OBEY sign

The Cult of Compliance and the Policing of the Norm

If my children are autistic or mentally ill or both, I don’t want them to grow up in a world where their humanity is questioned every single day, or where police brutality based on their disability status could end their lives.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

There are many problems with policing in the United States and elsewhere. The cult of compliance is a problem. The tyranny of the norm is a problem. Pseudoscience is a problem. The drug war and its benighted notions of addiction are a problem.

These problems are a recipe of terror for neurodivergent and disabled people.

33 Years and Still So Much Work Must be Done: A Reflection on the ADA at 33 | by Jordyn Jensen, Jamelia Morgan, and Nicholas Lawson | CRDJ | Medium

We are weird. We are different. That shouldn’t be a crime, but in our #CultOfCompliance societies, being different will get you interrogated, beaten, jailed, and killed.

The receipts are endless.

CW: ableism, racism, abuse, police violence

Here at the start of FebruaryBlack History Month in the U.S., officially designated by each President since 1976 and refigured more recently as Black Futures Month, white supremacist ableist violence seems timeless.

We bear witness again and again to the police murders of Deaf and disabled Black people, including Tyre Nichols and Anthony Lowe, Jr. May their memories be for revolution.

The verbs that awareness/history/acceptance months produce – we “honor,” we “highlight, we “reflect on” – seem vague and empty compared to the material, bodily harm that ableism creates. The time of life is being stolen from BIPOC disabled people under the cover of our complacency.

The Ableist Violence of Police Terror

Just over four years ago, I entered the tube station without looking at the police officers who were standing by the entrance. Two other men entered the station at the same time. My jacket was allegedly too warm for the season. I was carrying a backpack. While waiting for the tube, I looked at people coming on the platform, I played with my mobile phone, I took a piece of paper from inside my jacket.

The police found my behaviour suspicious and instigated a security alert. They surrounded me. They asked me to take off my backpack. They handcuffed me in the back. They closed and cordoned off the tube station. They stopped and searched me under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000. They emptied my pockets. They loosened my belt. Explosive officers checked my backpack, gave the all clear and joked about my laptop. The handcuffs were taken off (for a few minutes) and some of the stuff I was carrying in my pockets was given back to me.

This should have been the end of the matter. Instead, an officer informed me “I was under arrest on suspicion of causing a Public Nuisance”. They then took me to Walworth police station. They processed me. They took photographs, DNA samples, fingerprints and palm prints. They searched our flat. They interviewed me. Nine hours later I was granted bail. One month later when I surrendered to custody, they said they have decided to take no further action. It takes a further month and half to get my possessions back. Three months after the arrest, the Police National Computer was still listing me as under arrest.

Calm, almost too calm

We are schooled to act as neurotypical as possible to avoid triggering police escalation. We have to defy our neurologies to avoid deadly conflict.

Police profiling is ableist and ignorant pseudoscience that we must mask against to avoid interaction.

This act of masking in the face of imminent violence is, for the most part, impossible to maintain. We have to “just take it”, but it’s hard.

The Talk: Just Take It

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 neurodivergent.

Some of these names you know. Several you don’t. They include:

Freddie Gray. Tamir Rice. Ezell Ford. Tanesha Anderson. Tony Robinson. Dontre Hamilton. Jason Harrison. Kaldrick Donald. Anthony Hill. David Felix.

Who will be next?

As a mom to a neurodiverse black family, I have far more to worry about than IEP meetings. I have to worry about life or death.

I don’t want my babies to become just another hashtag.

Respectfully Connected | Just another hashtag

Just take it.

They listened quietly. Asked me if it was okay to just run away. Inwardly I kicked myself for forgetting to mention running. “No,” I replied. “Absolutely no running.”

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

We are also vulnerable to hate crimes or discrimination that affects us on both fronts. For instance, a young black autistic man, Neli Latson, was imprisoned for four years after being arrested outside his local library in Virginia while he was waiting for it to open.

As Kerima Çevik writes, “This disaster is the intersection of autism, ableism and racism colliding with the school to prison pipeline. See everyone who is poor in Black America prepares their son for that moment. They teach them the social cues and red flags. They tell them to have a way to make that phone call and an understanding that they will be harassed by police at some point. But autism parents are told they need to teach compliance and concrete ideas about police to their autistic children.

Latson found himself being mistreated not only because he was a black man who had the audacity to be in public, but also because he was an autistic man schooled in compliance.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

Tell me how do I explain to such a person that the problem with Neli Latson is not simply “autism causing him to act out”?  How will they understand that there is a world in which the color of one’s skin is enough to get an arrest record whether one commits a crime or not? How to hammer home that all of this combined with a bigot who called 911 as a “concerned citizen” saw a black man in a hoodie waiting for the public library to open and decided to lie and say they saw a gun doomed Neli before he ever encountered that school resource officer? Because I’ve tried. And they just can’t leave the world they live in long enough to understand this one.

Their world is comfortable and safe. They don’t have to do anything but mumble words of sympathy because they are so confident it won’t happen to their autistic child. Why should it? They are sure their social position, income, and race keeps their children safe. They forget something very important. Neli Latson would not have come to this horrible pass had he not also been autistic. This disaster is the intersection of autism, ableism and racism colliding with the school to prison pipeline. See everyone who is poor in Black America prepares their son for that moment. They teach them the social cues and red flags. They tell them to have a way to make that phone call and an understanding that they will be harassed by police at some point.  But autism parents are told they need to teach compliance and concrete ideas about police to their autistic children. It gives autism parents a false sense of security about their teens encountering police.

Neli did not understand the intersection of racism and abuse of power. He understood the rules of police engagement and was taught that everyone had rights under the law. That of course does not leave room for how to react when racism places a black body in jeopardy. No one told him that Black males are routinely harassed by police and if the officer doesn’t like the look of them, they will arrest them on any excuse. Neli wasn’t taught what to do if the police should continue to escalate or try to incite an act that might result in an arrest. He was not told to remain passive even if insulted, beaten or arrested even if he had done nothing wrong. He reacted as he did in high school wrestling matches when set upon. This reaction destroyed his life.

For four years, I have felt like I’ve been in a nightmare where I scream and people see my mouth move but no sound is heard. No matter what I did or do, no one sees or hears Neli.  Neli’s former attorney was ignorant of autism so the defense was a disaster as it in fact supported the case that autism makes Neli dangerous.  The Washington Post at one point flipped its initial and recent balanced coverage of the case to support this incorrect perspective of the “dark side of autism” complete with parent interviews. The presentation of the unfortunate defense case opened the way to a 25 year sentence. Autism organizations used Neli’s case as a cautionary tale of the evils of not using  early intervention where “therapy” means compliance training through ABA and then promoted their own first responder training materials.

Intersected: Making Neli Latson Matter: The Invisible Intersected Black Members of The Autism Community
Meshell Ndegeocello: Tiny Desk (Home) Concert
I’m just walking
Trying to get home
I ain’t doin nothing
Just leave me alone

Lord, give me wings to fly
Before they shoot me down
And I die
Don’t let them shoot me down
And I die

Whoa, whoa-o-o-o, put down your gun and take your hands off me
Whoa, whoa-o-o-o, put down your gun and take your hands off me

Officer, officer, officer
I know you’re afraid like me
But look at my hands
Please don’t shoot me

Hands Off Me by Meshell Ndegeocello

In Plain Language

Police violence affects people with disabilities. It especially affects Black people with disabilities. Here are some ways police violence hurts people with disabilities:

  • Up to half of the people hurt by police are people with disabilities.
  • When police kill people, they blame the person’s disability. For example:
    • Sometimes, police choke someone to death. Then, they try to say that the person died because they had asthma, high blood pressure, or another medical condition. But the person wouldn’t have died if they weren’t choked.
  • Police think our disabilities mean that we are violent or suspicious. For example:
    • Autistic people might move differently. We might not make eye contact, and we might not talk. We might not be able to understand directions. We might have meltdowns. Police officers can say these things are threatening. Police officers have arrested, hurt, and sometimes killed many autistic people.
    • Many of the people killed by the police are having mental health problems. People with mental health disabilities are not more violent than anyone else. But police think they are. Instead of helping the person calm down, the police shoot them.
    • Deaf people might not be able to hear what a police officer is saying. The police have shot Deaf people for not following directions, even when other people are yelling that the person is Deaf.
  • Police are in schools. Sometimes a kid with a disability will be having a problem. When that happens, teachers are supposed to help. But sometimes, school police will come instead. Instead of helping, police will arrest the kid. Often, they will hurt the kid.
  • Police are in hospitals. If someone in a hospital is upset and having problems, the doctors are supposed to help them. But sometimes, they call the police instead. Then, the police arrest the person and take them to jail. They might hurt the person. This also means the person does not get the health care they needed in the hospital.
  • People with disabilities get put in jail more often than people without disabilities.

None of these things should happen to anyone, whether or not they have a disability. But they do. They happen more often to people with disabilities. And, they happen most often to Black people with disabilities.

What is Police Violence?: A plain language booklet about anti-Black racism, police violence, and what you can do to stop it – Autistic Self Advocacy Network
We Can’t Breathe: The Deaf & Disabled Margin of Police Brutality

Training Isn’t the Answer: Stop Treating Noncompliance as Justification for Violence

…disability-specific training is not the answer to these tragedies, only the implementation of police tactics that do not respond to noncompliance, on its own, as a threat justifying the use of lethal force.

#CultOfCompliance: Disabled/Deaf People Killed for Non-Compliance and Disability Erasure – This is David M. Perry

Police don’t need better training; they need to stop treating noncompliance as justification for violence.

…escalation in the face of noncompliance puts disabled people in danger every time they encounter the cops. In fact, what I call the cult of compliance puts everyone in danger, if not equally.

Bascom notes that stimming is often treated as aberrant or undesirable behavior by authority figures—not just police, but also teachers and parents. “That said, and this is important,” she continued, this case is not about lack of awareness regarding autism. “Regardless of why he was stimming, this young man should never have been approached at all. ‘Bouncing around’ isn’t a crime. Being autistic in public isn’t a crime. There was absolutely no justification for this young man to be stopped, and obviously no reason for him to have been restrained or slammed to the ground.”

Both he and Bascom, as well as numerous other experts I consulted from the disability-rights and police-reform movements emphasized that this is not a matter of lacking training, but rather the criminalization of any behavior deemed abnormal or undesirable.

So what do we do? When incidents like these happen, departments and some advocates often focus on two deeply troubling solutions: training and registries. Both are based on the idea that police just don’t recognize disability when they see it, or don’t know what to do if they recognize it. Instead, we need to reframe policing, decriminalize noncompliance, and remove police from as many situations as possible.

4 Disabled Dead in Another Week of Police Brutality

But no one had trained him to recognize one of the classic signs of autism: the repetitive movements that autistic people rely on to manage their anxiety in stressful situations, known as self-stimulation or “stimming.” That’s what Connor was doing with the string when Officer Grossman noticed him while he was on patrol.

Studies show that these kinds of interactions between disabled people and law enforcement are terrifyingly common, and often go unreported. A white paper published last year by the Ruderman Family Foundation reported, “Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers.”

Opinion | The Police Need to Understand Autism – The New York Times

The significance of the events in Missouri extends beyond the very real and terrible pattern of police killings of African-American men. It is an intensification of years of cultural shift in which law enforcement and other authority figures have increasingly treated noncompliance as a reason to initiate violence.

This cult of compliance provides the point of intersection between racism and militarization of law enforcement — the primary factors at play in Ferguson — and other issues, such as the overuse of stun guns and the failure of police to respond to the needs of the mentally ill. Police may be motivated by their racism to harass people of color, but when officers get violent, they almost always cite a form of noncompliance as their justification.

In many cases, people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands, and the police initiate violence despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.

Mental illness has been sidelined as a separate issue requiring specialized training rather than included in broader conversations. To my knowledge, this is the first time that any major law enforcement official has included police violence against minorities and police violence against those with disabilities in the same review and identified them as part of the same broader problem.  

First, we have to recognize the common denominators in many of these incidents: that people who die at the hands of the police don’t obey commands and that the police initiate violence, despite there being no imminent threat to their safety.

Ferguson and the cult of compliance | Al Jazeera America

But officers who say they feel more confident after training may not know more about autism than untrained officers, according to a 2020 study. In that analysis, officers with prior training were just as likely as untrained officers to use physical force or handcuffs on an autistic person, or to admit one involuntarily to a hospital. They performed better on a test of autism knowledge after a new training designed by the study authors.

Despite the fact that many officers say they feel more confident in their ability to interact with autistic people after training, a small survey of autistic people who’d had police encounters in Canada found that more than half were unhappy with those interactions, with many respondents reporting feeling uncomfortable, anxious and afraid. “There’s this gap between what the police are satisfied with and what members of the public who are autistic are experiencing and their levels of satisfaction,” Drapela says.

Autism training may also be worthless unless it includes accountability, such as penalties for officers who don’t put those lessons into practice, advocates say. “I want a cop to have to think twice before they act,” says Kim Kaiser, program director at The Color of Autism. “They should know that the consequences are going to be swift and harsh.”

Why autism training for police isn’t enough | Spectrum | Autism Research News

Stop Erasing Us

Disability is the missing word in media coverage of police violence.

Disabled individuals make up a third to half of all people killed by law enforcement officers. Disabled individuals make up the majority of those killed in use-of-force cases that attract widespread attention. This is true both for cases deemed illegal or against policy and for those in which officers are ultimately fully exonerated. The media is ignoring the disability component of these stories, or, worse, is telling them in ways that intensify stigma and ableism.

When we leave disability out of the conversation or only consider it as an individual medical problem, we miss the ways in which disability intersects with other factors that often lead to police violence. Conversely, when we include disability at the intersection of parallel social issues, we come to understand the issues better, and new solutions emerge.


However, perhaps more shocking is the prevalence of disabilities in these encounters not being accurately or commonly reported. The report, co-authored by professor David M. Perry and award-winning disability activist Lawrence Carter-Long, unveils that media coverage of police violence fails to recognize or report the disability element when Americans are injured or killed by law enforcement, resulting in their stories being segregated from the issue in the media. This report examines the past three years of media coverage relating to police violence and disability, reviewing eight individual cases against people with disabilities since the death of a young man with Down syndrome named Ethan Saylor in January 2013.

In the vast majority of cases within this timeframe, the research reveals the following patterns in the overall data:

  • Disability goes unmentioned or is listed as an attribute without context
  • An impairment is used to evoke pity or sympathy for the victim
  • A medical condition or “mental illness” is used to blame victims for their deaths
  • An estimated 80% of all cases that involve disability are categorized as “mental illness”
  • In rare instances, where disabilities are used as reason for intersecting forces that lead to dangerous use-of-force incidents, better models for policing in the future are suggested

“This White Paper reveals that people with disabilities are senselessly being subjected to a disproportionate use of force by our police and many of these encounters are leading to unnecessary deaths. Police forces need better practices, policies and procedures when interacting with people with disabilities so that harm by our law enforcement authorities is prevented,” said Jay Ruderman, president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “Training is a necessary first step. Reforming the system follows closely behind. The rights of people with disabilities must be respected just like any other American citizen.”

Ruderman Family Foundation » Media Missing the Story: Half of All Recent High Profile Police-Related Killings Are People with Disabilities

The disability status of Black disabled people, from Korryn Gaines to Sandra Bland, are omitted for reasons tied to racism and ableism, and it must be addressed. To erase someone’s disability status is both oppressive and offensive. To see it constantly portrayed regarding the lives and deaths of Black disabled people shows that we as a society do not value Black disabled lives, or the disparities they endure from having multiple marginalized identities.

#CultOfCompliance: Disabled/Deaf People Killed for Non-Compliance and Disability Erasure – This is David M. Perry

Predicitive Policing Perpetuates Prejudice

For instance, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office in Florida piloted a “juvenile intelligence analysis” program that created secret lists of students deemed at-risk for potential future crime for reasons including receiving D grades, having 3-4 absences in a quarter, or being victimized by domestic violence – all experiences much more likely to happen to disabled students receiving insufficient support, experiencing chronic illness, or being abused.87

These risks, which may not be possible to mitigate or eliminate, can only serve to deepen existing disparities in policing and incarceration that impact disabled people. Consider:

  • Developmentally disabled people, including autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities, are at least seven times more likely to encounter police.88
  • Disabled students, especially Black and Brown disabled students, were among students most frequently subjected to school-related arrests, as documented in the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection for the 2017-2018 school year.89
  • Disabled people, especially those with cognitive and emotional disabilities, are almost 44 percent more likely to be arrested than nondisabled people.90
  • Many disabled people experience police brutality because of profiling and misunderstanding characteristics of their disabilities. For instance, autistic people and people with mental illnesses may be perceived as being on drugs, Black people with mobility devices may be profiled as having a violent criminal history,91 and deaf people may be perceived as noncompliant or defiant for not following verbal orders.92
Ableism And Disability Discrimination In New Surveillance Technologies: How new surveillance technologies in education, policing, health care, and the workplace disproportionately harm disabled people – Center for Democracy and Technology

we face a continued crisis of centuries of surveillance and policing of racialized bodies. Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Brown people have always been the targets of state violence and the violence of structural racism. When combined with ableism, those at the intersections live in fear of constant violence without any hope of justice. It’s long past time that our movements, our organizations, our activists in the disability community start addressing our replication of white-centric structures and start challenging racism—and anti-blackness in particular.

While police brutality certainly impacts white disabled people, such as eleven year old Emily Holcomb, arrested and removed from her school in handcuffs after defending herself against violent physical restraint, disabled people of color are particularly vulnerable to state violence.

Many activists within the autistic community will describe ignorance borne of ableism as the root cause for police violence against autistic and other disabled people. They will urge better outreach to police and prosecutors and training on developmental disabilities as the solutions. Yet they will rarely, if ever, acknowledge the equally insidious impact of structural racism not merely on which of us are most vulnerable but also on how our community responds. Police training is important and useful, but no amount of awareness training will erase unconscious ableism and racism. Outreach can lead to better outcomes for some, but those of us who experience multiple layers of marginality cannot rely on police as an institution to protect or serve us. Before they hear our presentation on respectful interaction with autistic people, they see Black and Brown faces and project racialized criminality onto neurodivergent bodies marked doubly by race and disability.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

The Stats Are Overwhelming and the Receipts Are Endless

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.

Is Police Abolition a Neurodiversity Issue, Too? | Psychology Today United Kingdom

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.

Is Police Abolition a Neurodiversity Issue, Too? | Psychology Today United Kingdom

The Tyranny of the Norm: This is Ableism

The violence of the norm that is imposed without ever having to be spoken as such is debilitating. Not only does it normalize education, siphoning out difference of all kinds, but it also forces all bodies who want to be recognized as “knowledgeable” (and thus human) to be organized within an incredibly unimaginative matrix. This violence of course plays out far beyond the academic institution, affecting how bodies are considered to have value to society, even allowing certain bodies to be killed or altered to facilitate neurotypical existence (see Not Dead Yet for an account of how neurodiverse and disabled bodies tend not to be given the same life-saving medical treatment; see the Ashley Treatment for medical procedures that allow parents of disabled children to alter their bodies without their consent).

Histories of Violence: Neurodiversity and the Policing of the Norm

In nearly all media accounts, and throughout much of the research literature, autistic functioning is portrayed in thoroughly ableist terms as a medicalized deficit that requires extensive correction. For many autistic toddlers and young children, the requirement to do things in the same manner as non-autistic kids often means that months and years are spent in some form of intensive behavioral training meant specifically to make them appear less autistic. Educator Lennard Davis (2010) calls the ableist enforcement of normality onto the bodies and minds of disabled people “the tyranny of the norm,” (p. 6) and states that “the ‘problem’ is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem’ of the disabled person” (p. 3).

This problem-focused and medicalized approach to autism, which is devoid of autistic voices and autistic agency, leads to treatments, therapies, and educational approaches that do not respect the humanity, autonomy, or dignity of autistic people – and this is especially true for many of the treatments that are focused on autistic toddlers and young children.

Interrogating Normal: Autism Social Skills Training at the Margins of a Social Fiction | ScholarWorks

Here are the magic phrases which you need to know if you want to invoke your Miranda rights

1) “Am I free to leave?”

It’s worth asking this even if the answer is obvious. Even if the officer does not let you leave, by forcing them to admit that you are not free to leave, you are creating a record which your attorney can use to prove that you were in custody. Miranda rights only apply if the interrogation is custodial, meaning that police officers will frequently claim that their suspects were “not in custody” to get around their Miranda rights.

2) “I am invoking my right to remain silent.”

Simply staying silent will not invoke your right to remain silent. As absurd as this is, you must explicitly say that you are invoking your right to remain silent in order to invoke that right.

3) “I am invoking my right to an attorney.”

As stated above, you must be not only clear and unambiguous, but clear and legally unambiguous. Don’t get cute. Don’t get sassy. And on the flip side, don’t get intimidated and use verbal ticks to minimize your request. Say the line with those words exactly – say it clearly, and say it once, and then say nothing else.

Because even after you’ve done all this, the police can still try to get you to talk. They’re not supposed to interrogate you, but they’re allowed to make casual conversation, and if that conversation just happens to circle back around to the thing they wanted to question you about, well, that’s really your fault for talking after you said you wouldn’t, isn’t it? Can’t possibly fault the poor officers when you initiated – if you really wanted to have your rights respected, you wouldn’t have talked to them in the first place.

The police know this, and they will mercilessly exploit this loophole. So, once you’ve successfully invoked your Miranda rights, any and all conversation you have with police officers will put those rights back into jeopardy. 

Putting it all together:

Ask: “Am I free to leave?”

If they say no, say: “I am invoking my right to remain silent and I am invoking my right to an attorney.”

And then shut up and do not say a single thing to them for any reason whatsoever until you have actually spoken to an attorney. Yes, even if it takes hours. Yes, even if they start talking to you about something else.

This is a tumblr or something on Tumblr
Don’t Talk to the Police

Over half of people killed by police are disabled. I think of Stephon Watts, Steven Eugene Washington, Natasha McKenna, John Williams, Mohamed Usman Chaudhry, Kajieme Powell, Freddie Gray, all disabled and Black or Brown.

What terrifies me is that these numbers are probably conservative estimates.

This is ableism.

All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism

Further Reading