When Jacob Chansley — the so-called QAnon Shaman’s — trial for his taking part in insurrection of the Capitol began, his lawyer ludicrously argued that his client’s being on the autism spectrum played a role in him raiding Congress to try to overturn the 2020 presidential election.
Setting aside the blatantly ableist language that this lawyer used when saying that people who conducted the riot were “people with brain damage,” “f**king retarded” or “on the goddamn spectrum,” Albert Watkins’s arguments were a bunch of malarkey. They would only further stigma about autistic people and make others think they were incapable of participating in public life, I argued at the time.
The people who threatened the lives of lawmakers and ransacked our capital city made us all less safe. They were the reason why there were gates around the Capitol and military personnel in their fatigues sprinkled throughout downtown. As an autistic person who works in politics, I have never once thought of trying to trash Capitol Hill, the place that is often my office, or any other part of Washington DC, which has been my home for the past seven years. I know plenty of autistic activists, policy advocates, former Capitol Hill aides and former administration officials who would never do the same.
So when Chansley — who became famous for entering the Capitol while shirtless and decked out in horns — got sentenced to 41 months in prison and 36 months of supervised release, I was relieved. In a weird way, Chansley’s sentencing is a victory for autistic people — because it means that he was tried fairly for the consequences of his actions and was not given an excuse for his horrible actions on Capitol Hill.
Since I started writing about autism in earnest, and particularly while researching my book, I’ve seen how autistic people are treated as less than their neurotypical counterparts in everything from education to employment to housing to law enforcement. Conversely, many times, neurotypical society affords the soft bigotry of low expectations to many autistic people (mostly white men) by excusing their bad behavior as simply a symptom of autism.
But both of these mindsets reflect a discriminatory mindset about autistic actions. Yes, I will shout until my voice is hoarse that the world needs to adapt itself to autistic people’s — and all disabled people’s — needs. But the inverse of liberty is responsibility. If we as autistic people are to live among neurotypicals, we also have to respect them and treat them with all the humanity that we expect them to give us. Taking part in a mob that yells “Hang Mike Pence” while barging onto the Senate floor with a bullhorn is far from that.
On the flipside, at least Chansley got to have his day in court. That has not been the case for countless autistic people who have either been shot or killed by police. Take for example the case of Stephon Watts, who was shot and killed by police in a Chicago suburb; or Ricardo Hayes, who survived after a Chicago police officer shot him; or Kayden Clarke, whom police in Arizona killed in 2016.
It’s likely not a coincidence that the first two of those people I listed were people of color and the last one was a transgender man. Meanwhile, Chansley, as a cisgender white male, was not killed on sight and did not have to live in fear that his behavior could be threatening enough to warrant a gunshot. Those privileges allowed him to live long enough to go to court and go to jail. I wish that many of our mutual autistic tribe were allowed to see the inside of a courtroom instead of the business end of a gun.
Chansley’s arrest comes at a time when more autistic people are participating in public life than ever before. Many advise presidential candidates, lobby their lawmakers and even run for office themselves. All of these are within the bounds of normal political action and not attempts to subvert civil society. It’s therefore comforting to know that rather than being given a condescending pass on his actions or having lethal weapons deployed against him, Chansley is just going to prison. In that sense, he’s done all of us autistic people a favor; he’s now just like the rest of the would-be insurrectionists — and just as despicable.
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