“How do you know that question isn’t hard for him? He has autism. He might not understand racism.”
“People with BPD can’t help being manipulative. That’s why I’d never date one.”
“Cut her some slack, she doesn’t understand what she’s doing wrong.”
Some people might think that these statements are someone compassionate or good for people who are neurodiverse. Benny wrote just a few days ago about the Skepticon incident and the subsequent use of Mark Schierbecker’s autism to excuse his racism. He was spot on, but I want to expand slightly on what he said about the ways in which ableism is used to excuse other types of bias and oppression.
In this particular instance, Schierbecker said something that pissed people off because it prioritized his free speech over the safety and protests of people of color [edited 11.29 to be more specific], people called him out, and others said that because he is autistic he may not understand that it was racist/inappropriate or that we should respond to him differently than we would other people.
This doesn’t just happen with autism, although I have most often seen it used to excuse the actions of white, cis, male autistics who violate the boundaries of people with less privilege than they have. But variations on this theme are what gets used to explain and excuse everything from abusive relationships to mass shootings, and no matter what your neurodivergence, there is still no excuse for treating other people poorly.
The vast, vast majority of people are capable of understanding when they’re hurting someone if you tell them. Sometimes people who are neurodivergent might need help to do things differently, or might need adjustments that a neurotypical wouldn’t, but those adjustments are never just a pass to treat others poorly.
While people who are neurotypical might have to adjust their response styles depending on the person who has done something damaging, it is ableist to assume that people who are neurodivergent can’t exist without being harmful, a burden, or mean. It’s true, sometimes people with autism say things that are mean because they aren’t great at social boundaries or tact. It’s true, sometimes people with borderline can get manipulative because they are afraid of losing people. It’s true that people with depression can be self-absorbed because the rest of the world is more than they can handle sometimes.
If you’re interacting with those people, it doesn’t do them any favors to treat them as too delicate to handle criticism. Assume competence until they tell you otherwise. But even worse than this is that it plays into the idea that having a mental illness makes you a bad person. If we assume that people who are neurodivergent can’t tell or don’t care when they’re hurting someone, we’re basically assuming that they’ll never be decent people. We’re making them the worst kinds of people: people who will necessarily always hurt others.
That’s really and truly fucked up.
It also hurts people who are neurodivergent because it paints them as monsters. Why wouldn’t we be able to treat them as less than or be afraid of them or avoid them if it turns out that they actually can’t help but hurt other people? The stereotype that people with mental illnesses just can’t help but be awful or manipulative or lacking in empathy means that neurotypicals don’t have to do the work to understand and nurture the most likely perfectly fine person underneath.
Not only that, but there’s this thing called intersectionality. If someone doesn’t understand social rules as well as other people, you know who’s most likely to get the short end of that stick? People who are already oppressed and discriminated against, because those are the people that everyone gets taught to hate but most people have the social werewithal not to mention it to.
Other people don’t get to use me and my neurodivergent peers as their pawns to continue shitting on other oppressed groups. And if someone IS neurodivergent and racist, they don’t get a get out of jail free card for it. Disabled people aren’t perfect, innocent angels. They screw up sometimes. I’ve seen too many friends in abusive relationships that were blamed on mental illness. That’s not mental illness. That’s a choice. Being sick isn’t.
Not only is it an insult to neurodivergent people to say that we’re probably racist because we don’t know better, it also lets assholes and bigots off the hook. It says that there are some people who just can’t understand those things because it’s so hard. It’s not.
Sometimes my mental illness means that I am controlling or demanding. But I can still learn to be better. It’s good for the people around me to know why I might be acting differently, but the explanation does not function as an excuse. All it does is give more information about how to help me change. That’s true of all neurodivergences, and all damaging behaviors. No excuses.
Photo by Light Brigading.