Autistic people and police brutality in the UK: Baron-Cohen the aggressor

Edit to add disclaimer: Despite Simon Baron-Cohen telling us that there will be a police presence, A member of the protest team has since spoken to Cambridge Police and confirmed that no police presence is booked for the protest, although they may now send one or two officers to make sure everything is alright. In our opinion, Baron-Cohen told this lie in a direct attempt to try and stop the protest from happening. Please do still read the article as we believe this lie makes the content even more important.

This article was co-written by members of the Boycott Spectrum 10k team; David Gray-Hammond, Tanya Adkin and Bobbi Elman

Trigger warning: This article contains discussion of violence by law enforcement professionals, and discussion of systemic trauma caused by the criminal justice system.

Anyone who has followed the Boycott Spectrum 10k campaign will be aware that we are holding a peaceful protest outside the Autism Research Centre on the 29th October 2021, in Cambridge. This is the workplace of Simon Baron-Cohen, and the main research centre where the Spectrum 10k study will be housed. For more information on why we are protesting, please see our collective joint statement here, and another article discussing the study here.

Since it has now been confirmed by Simon Baron-Cohen that they have opted for a police presence on the day of the protest, we felt it necessary to have a discussion about why this is problematic, and the recent stories of police brutality against Autistic people. This is not to say that people will be at risk at the protest, this is a peaceful protest, and the whole event will be livestreamed, but police brutality is a very real issue that we feel someone like Simon Baron-Cohen should be, and probably is, aware of.

In fact, he said it himself.

Text reads “Autistic people are vulnerable to being misunderstood and to ending up in the criminal justice system, accused of crimes when they have had no criminal intent. It is vital that they have well-informed advocates and legal advice and that the police and the courts are well trained to make reasonable adjustments for an Autistic defendant. Autistic people deserve proper support, especially when they make mistakes, given their disability. Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Trinity College, Cambridge, President of Internatiibal Society for Autism Research”

We all know the stories from America. Police brutality is well documented in the States.

Unfortunately, due to the extreme nature of the violence and discrimination against minority groups in the US, and the voyeuristic nature of the UK media, what is happening on our own soil often goes unreported. One might understand this, when you consider that police in the US are literally killing innocent minorities. However, police brutality still exists in the UK, and Autistic and otherwise disabled people have often been on the receiving end.

“At least we’re not being shot”

This is a response often heard from people speaking from a place of privilege. It is also a response from those of us who have been so gaslit and bullied that we are willing to accept a certain level of mistreatment as normal, and be grateful for it. For example, Autistic children in mainstream schools are always “coping”. It’s considered acceptable to be treading water, despite the fact that one day we will run out of stamina and begin to drown.

In fact, our children are often victims of police brutality, in the very schools that claim to keep them safe.

Calls for police to get mandatory neurodiversity training after officer assaulted 10 year old Autistic boy in school

Said police officer threatened to kick the boy, and dragged him along the ground, before turning to another child and saying “you’re next”. This didn’t happen in the US, this happened in Merseyside, UK. And the courts? After convicting the police officer of assault, merely fined him.

This is not an isolated incident.

Mum slams school as Autistic son, 12, handcuffed by police on the first day of term

Met police officer dismissed for hitting a vulnerable girl more than 30 times with a baton (and used CS spray)

“The IOPC said PC Kemp attempted to handcuff the teenager, but when this was unsuccessful, he used CS spray less than a metre from her face. “Within seconds he started using his baton and then struck her several times,” it said.”

The Guardian, 2021

The stories above are just three very recent examples of police brutality against DISABLED CHILDREN. These are the ones that are privleged enough to have formal recognition of their neurodivergence. These are the ones who were lucky enough not to be institutionalised. What about the people labelled as “naughty”, “aggressive”, “feral”, “defiant”. What about those mislabelled mentally ill? If we are left unrecognised (read more here) and with these labels for long enough, we can develop mental health conditions. It’s inevitable, you can read more about this here.

What about those at the intersection of multiple marginalisation?

It’s well known that Autistic people are more likely to be gender non-conforming, there is a significant overlap between the Autistic community and the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s also known that very few of us fit the white, male, cis, heterosexual, middle class stereotype that the DSM-V criteria are based on, and what has been perceived as accepted for decades. In fact there are three of us writing this article right now and we can’t think of one Autistic person between us that fits this stereotype. Contrary to popular belief we have very wide reach and pretty busy Autistic social lives.

There are multiply disabled Autistics, non-speaking Autistics, Autistic people practicing a wide range of religions, or no religion at all. Like every human, we are everywhere, just like everyone else, we just have a different neurology to those with the dominant neurotype.

When we consider the different intersections in the Autistic community, there is one very significant intersection that we need to talk about with regard to police brutality. We need to consider how this impacts Autistic people of colour. It is widely publicised, the insidious prejudice ingrained into the world institutions and society itself.

Existing on this intersection places Autistic people of colour firmly near the top of the list when it comes to risk of police brutality.

“The police need to know that a Black person stopped by them for whatever reason, already has it in their head that they may not make it out from this stop alive. So nervousness, lack of eye contact, not reading body language and facial expression and all the other signs of what could be a condition like autism, could simply be a neurotypical person’s terror that they may never see their family again. Now imagine that same scenario in the head of someone who already has communication difficulties? Devastating.”

Dalmayne, E (2020)

Of course, police brutality doesn’t always look like physical violence. Sometimes it is the systemic violence that unfairly incarcerates Black Autistic individuals. This was made obvious by the case of Osime Brown, A Black Autistic teenager, unfairly convicted and jailed, for a crime he didn’t commit, under the discriminatory joint enterprise law. Not only was he imprisoned, he was scheduled for deportation. It took a great deal of campaigning and protesting to have Osime freed and his deportation cancelled.

“Black people statistically struggle to gain access to assessments let alone diagnosis. Instead of getting the academic and social support he needed then, Osime, like many of us, was wrongly seen by his teachers as troublesome, stubborn and stand offish. Covering his ears due to sensory overwhelm was seen as rudeness. Meltdowns due to sheer frustration at not being able to communicate his needs was seen as bad behaviour…

…As a society we need to unlearn our biases, and develop better ways to support Black and neurodivergent people.”

Dalmayne, E (2020)

Finally, let us consider the research surrounding Autistic people and their experiences with the police.

Research tells us that natural Autistic expressions of self increase the likelihood of a person encountering the criminal justice system at some point in their life (Tint et al; 2017).

Research also tells us that Simon Baron-Cohen has been espousing harmful views regarding Autistic people and criminality since at least the 1980’s, claiming that Autism is a risk factor for violent crime and terrorism (Baron-Cohen, S; 1988). perhaps now it is easy to see why he feels it necessary to intimidate us with systemic aggression. This is a man who has believed that our existence is dangerous for decades.

Simon Baron-Cohen knows exactly what he is doing by inviting the police to a peaceful protest, led by Autistic people (whom he professes to serve the interests of?) trying to defend their right to exist. He is hellbent on perpetuating the myth that we are violent, dysfunctional criminals. This is dehumanising. Autistic people are most likely to be victims (for a wider discussion of this, see Aucademy’s video here), not perpetrators.

Not only is this evidence of Baron-Cohens disdain for Autistic people, but also a prime example of his privilege. He’s so far removed from the daily lived experience of his “research subjects” that he genuinely thinks this is an appropriate response, does he read any research beyond his own self-serving and incredibly biased theories, that Autistic people disprove by merely existing?

This is all-the-more reason to attend this protest, we need to show in voice and number that we will not stand for the discrimination and prejudice that so called “autism researchers” continue to pour upon us, infecting every aspect of our daily lives.

Simon, just because you keep repeating something doesn’t make it true.

Sincerely,

Boycott Spectrum 10k Team

For more information on the protest, please see the event listing on Facebook here.

Tanya Adkin (she/her)

As a late identified Autistic/ADHD adult, a parent to two children with multiple neurodivergence, and a professional working within the voluntary sector from a young age, I have unique insight from all perspectives

I have worked within the voluntary sector, starting within the disabled children’s service, progressing on to mental health, healthcare funding, youth services, domestic abuse, and much more.

For the last six years, I have developed a specific interest both personally and professionally in special educational needs and disabilities, particularly around neurodivergence and the challenges faced by families when trying to access support.

I am dedicating to educating in neurodivergent experience in order to help families thrive by providing insight, reframing, and perspective in an accessible and personable way

My work includes specialist consultation and direct work with Autistic CYP and their families that others describe as “complex” and “difficult to engage”, ranging from those experiencing psychosis, addiction to high risk Children Vulnerable to Exploitation, County lines and Sexual exploitation.

I work as a specialist alongside social workers ranging from assessing capacity, neurodivergent parenting, disabled children and child protection.

tanyaadkin.co.uk

Bobbi Elman (she/her)

Bobbi is an Autistic mother of two Neurodivergent young adults. Bobbi and her children all have hypermobile EDS with many of the conditions that accompany it, like PoTS. High anxiety (exposure anxiety). Bobbi is a University of Birmingham graduate with a degree in SEN children Autism and has worked specifically with Autistic children/young people for over 19 years and believe in low arousal, child/person-centred approach. Bobbi has over eight years of experience working as a high-level specialised Autism one-to-one TA and experience working on a LA Autism Advisory team, which included key work.

Bobbi does not support ABA/PBS. (Applied Behaviour Analysis and Positive Behaviour Support). Bobbi continues to deliver training to staff and school, and will happily deliver training to anyone who works with or has contact with an Autistic child or adult on the Autistic experience. Bobbi is available for consultancy, advocacy, and training.

autismadvocate.co.uk

Bibliography

Aucademy (2021) Autistic, gender, & sexuality diversity – growing list of resources. aucademy.co.uk

Aucademy (2021) Autistics respond to media reporting of violence & victimisation by neurodivergent people Aug 2021. Aucademy, youtube.com

Baron-Cohen, S. (1988). An assessment of violence in a young man with Asperger’s
Syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 29(3),
351–360.

Boycott Spectrum 10k Team (2021) Collective joint statement from Autistic people on Spectrum 10k. Emergent Divergence, emergentdivergence.com

Boycott Spectrum 10k Team (2021) Apparently Autism needs preventing? Emergent Divergence, emergentdivergence.com

Dalmayne, E. (2020) Fighting police abuse and racism. workersliberty.org

Dalmayne, E. (2020) Deporting An Autistic Black Man Exposes This Government’s Hypocrisy On Racism. Huffington Post, huffingtonpost.co.uk

Fallon, C. (2021) Call for police to get mandatory neurodiversity training after officer assaulted young autistic boy in school. Channel 4

Gray-Hammond, D. and Adkin, T. (2021) Creating Autistic suffering: Failures in identification. Emergent Divergence, emergentdivergence.com

Gray-Hammond, D. and Adkin, T. (2021) Creating Autistic suffering: In the beginning there was trauma. Emergent Divergence, emergentdivergence.com

Powell, J. (2021) Mum slams school as autistic son, 12, handcuffed by police on first day of term. The Mirror

The Guardian (2021) Met police officer dismissed for hitting vulnerable girl ‘more than 30 times’ with baton

Tint, A., Palucka, A. M., Bradley, E., Weiss, J. A., & Lunsky, Y. (2017). Correlates of police involvement among adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(9), 2639-2647.

Published by David Gray-Hammond

David Gray-Hammond is an autistic mental health and addiction advocate living in the South East of England. He is in recovery from addiction and psychosis, as well as other complex mental health conditions. He was diagnosed as autistic seven months after achieving sobriety, and is resolved to share his experiences with the world in the hopes of being the person that he needed when he was younger.

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