death Following Police Encounters

First consider how many neurodivergent people die following encounters with the police.

In the U.K., a report found that almost two-thirds of people who died during or following police contact in 2018/19 were described as having "mental health concerns" such as bipolar disorder. The same report disclosed that three-quarters of people who committed suicide directly following police contact similarly had disabilities including bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder

In the U.S., a 2016 report suggested that up to half of people killed by law enforcement officers have a mental disability. Even more worrying, it also found that having a mental disability was sometimes used to blame victims for their deaths. Here we see not just the killing of disabled people but also subsequent ableist gaslighting that allows the practice to continue. 

Mass Incarceration

Neurodivergent individuals are also incarcerated at a strikingly high rate. For instance, people with autism and those with other developmental disabilities are vastly over-represented in the prison population. While only around 1% of the population is autistic, an estimated 9% of the prison population is.

Dyslexic people are also hugely over-represented in the prison population, as evidence by a study of Texan prison inmates published in 2000 and a 2012 report on inmates in a prison in Chelmsford, U.K. Yet, dyslexia is associated with many cognitive strengths as well as limitations—and there is no reason to think that its cognitive features make harming others or breaking the law more likely. Similarly, in their 2015 book Crime and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Myths and Mechanisms, Brewer and Young concluded that there is no “compelling evidence for a conclusion that a diagnosis of ASD—by itself—means a greater likelihood of involvement in crime relative to that of individuals without an ASD” (p. 33).

Given that there is no inherent disposition, autistic and dyslexic people's higher risk of ending up in prison may be best explained by systemic, structural features of an ableist society—as well as institutional issues in the justice system. 

For instance, the authors of a 2016 U.K. study found that autistic people faced high levels of police discrimination and that police received inadequate training regarding autism. Another recent report from the U.K. found that the justice system limited access to justice by failing to make the appropriate accommodations required by neurodivergent individuals. 

What counts as crime?

Part of the issue stressed by abolitionists is that "illegal" doesn't always mean "morally bad" and "legal" doesn't always mean "morally good." Historically, of course, slavery was legal, and escaping slavery was illegal. Today, what we count as crime (and even how crime representations and statistics are produced), is often biased in a way that tends to disadvantage groups that have less power. 

We see similar dynamics with neurodiversity. In his 2012 book The Science of Evil, Cambridge University Professor Simon Baron-Cohen drew attention to an association between autism and the practice of "whistle blowing," whereby autistic employees tend to be more prone to reporting unjust practices in specific companies or organisations. On Baron-Cohen's view, whistleblowing is often morally right, yet it is something autistic people are routinely punished for nonetheless. In an autistic-ruled society, we might wonder whether whistleblowing would be punished at all.

Neurodivergent people are also routinely excluded from non-criminalised jobs due to inaccessible workspaces. This is likely part of the reason many neurodivergent individuals work in criminalised or outlawed industries. For instance, many sex workers are autistic or have ADHD. There is nothing morally wrong with an adult consenting to sell one's labour in this way, but many sex work practices are criminalised or outlawed in neurotypical society nonetheless. Sex workers are also particularly at risk when it comes to interactions with the police. The outlawing of outsider work is part of what leads to the criminalisation of neurominorities on a mass scale. 

Intersections

The issue is particularly bad for those who are Black and neurodivergent. As Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, who is Black and autistic, writes: "It is no coincidence that a lot of the individuals who have lost their lives have been not only Black, but also disabled in some way, typically neurdivergent [...] As a mom to a neurodiverse Black family [...] I have to worry about life or death." 

Neurodivergent females may also be doubly failed by the police, especially when it comes to sexual assault. The limited capacity of law enforcement to help female sexual assault survivors is one reason abolitionists argue that we need specialised services for survivors. Yet, neurodivergent people are much more likely to be victims of sexual assault. For instance, in the U.S., people with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted than members of the general population.

Moving Forward 

Here I've tried to show that the justice systems in the U.K. and U.S. are not working properly for neurodivergent people—indeed, that they have never worked for us. To my mind, the emancipatory aims of the neurodiversity movement and the case made by Black Lives Matter are deeply intertwined. While it is true that some have been working towards reform in recent years, hard questions need to be asked about whether it might be better for us if existing systems were abolished and replaced altogether.

*With thanks to Koshka Duff for helpful input. See her recent article on defunding the U.K. police here