A Neurodivergent Case for Abolitionism

Neurodivergent liberation is inextricably bound up with the fight to abolish the police and build a socialist system. Half of the victims of US police murders are neurodivergent or disabled. Because our brains function differently and we process and react to information in ways outside the norm, we’re more likely to be seen as a threat and face brutalization and arrest.

by | Aug 11, 2023

In the eyes of the capitalist ruling class, workers are deprived of their humanity and are reduced to profit-producing machines. Our basic human needs are locked behind a paywall, leaving us the choices of starving to death or purchasing our right to survive another day. 

Due to lacking any property or other capital, we’re left only with our bodies and minds to sell as labor to the bourgeoisie in exchange for a higher chance of survival. Should our ability to work not meet their demands, without hesitation they’ll throw us onto the streets, behind bars, or into our graves.

For those of us who are neurodivergent, selling our labor is a disproportionately difficult task for many reasons. Our brains are wired differently, leading us to behave, communicate, and process information differently than those who are neurotypical and can more readily conform to the social expectations of bourgeois society.

Because of our differences, we face higher rates of unemployment, encounters with law enforcement, incarceration, and murder. In order to build a world where neurodivergent people are included, nourished, and ultimately liberated, it is necessary to abolish the police, prisons, and all oppressive tools the capitalists have at their disposal.

The existence of police and other “special bodies of armed men” are necessary to enforce the will of the ruling class. Under capitalism, they exist to protect private property and instill fear into the working class and oppressed peoples, should they act or exist in defiance of the ideals of the bourgeoisie. 

Neurodivergence and state violence

So how does law enforcement disproportionately target neurodivergent lives? 

According to a 2017 study, 20% of autistic and neurodivergent folks in the United States are stopped by police before age 21. Five percent of them are arrested during these encounters. Because our brains function differently and we process and react to information in ways outside the norm, we’re more likely to be seen as a threat and face brutalization and arrest. Half of the victims of US police murders are neurodivergent or disabled. 

For those of us who are neurodivergent, selling our labor is a disproportionately difficult task for many reasons. Our brains are wired differently, leading us to behave, communicate, and process information differently than those who are neurotypical and can more readily conform to the social expectations of bourgeois society.

Law enforcement are also more likely to give a free pass to citizens who brutalize neurodivergent folks of their own accord. Earlier this month in New York, Jordan Neeley was murdered on a subway by ex-Marine Daniel Penny, and assisted by two other people. None of them faced charges until after more than a week of protests. 

Neeley was Black, autistic, and schizophrenic. He was homeless and malnourished and was yelling that he was hungry before his killers deemed him a “public disturbance” and murdered him in response. Penny eventually faced charges, but was released on bail soon after and only lost his passport and ability to leave New York State. He’s still free to roam the state and can set his sights on another innocent person there anytime he wants.

The oppression of neurodivergent people disproportionately affects folks who are also Black and Brown. In the fight for abolition, it’s essential that we show solidarity and intersection between the anti-ableist and anti-racist struggles, as well as the struggles against all forms of bigotry.

The use of prisons also disproportionately harms neurodivergent folks. According to a 2016 study, approximately 66 percent of inmates imprisoned in the US are disabled. A majority of their disabilities are cognitive, with inmates being four times more likely to report having a cognitive disability than not.

Those who are imprisoned face hostile living conditions, which include depriving them of access to essential medical care and mental health services. As a result, their health often worsens while they’re incarcerated.

Another horrifying aspect of incarceration for neurodivergent folks is the use of solitary confinement. Neurodivergent folks are more likely to be subject to solitary confinement, often justified “for their own protection.” Even short stays in solitary confinement can have intense long-term consequences for those with cognitive disabilities. This punishment doesn’t improve their wellbeing in any way.

Autistic conversion “therapy”

Alongside the use of police and prisons, there is another instrument of oppression that is used primarily on those who are neurodivergent. That is the use of Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy (ABA), and all related treatments that seek to condition autistic or other neurodivergent folks to behave acceptably to the bourgeois status quo. Many autistic self-advocates refer to ABA and related therapies “Autistic Conversion Therapy.”

ABA is used for young primarily autistic neurodivergent people to teach them new skills in a way that is deemed socially acceptable. However, the methods of instruction are harmful and often traumatic for recipients.

Autistic people are often highly sensitive to loud sounds and other sensory stimuli. In conversion therapy, they have no control over the environment. Often, what should be achieved in the treatment is solely decided by their therapist and parents.. When being taught the desired behaviors, it’s assumed that the recipient can’t learn these behaviors unless they’re incentivized through rewarding them for demonstration and negative reinforcement if they don’t. The idea that these behaviors might hurt them isn’t considered, and they are denied support for their sensory needs in the process.

In order to build a world where neurodivergent people are included, nourished, and ultimately liberated, it is necessary to abolish the police, prisons, and all oppressive tools the capitalists have at their disposal.

If such supports are allowed at all, they’re often given as a reward for performing acceptable behaviors and only for a limited time. The sensory needs of neurodivergent people are real, and being denied these supports causes them real pain, which in turn activates their stress response and can lead to trauma.

Although punishments  are no longer used in ABA — or at least they are not supposed to be unless other methods have failed — the treatment is still abusive and trauma-inducing due to depriving its victims of any autonomy and denying their sensory needs. The overall goal is trying to shape neurodivergent people into behaving in ways acceptable to capitalist society, instead of accommodating their diverging behaviors as they navigate society. 

Towards neurodivergent liberation

So what’s required for the liberation of neurodivergent people? A society where neurodivergent folks have total liberation is first and foremost one where all forms of their oppression have been completely dismantled —one where all of their basic needs are met unconditionally, including but not limited to food, housing, transportation, education, healthcare, and social interaction. Such a society also grants neurodivergent people the right to pursue their passions and desires equitably. This is done through completely accommodating their other needs — sensory, communication, mobile, and so on.

Capitalist mouthpieces tell us that such a society is an impossible utopian fantasy, but the liberation of neurodivergent and all oppressed peoples is in fact possible. Modern capitalist society produces food, housing, and other essential needs to nourish the world multiple times over, yet it refuses to provide for all people. Instead it manufactures scarcity because it wouldn’t be profitable and would render the system obsolete to provide for all people’s needs. 

According to a 2016 study, approximately 66 percent of inmates imprisoned in the US are disabled. A majority of their disabilities are cognitive, with inmates being four times more likely to report having a cognitive disability than not.

For problems that we don’t know how to fully solve, we have the means and technology to research, develop, and implement solutions at an increasingly rapid pace. But the ruling class under capitalism devotes all of society’s efforts towards profit, tools of oppression, and any means to delay the system’s inevitable collapse. 

Since a society in which neurodivergent people are fully liberated is possible, how do we build it? Before a fully liberated communist society can be achieved, the current order of global capitalism must be dismantled.

Our liberation must come from a socialist revolution from below to overthrow and destroy the capitalist state. It must be led by the working class because that is the class whose labor keeps the capitalists afloat and can sink them by withholding their labor. 

Once the working class seizes power, it must abolish the capitalist state and establish a democratically controlled workers’ state in its place — a dictatorship of the proletariat. Even after the working class takes power, capitalist oppression won’t immediately vanish. 

Only through a proletarian workers’ state can we successfully combat and put an end to the violent resistance of capitalists and transition to a truly democratic society focused on human and environmental needs. 

We must build such a society to bring about neurodivergent liberation and liberation of all peoples from the shackles of capitalist oppression. Such a society will give neurodivergent folks and everyone a voice and a vote to advocate for ourselves in our workplaces and every institution we participate in.

Neurodivergent liberation is the liberation of all peoples because all of our oppression is rooted in the upholding of global capitalism. Only through its destruction can we build the truly democratic and beautiful world we all yearn for.

This article is adapted from a talk given by Forrester at a panel organized by the Denver Communists, Left Voice, and International Socialists (Netherlands). The panel can be watched here. Left Voice also published an adaptation of the talk.

Robin Forrester
(they/them) is a member of the Denver Communists and a founding member of Firebrand. They are nonbinary and on the autism spectrum.

Related Reading

Advances, Limits, and Lessons of the Student Intifada

Advances, Limits, and Lessons of the Student Intifada

The eruption of Gaza solidarity encampments on college campuses around the world has been a welcome and unexpected shot in the arm for the Palestine liberation movement. In hindsight, the pot simmered on campuses for months before boiling over. Last fall, universities...

Why Kautsky Was Wrong (and Why You Should Care)

Why Kautsky Was Wrong (and Why You Should Care)

Karl Kautsky’s grandson John told a very revealing anecdote about attitudes towards his grandfather in the 1960s. He recalled a historian named Georges Haupt, who had many discussions among students about the history of the Second International. During those talks,...