Why Is Autism A “Crime?”

Filed Under (Activism, Law) by Estee on 13-05-2010

What do Michel Foucault, who taught at the Collège de France and Edward Scissorhands have in common? What do they both teach us in relation to how people with cognitive differences are treated by the legal system?

Foucault’s lectures from 1974-1975, compiled in the book Abnormal (Edited by Valerio Marchetti and Antonella Salomoni), suggest that our legal system is a mechanism of exclusion. Foucault argues that the emergence of abnormal in the nineteenth century constitutes the basis of human as: “the monster, the individual to be corrected, and the onanist.” It was the nineteenth century that saw the system of “normal” birth in the way we understand it today. Adolphe Quetelet established a measure of the stars that was also used as a model to create a “statistical norm” of humans for political purposes during this period. It should not be surprising then, that this system of “regularities” was used in medico-legal practice, and “produced a psychologico-moral double of the legal offense [thus] creating [a model] of the ‘dangerous individual.'”

Just how do we determine who is dangerous? The question is important since people with cognitive differences have been marginalized, feared and unjustly incarcerated. I do not think it needs rementioning that this fear underlies, even, the many media reports about autism and the fierce quest for a cure. Foucault, further, cites legal examples of how we exclude, judge, fear and incarcerate individuals who MAY BE a danger to society.

“The examination is that form of knowledge and power that gives rise to the ‘human sciences,’ and thus that contributes to the constitution of the domain of the abnormal. The examination of the ‘dangerous individual,’ for example, implied a control not primarily of what individuals did, but of what they might do. [italics mine], what they are capable of doing. ‘Dangerousness’ meant that the individual ‘must be considered by society at the level of his potentialities and not at the level of his acts,’ not as someone who had actually violated a law, but as someone whose potential behavior had to be subject to control and correction.”

Foucault has also said, “Expert opinion shows how the individual already resembles his crime before he has committed it.”

He also said in his lectures, “The first property is the power to determine, directly or indirectly, a decision of justice that ultimately concerns a person’s freedom or detention, or, if it comes to it, life and death. So, these are the discourses that ultimately have the power of life and death. Second property: From what does this power of life and death derive? From the judicial system, perhaps, but these discourses also have this power by virtue of the fact that they function as discourses of truth within the judicial system. They function as discourses of truth because they are discourses within a scientific status or discourses expressed exclusively by qualified people within a scientific institution. Discourses that can kill, discourses of truth, and, the third property, discourses — you yourselves are the proof and witnesses of this — that make you laugh. And discourses of truth that provoke laughter and have the institutional power to kill, are, after all, in a society like ours, discourses that deserve some attention…These everyday discourses of truth that kill and provoke laughter are at the very heart of our judicial system.”

As Foucault cites specific legal cases, it becomes clear that the least element of proof has been enough to entail a certain element of penalty.  I do not think I need to cite specific cases in autism where autistic people are marginalized, assumed to be dangerous, and who often are mistreated by those in law enforcement. These stories are in the news every month. Stories of how autistic people are feared manifest in our treatment of them and the burden of proof lies heavy upon the autistic person.

As I watched Edward Scissorhands again last night, which should be a cult film of the disability genre, I want you to pay specific attention to the court scene and the “expert” opinion and then the group of women perpetuating fear. As autism is diagnosed by observation only, I hope to illustrate the bias that underlies our thinking and permeates our society and how it effects the treatment of autistic individuals not only by our formal institutions, but as Foucault takes further, in the law:


Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures At The Collège De France, 1974-1975, New York: Picador, 1999.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.