“It’s criminal that they exist, and they exist as criminals…”; More Language of Exclusion

There are a variety of rhetorics that can be used to exclude our special needs children from being accepted in and taking part in society. The function of these rhetorics – these ways of referring to and marking out our children (and indeed, disabled adults too) – is to keep the “unpleasantness” of disabled existence away from the tidy, safe mainstream world. It takes something people recognise as different and undesirable in a more general context, attaches it to the disabled population, then draws the conclusion that there is good and moral reason to exclude the disabled, whilst not appearing to be saying the less palatable statement that different bodies and different minds are unacceptable merely because they are different.

For example, there’s dehumanizing language, that operates by assigning a lack to our children otherwise required for membership to humanity (eg empathy); sometimes the dehumanizing language is more direct “..it’s like the child isn’t there at all.” Another example is language that denigrates our children as something deserving of ridicule (and used to make “normal” people feel better about themselves and their abilities); the word “retarded” is an example of this.

But one that I hadn’t much come across or given real though to until recently, appears to be becoming more popular. It’s another way to separate out our children as “other”, as unwanted, as undesirable within society: To mark their very existence, and their nature, as “criminal.”(I’ll be making my comments most directly about autism since that’s the disability I’m most familiar with due to my son, but the points clearly extend beyond autism, to other disabilities.)

The association between autism and criminal behaviour got a very public airing thanks to Assange, in his opinion that all hackers are a little bit autistic. An idea seemingly (and superficially) supported by the large number of media stories both here and overseas that almost inevitably refer to a hacker’s autism (or more often, Aspergers). Another too-loud voice was added to this criminal association by the astounding ignorance of a strongly anti-vaccine individual, who publicly states that “All the school shootings by the children in the USA are by autistic children.” Locally too, there was a lot of talk about the autistic criminal mind, surrounding the case of Arie and the lightbulb he attempted to steal post the Christchurch Earthquake.

It should be obvious that in every one of these instances broadly linking autism and crime, that there are serious problems with over-reaching, unsupported generalizations, ignorance of how the law operates, or out-right factual error. But it doesn’t take much for new anti-disability rhetoric to start-up and take hold. And while the word “retarded” and more obvious dehumanizing language is under attack, the unfounded labeling of autistic people as inherently “criminal” allows another avenue for attack and separation.

Another way in which the disabled are linked to the word “criminal,” is arguably even more disturbing, because it goes to their very existence. It is quite typically expressed by this statement I came across only today on a discussion I was following on facebook:

“The money to help the “special needs” children doesn’t just come from the Min Education – it comes from us (you, me, next door neighbour – usually real people paying tax). If Janet and John [randomly chosen names] have a special needs child that is terrible, if they continue to breed and have another, that is criminal. My “normal” children didn’t get any special breaks…”

So the very fact of having our children – their very existence – is deserving of the label “criminal;” as in evil, thoughtless, deserving of social condemnation. The parents who allowed the child to come into the world, have done something horrible, and the parent should feel ashamed and blameworthy. By that reasoning, I should have been sterilised after my first child turned out “wrong.”

The commenter is saying more directly, that it’s expensive for society to look after high needs individuals, so having such children is irresponsible and deserving of blame. Note that this isn’t seen by the commenter as a reason to critique the funding priorities of society or government, and neither is it seen as reason to encourage people to give more time and money to charity. No, it’s just a failure by the parents of such children, that’s a much easier problem to identify and “fix.”

Similarly the equation of autistic people with crime: It would be more complicated to point out that the disabled are far more likely to be easy victims of crime than to commit crimes, and that crimes committed against them will often go un-noticed and / or unpunished due to their inability to understand what has been done to them or to speak out about it; or that they are frequently poorly represented and poorly understood within the legal and criminal system which again makes them easy to “catch” and easy scape-goats (sometimes of crimes they didn’t even commit). No, it’s much easier and tidier to label them as “other”, as “criminals”; abhorrent and negative things we’re better off without in society, things that drag down the “normal” law-abiding people. And it’s easier not to treat them as individuals, but as representative of all those given the label of “autistic” (for example).

This rhetoric lets “normal” people feel superior, by accident of birth. It makes “normal” people feel safer too: “all we have to do is identify the disabled and keep them away from us or stop them existing at all, and normal people’s lives will be that much better.” The disabled are an easy group of people to identify and blame when things go wrong, not least of all because their ability to fight back with actions and words is much less than other targets in society. It is easy to group them together in the first place – either by label or by appearance – and to emphasize how different they are from the “norm”, rather than how much the same we are.

The word “criminal” comes loaded with both legal and moral implications; it packs a punch. When used to group together and separate out the disabled, so that the disabled can be treated as unwanted by mere fact of their existence, the punch it packs is itself… criminal.

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12 Responses to “It’s criminal that they exist, and they exist as criminals…”; More Language of Exclusion

  1. nostromo says:

    Good God, in spite of wanting to hit him with a frying pan, sometimes I think its better to appeal to these people with logic than emotion. This is what I posted – although I think I misunderstood what he said about Gifted kids, who I think should have funded extension programmes:

    “Dean my 1st child was normal, 2nd is profoundly Autistic and cannot talk yet. He gets a high level of funding and goes to a really good school. So the country invests money in him, and we spend $30,000 a year of our own money on ABA.

    By the time he is adult he we are pretty sure will be able to function pretty well, maybe have a simple job. If he was left without services he would not learn anything, and would no doubt end up being cared for by the state in a sheltered home with care givers. Whats the cost of that? I believe it is VERY high.

    Instead if he ends up working in a job, he will instead contribute to society. So purely from an economic point of view I think the math works out very well (even if we’re personally under financial strain) think of it as investment. Even if these kids don’t work, the skills they learn mean they require less care and management by other people, have better self esteem, better health, all of which of course leads to a better outcome with lower costs.

    I agree with you on the gifted kids, its the same argument, an investment that provides a return if you will.

    But your argument about parents of SN kids not having further children could be extended in any direction..kids of criminals, welfare beneficiaries, fat people, its the same sort of thinking used in 1930s Germany, not a place I would want to live.”

  2. Sharon says:

    What a sad and angry man.

  3. SBC ‘s Autism research centre in Cambridge is working on “Moral Judgements”. Autistics have no moral center now, I suppose, as well as lacking a theory of mind, having no empathy. and being sympathizers. According to Simon Baron Cohen they deserve to live, however, because of their mathematical abilities. How kind.

    Following is a cut/paste from an email I received being invited to join a “study”. I’m sure it’s all very scientific and all , especially since I have been asked to participate. I volunteered when he was doing a study on sex or something a year or two back.

    “I am writing to invite you to take part in a research study conducted by the
    University of Cambridge. Please note that I am contacting you on behalf of the
    researchers and that your personal details have been protected. If you would
    like to be removed from our database of volunteers, please reply to
    help@autismresearchcentre.com with ‘Remove Me’ in the subject line. Please read
    on for more information about this study.

    This study is examining moral judgements. The information sheet will explain why
    the research study is being carried out, and describe what you would be asked to
    do. Please take the time to read it carefully so that you can decide whether or
    not you would like to participate. You can print the information sheet out and
    keep it for your records.”


    Funny you should bring up responsibility for bearing “handicapped” children. http://www.nzherald.co.nz/lifestyle/news/article.cfm?c_id=6&objectid=10789084
    “Killing newborn babies should be allowed if the mother wishes, two Australian academics have argued in the British Medical Journals.

    The report’s authors, Dr Francesca Minerva, from the University of Melbourne and Dr Alberto Giubilini, from the University of Milan, say after-birth abortion should be considered late-term abortion because there isn’t much of a difference between them biologically.”

    The paper is no longer available online.
    It’s a wonderful world, eh?

    • Dear God that study’s conclusions are appaling, and I don’t just mean from a humanity point of view. Basic applied medical ethics always puts forward the point of self-sustainability (breathing and body functioning independently of the mother’s) as a vital distinction between when a mother can choose to end her unborn child (since it is completely dependent on her and no one else can sustain it), and when it is not OK to end it (a life independent of her own). I’m not saying this is necessarily ‘the’ definitive point of dictinction, but it is a vital one, and the fact that the authors seemed completely unaware of this vital consideration is more than a minor over-sight. The baby after birth can survive without the mother’s physical presence; it is a functional human being which can be cared for by other humans should the mother choose not to do so.

      All that besides, ugh, what a shocking news story, I hadn’t noticed it before so thanks for sharing it. Thank you too for sharing the other research you’ve referred to in your comment, must say I’m not a fan of SBC; his ideas are superficially attractive, but deeper digging and research doesn’t appear to bare them out, like they’re overly simplified or generalised to the point of error.

  4. OOps… freudian slip, I meant systemizers, not sympathizers.

  5. I was pretty incensed when I read the anti-vax screed containing the oh so charming “fact” that all perpetrators of school shootings were autistic. How can any parent of autistic children so blithely accept these statements without being offended at the assertion that their children are ticking time-bombs waiting to go off? Apparently quite easily as most of the commentors on that cafemom thread are pretty much saying “mm-hm” and “amen!” and only one of them challenged the veracity of any part of it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since anti-vaxers have no problem with thinking of their kids as “damaged”.

    But then I’m a potential “criminal” since I’m “continuing to breed” by expecting my second child after my first one turned out to be “terrible”.

  6. Tsara says:

    My brother, Rye, is high functioning….now. He has had hard earned money stolen from him, been taken to a seedy hotel and had his entire body shaved by a strange man claiming to be helping, been to jail for not understanding the rules of legalizing his moped for the road, has had his bike and lawnmower (which he uses to make a living) stolen from his front porch on several occasions. In every occasion it was family that had to come to the rescue. The authorities were tempted to believe that it must have been his fault somehow since he wasn’t able to make eye contact and didn’t even seem the ‘right’ kind of upset. One time I ran into him at the local Dollar Store and he had a goofy grin on his face. When I asked what was so funny, he replied, “I just bought a movie, watched it and then put it back in the case and used a hot knife to melt the shrink wrap back on. Then I returned it and got my money back!” I congratulated him on his brilliance and then told him why he could never do it again. He understood and never did. Crime happens. Everybody does it. But thank-you, thank-you, thank-you for pointing out how often it happens TO the disabled. It made me cry just a little because I’ve wanted to hear other people say it for years.

    I hope my comment makes sense. Your words have made me a little bit emotional, which is always good! This is an important post. Thank you so much for all the research and love!

    • Your comment makes perfect sense, and I thank you for sharing your brother’s experiences; it’s eye-opening and important to hear and understand the challenges the law poses to our autistic loved-ones.

  7. You are so right. Individuals also think they are “safe” from disabilities by blaming the parents (somehow, even without logic) for having a disabled child – whether it is by choosing to have another child (they should have known better) or by any other “reason.”

    And then there’s entire governments. Canada has rejected the Kim family’s application for permanent residency, and stated that the family must leave Canada because Taehoon (the youngest son)’s autism represents a potential burden on social and health care. http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/taehoon.html

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