Neurodiversity Is Not A Get Out Of Jail Free Card

“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.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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      1. I’m a bit puzzled by this response. You say that Shierbecker said something racist, but don’t quote him. When questioned on that, you link to a blog that says: “I did not sense there were actual directly racist comments in what Schierbecker said…”

        I’m with JT Eberhard on this. I watched the full video and don’t see Schierbecker having said anything racist. If you think he did–and you accuse him of that in this post–please provide some sort of quote of him having done so. Accusing him of it without any evidence is rather mean and unnecessary if you merely disagree with him. Disagreeing with him is perfectly valid and understandable, but calling him names without evidence is unjustifiable.

        1. Mmkay, I’ll bite. Everyone involved in that “panel” of one did more harm than good: in no way did the discussion that ensued address racism on university and college campuses, the issues at Mizzou specifically, or the violence directed at black students throughout the US, and because it was cobbled together last-minute as a poorly-scripted attempt at spinning Schierbecker as a victim of left-wing campus politics, there wasn’t even an opposing argument. It was Muscato asking Schierbecker if he was racist, and Schierbecker gulping and shaking his head no, for over an hour.

          For their sins, Skepticon and Muscato have admitted their errors; he has not.

          Secondly, during the unscripted Q&A portion which he didn’t want to participate in, Schierbecker insisted that Click being disciplined should be prioritized above all else, and that he wouldn’t support ConcernedStudent1950 until this happens.

          In the aftermath, Schierbecker uploaded a rambling video-d defense of his comments, and called it “Journalists’ Livelihoods Matter.” Re-working the anti-racist slogan into something similarly asinine is pretty old hat by now, but it’s especially bizarre because Schierbecker’s a student, not a professional journalist, and neither his life nor his livelihood were threatened because the people he wanted to photograph and interrogate didn’t let him do either.

          For the record, I literally don’t care whether hyper-skeptics accept that tone-trolling, dog-whistling, and pulling stunts like the one at Skepticon constitute racism as they wish to narrowly define it. These actions were racist, and the proof is readily available for anyone who wishes to view it.

          1. And now Schierbecker is endorsing the idea that campus protests and other non-violent collective action in the face of racist violence and terrorism are “tantrums,” but meanwhile his camera must be privileged. He’s very, very sure the Constitution says he can do whatever wants, but the assault and murder and terrorizing of black Americans are a wedge issue, too blurry to comment on until Click is fired.

          2. Thank you. Once again, this is really not the debate that is at the heart of what I wrote, and if you wish to get into the nitty gritty of whether or not a particular set of actions are racist this isn’t really the place to do it.
            What is relevant about this particular incident is that Schierbecker’s autism has been dredged up as an excuse, when in reality that’s not what would determine the racist or non-racist nature of his actions.

          3. I agree with Justin Martin that an accusation of racism ought to include some substantiation. @Olivia, you’re the one who brought the term “racist” into this discussion — if whether Schierbecker was racist or not isn’t relevant and if you don’t want to discuss it, might be better not to make the unsupported allegation.

            @snuffcurry, the panel being poorly conceived and carried out doesn’t make Schierbecker racist. I do agree that saying “journalists livelihoods matter” has the appearance of racism because it seems to mock the “black lives matter” movement, although it could just be a matter of poor empathy/lack of realizing the connotation/apparent subtext of his words.

            “Said something racist” is a specific enough allegation, though, that we shouldn’t have to rely on further ambiguous allegations like “tone-trolling” and “dog whistling” to substantiate it. Like, if someone asked me why I said that Trump said something racist, I wouldn’t say that he “dog whistled.” I’d say that he said that undocumented Mexican immigrants are rapists. I’d mention that he keeps referring to them as “illegals”. I’d point out that he recently tweeted that 81% of white homicide victims are killed by black people when in fact 82% of white homicide victims are killed by white people. And so on.

          4. He’s said racist things, yes. He’s also endorsed the racist sayings of others, has behaved in a racist way, and is using racist tropes to court the attention of white supremacists. I don’t care whether the subtlety is lost on interweb commenters, who insist on nuance in some instances, and play with dictionaries in others.

            Olivia, I know this is a tangent you didn’t want belowthread, so I’m going to quickly address this and move on. If you need to moderate and/or remove my comments, no worries; thank you for your work here.

            Yes, it’s racist to try to hijack a specific discussion about specific racist incidents on your campus (that don’t affect you as a white person), deliberately ignore signs that ask you not to photograph or address actors within the protest decrying that racism, co-opt the aftermath and participate in a “panel” you know to be advertised in a disengenuous way, and then try to parlay that brief moment of infamy into you being a victim of mean, uppity, tantrum-throwing young black folk. That’s a racist, self-serving misrepresentation of what’s happened, and shows bad faith from the moment he realized he could lie and spin and distort and misleadingly edit and a segment of right-wing media would regurgitate his fictions without fact-checking. If there’s any young men orchestrating and perpetuating a Social Justice Hoax, of late, it’s Schierbecker. He likes the notion of being Free Speech Boy, oppressed by black college students (who have promptly forgotten about him, because they have real problems to contend with).

  1. Whatever, edited. I honestly don’t care about whether people specifically accused him of racism or just of being an asshole, because the fact is that he did something that pissed people off and then was defended on grounds of his autism, which is in fact what this post is about. That’s why I brought it up, because the instance was relevant, no matter what specific type of screw up it was. He was told that he was hurting other people and others used autism to say it didn’t matter.

  2. Interesting article Olivia. My two cents – Other people should not assume what abilities/understanding (or not) said person has and make excuses on their behalf. That is hijacking and manipulating the issue. Far better to let the person defend his own actions.

    I know this is not the point you wanted to raise, but a person, any person, cannot hide their true nature forever, if they are truly racist, their opinions will surface on more than one occasion.

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