Ableism and the War on Drugs

CW: police misconduct, the war on drugs, racism.

I’ve been upset and dismayed, but not surprised, over the last few days as reports of the police officer mistreating Connor Leibel have shown up all over my social media feeds. As someone who has extensively studied the history and sociology of drug use and prohibition, I believe that I’m fairly qualified to comment on this story.

A brief recap for folks who aren’t familiar with the story: A 14 year old Autistic teen, Connor Leibel, was hanging out at a park for a few minutes, peacefully playing with a piece of string, while his aunt took his sister across the street for an activity. He was alone for only a few minutes before a police officer pulled over and approached him after deciding that Connor must be on drugs. The officer was very confrontational, didn’t listen to or understand what Connor was trying to tell him about his piece of string, and ended up injuring Connor as the officer forcibly held him still and Connor fell to the ground.

I think it’s important to note that, from the beginning of drug prohibition (even before it became a so-called “war”), the laws have targeted various communities of color with Black Americans currently bearing the largest injustices. Likewise, the War on Drugs tends to target disabled people disproportionately because we are most likely to be thought to be drug users based on our observed behaviors. This is an even more serious issue for disabled people who are also people of color.

A couple of months ago I had a twitter discussion about how many of us Autistics have been accused by friends and family members of using drugs from time to time while we’ve been completely sober. I have been aware of the association between being Autistic and others thinking I’m possibly “on drugs” for a few years. I have been accused many times of being “high” when I was simply being my Autistic self.

It is an unacceptable and dangerous situation to have police officers, or anyone else, treating Autistic and other disabled people as though we’re criminals because they think we’re using illegal drugs. When natural Autistic ways of moving are lumped in with the results of criminal activity, we automatically become suspects unless we’re always able to “pass” for allistic (non-Autistic).

This isn’t a great situation even for those of us who can manage to “pass” for short periods of time, and it hurts even more those of us who can’t “pass” at all.

Burnouts, meltdowns, and shutdowns are the results of sustained “passing,” even when done successfully, because of the sheer amount of energy it takes to maintain even a minimally acceptable allistic facade.

It’s a lose-lose situation for Autistics as long as the responsibility is only on us.

We can’t win. Constantly trying to accommodate allistics will destroy us from within and either refusing or being wholly unable to accommodate them could very well destroy us from without.

I see the War on Drugs as yet another harmful tool that allistic authorities can wield against us. It can be used to justify excessive force against us and fuel potentially life-threatening misunderstandings simply because we may be unable to respond in the ways they expect us to.

We don’t move the way allistic people do. Even before we say one word, even in a neutral situation where drug use isn’t suspected, we are judged less favorably by allistics than they judge each other.

Here, across three studies, we find that first impressions of individuals with ASD made from thin slices of real-world social behavior by typically-developing observers are not only far less favorable across a range of trait judgments compared to controls, but also are associated with reduced intentions to pursue social interaction.

When authorities can further categorize their automatic discomfort with harmless Autistic behaviors and movements as part of something illegal, we are in a dangerous situation indeed.

Moreover, I have noticed that allistics, especially those in a position of authority who demand respect, have a tendency to make up their mind about a person or situation first. Then nearly every action and statement from the person simply serves to reinforce the allistic person’s original assumptions and bias.

Once that police officer had decided Connor was using drugs, I doubt there was anything Connor could’ve done to convince the police officer that he wasn’t. The entire situation was unacceptable as well as fueled by a racist, ableist drug policy that needs to change.

Links specifically about Connor’s situation (I will be adding more as I find them) :

4 Disabled People Dead in Another Week of Police Brutality – Includes an interview with Julia Bascom about Connor’s case

From CBS News – Has a video interview with Connor and his mother including some disturbing body cam footage shown between interview clips.

Police Need to Understand Autism – Steve Silberman’s editorial discussing some of the wider implications of police interactions with Autistic people.

Non-MSM source – Some ableist language, but a thorough description of the video for folks who don’t feel up to watching it but want to know more details of what happened. 


5 thoughts on “Ableism and the War on Drugs

  1. Yikes. I hadn’t heard this news story before. I’ve been aggressively confronted in public for playing with a rubber band and that’s never fun but I know the reactions I’d get would be much worse if I was black.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many of them 😦 It would be difficult to keep up with every single one, sadly.

      I’m so sorry that you’ve had similar experiences. It’s scary to be approached by authority figures, especially about things that are difficult to explain and/or that shouldn’t have to be explained.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!


  2. I’ve been a part of this narrative too many times. Even psychiatric hospital staff doesn’t recognize it. Paramedics seem to show the most empathy and common sense, at least in my tiny area of the U.S. There needs to be mandatory training enacted in all 50 states. My state only has it for new police officers and the law has been around for about 5-7 years. They get a 15 minute training video in police training about special needs people. What are some of the differences between an autistic person having a violent meltdown and say someone who is strung out on cocaine or meth? Finding a difference would make a difference. Matthew chapter 7:1-about 3 says we are not to judge or we will be judged by the standard we use in judging others. God’s rules go for those in authority, too. I never go out alone anymore. I have learned to better identify when I am near sensory overload at home and take all the extra tranquilizers I need (RX) rather than to suck it up. I don’t trust any police help in my city.


    1. Mandatory training everywhere would be great! Officers need to know how to safely interact with disabled people if they’re going to serve our community safely. They could also not immediately treat people as criminals regardless of their behavior unless someone’s being directly put in danger by the behavior. Situations seem to get out of hand so quickly with confrontation instead of being diffused with calm behavior.

      I’m thankfully able to stay at home when needed too. I wish everyone had that ability. But this didn’t even seem to be a situation with overload :-/ Just an Autistic teen being himself in public while waiting for his aunt. It’s scary to me that these sorts of assumptions are made by others. It’s just an annoyance when the people making assumptions aren’t in authority, but it’s dangerous when they are.

      It’s unsurprising but discouraging to hear that psychiatric hospital staff fall into these same assumptions. I’m sorry you’ve experienced fallout from these kinds of assumptions too 😦


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