Neurodiversity and capitalism’s oppression

BY:José Santiago And Charlotte Forestter| August 18, 2020
Neurodiversity and capitalism’s oppression

The infinity symbol by itself signifies the neurodiversity rights movement. This version, created by one of the authors, symbolizes neurodiversity from a communist perspective.


Neurodiversity is the diversity of those who have been diagnosed with Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia, LD, Down Syndrome, Bipolar Depression, or other differing abilities. Also, neurodiversity is the acceptance and inclusion of these psychological differences in society as abilities/gifts, not defects. Neurodiverse people accept themselves as typical and accept themselves as a person of a neuro-cultural group. The Neurodiversity Network defines neurodiversity as “the diversity of human brains and minds—the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.”  In “The Neurodiversity Paradigm” Nick Walker writes:

Neurodiversity is an essential form of human diversity. The idea that there is one “normal” or “healthy” type of brain/mind or one “right” style of neurocognitive functioning, is no more valid than the idea that there is one “normal” or “right” gender, race or culture.

The classification of neurodivergence (e.g., autism, ADHD, dyslexia, bipolarity) as medical/psychiatric pathology has no valid scientific basis, and instead reflects cultural prejudice and oppresses those labeled as such.

The social dynamics around neurodiversity are similar to the dynamics that manifest around other forms of human diversity. These dynamics include unequal distribution of social power; conversely, when embraced, diversity can act as a source of creative potential.

Walker also notes that the science of psychology on these diagnoses is used to oppress, segregate, and weaken neurodivergent people.

From a Marxist perspective, neurodiverse people, like the proletariat, are oppressed by the conditions of the bourgeoisie. These conditions include the theoretical and practical properties of normality, health, right way of living, health insurance, and special education. One result has been difficulty in gaining degrees and jobs. According to Neurodiversity Pathways, “only 29% of autistic adults have had any sort of paid work in their lifetime.” Of college graduates, “a whopping” 85% are unemployed as of April 2019. This unemployment gap means that 4.6 million people who have a diagnosed intellectual difference—often poor and needing jobs—are not hired in the workforce. The capitalists’ purposeful use of disablism and ableism works against 4.6 million people who deserve the same equal opportunity to gain employment as anyone else. This unemployment gap is one major condition that the bourgeoisie uses to exploit individual neurodiverse people. Besides, the historical stigma of being labeled has led to socioeconomic struggle for neurodiverse individuals.    

Educationally, there are 15.3 million high school students, and out of those, 1.7 million are neurodivergent. Of these 1.7 million students, only 301,035 have graduated with a high school diploma in 2017. This leaves a staggering 1.3 million students without a high school diploma and 250,762 graduating students without employment each year. Also, neurodiverse college students do not have laws and policies to protect, support, and include those who are in a neuro-cultural group. According to the 2017 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 4,298 degree-granting post-secondary institutions. Yet there are only two colleges in the United States whose curriculum assimilates with neurodivergent individuals: Beacon College and Landmark College. This means that 2 out of 4,360 colleges have the resources to teach neurodivergent thinkers.

Higher education is not the only problem. The No Child Left Behind Act, with its emphasis on high-stakes testing, was rescinded in 2015, but it has left a lot of elementary and high school students—and future collegians—behind. Many elementary school students continue to fall behind in reading, making “less than one year’s growth each year, so by the fourth grade, they are reading at the second-grade level,” as Gail E. Tompkins explains in Literacy for the 21st Century: A Balanced Approach. This problem is unacceptable, and if this trend is continued through high school, neurodiverse students will lack the skills needed to go to college and in the workforce. These numbers show that the American education system is broken and that the right to a basic education is not upheld in the United States.

In the area of policing, police officers have continually brutalized the neurodivergent population and have even shot them. In their 2018 YouTube vlog, the Guardian published a video showing an off-duty Chicago police officer shooting a teenager with autism. This video shows an unarmed 18-year-old, Ricardo Hayes, standing on a sidewalk while Sargent Khalil Muhammad pulls up in his car and shoots at him for no reason. Also, a police officer in Buckeye, Arizona, tackled 14-year-old Connor Leibel while he was just playing with a stress-relieving toy.

In addition to police brutality, mass incarceration is a serious problem. In “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020,” the authors write:

The American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention facilities, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

Yet we do not know how many neurodivergent thinkers are imprisoned. Edward Lyon attempts to clear this up in “Imprisoning America’s Mentally Ill,” writing, “40 percent of prisoners were diagnosed with a mental health disorder between 2011 and 2014. Every year two million people with psychological problems are jailed, based on estimates by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.” This is awful news, as almost the whole prison system has neurodivergent thinkers, and that out of the 6.5 million individuals with neurodivergent abilities, 4 million of these individuals are free, meaning 30% to 40% of these people are in jail. This demonstrates that a big chunk of the neurodivergent population are in jail, which constitutes a horrible atrocity against this class of individuals.

The increasing population of neurodivergent prisoners has not been discussed widely in mainstream news outlets, perhaps by design. Angela Davis observes in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? that neurodivergent people, who most likely have been going through a nervous breakdown by the time of their incarceration, are more vulnerable to being arrested for no reason other than existing in an increasingly authoritarian society. She asks:

Are we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability? According to a recent study, there may be twice as many people suffering from mental illness who are in jails and prisons than there are in all psychiatric hospitals in the United States combined.

What is the significance of American citizens diagnosed with mental illnesses or non-visible disabilities making up a large portion of the prison population? I can stipulate that it is a form of social control meant to pacify a neurodivergent person’s potential.

Prisons are already a form of social control, as well as an elaborate excuse to divest government funding from much-needed social services. To quote Michael Parenti:

The prison populations in most states have grown exponentially, mostly with small time drug users. By 1995–96, California was spending more on prisons than education. . . . The real function of the police is social control. Their job is to keep in line those elements that might prove to be troublesome to the powers that be.

Neurodivergent people are often among the most “troublesome,” if not just an inconvenience to the most powerful members of society, as well to many PMCs (professional managerial class). This is why people diagnosed with autism at an early age are placed in ABA (applied behavioral analysis), in order to have their autistic characteristics controlled or eliminated (there is no way to eliminate autistic behavior, as it will remain in us, no matter how well we pass as neuro-typical). It is an industry meant to engineer the behaviors of neurodivergent people so that they become more palatable and docile citizens to be exploited in the market, working in jobs that are often counterintuitive to our nature. The moment a neurodivergent person starts to “act out” or behave in ways that are “weird,” “strange,” “uncomfortable,” or otherwise completely benign yet inconvenient for proper society, we are looked at with the utmost suspicion. Such dubious views are grounds for the police to harass our community, and any attempt to resist unlawful arrest would land the most vulnerable in jails and even prisons.

Neurodivergent people who are also people of color are in the most dangerous positions for incarceration and police/state violence. On August 2019, a 23-year-old Black man named Elijah McClain was murdered by police officers in Aurora, Colorado. He was known to have a disability, as well as an optimistic and cheerful outlook on the world, but because he was roaming around in a white neighborhood, a resident reported McClain to the police for supposedly suspicious behavior. One of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Patrisse Cullors, describes her brother, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, as being another target of the system. At only 19 years old, Monte Cullors was arrested and brutally beaten by the police while in custody, and when he returned home, he was a lot worse off. In a video, Cullors tells the viewers that mental illness is criminalized because of inadequate mental health services. What’s needed, she says, is not improvements in the prison system, but improvements in the alternatives to imprisonment. And of course, Cullors is suffering the consequences of not only systemic racism but also systemic ableism.

Another urgent matter is the inadequate health care that is provided for neurodivergent people struggling to survive this capitalist hellscape. Before the spread of COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo made Medicaid cuts by approximately $450 million, which would badly affect senior citizens and the disability community. What’s more troubling is that people living in group homes are in more danger of getting infected with COVID-19. An article from NPR states that “people with intellectual disabilities and autism die of COVID-19 at a higher rate.” This is because people with mental illnesses who are not able to survive on their own or lack the social support of friends or family end up living in group homes. Because many publicly funded nursing homes depend on Medicaid, the infection rate among nursing home residents has spiked by 2.5%, thanks, in part, to Cuomo’s budget cuts. And the dire conditions faced by group home workers directly affect the residents:

In New York, a direct service professional working in a group home makes little money—”at or below the poverty line,” in the mid $20,000s a year, says Tom McAlvanah, president of New York Disability Advocates, a coalition of service providers. He says it has been hard to keep workers healthy and on the job. They’re vulnerable not only because of where they work, but because they often rely on public transportation. McAlvanah says New York’s Medicaid program, the main source of payment for group home providers, has failed to increase reimbursements even before the coronavirus pandemic.

One instance of nursing home–related neglect and abuse hits close to home: a good friend of mine who is diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (let’s just say “high functioning autism” for now, as Hans Asberger himself was a Nazi collaborator and eugenicist) was stuck in a privately funded group home for a few months, and she recalls it being an abusive environment. For instance, a staff member once dragged a mattress under her as she was sleeping; they’ve repeatedly called her names, including the “R” word; and they refused to give her the meds she needed to function, instead “medicating” her with drugs that made her drowsy. Thankfully, she is no longer a ward of the state and now lives with her family. Unfortunately, though, most people with a neurodivergence do not end up in a lucky scenario. Too many in our community are still trapped in oppressive settings and enduring abusive behavioral modifications, including remote-controlled electric shocks or ESDs (electrical stimulation devices), as used until March 4, 2020, by the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, to control the students’ self-harming behaviors.

There are approximately 6.5 million people in the United States who have an intellectual difference. We, neurodivergent people, not only need love, patience, acceptance, and the right to prosper, but we are also in dire need of liberation. It’s not enough that people with disabilities are given a seat at the table; we require—and demand—an overhaul of the system. We need an entirely new system, one that is autonomous from neuro-typical capitalism and that respects the dignity of people with disabilities, visible and invisible. We all must start thinking about treating the neurodivergent community as a cultural group, not as guinea pigs for a neoliberal experiment or as pity projects. The 6.5 million of us deserve no less.

The opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the positions of the CPUSA.

Artwork courtesy of José Santiago.


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