A Guide to Protesting While Autistic
The world that we’re facing is frightening right now. We’re all suffering a combination of a health crisis, environmental crisis, crisis of capitalism and several political crises all at once. It’s a mess. We need to come together and use collective action to force systems to bend to our will instead of the other way around.
The other day, I was asked by someone whether I knew of any resources to provide to autistic people protesting police violence. I looked around and asked a number of people, but I heard nothing. Well, even though I have been at only a few protests, here are a few guidelines and tips for how to protest and keep yourself safe while autistic.
So here’s my draft list for how to cope in a protest when you’re autistic. Please add things to it, this should be an interactive list, applicable to as many people as possible. The focus here are the current Black Lives Matter protests around the world, but they are applicable to other forms of protest.
- Consider whether you should be there in the first place
Not everyone is able to be at a protest. That’s fine. If you are autistic and a person of colour, you are extra vulnerable. Our behaviour when we are in meltdown, shutdown or overwhelmed singles us out. Many autistic people of colour die this way, because first responders often see a black person in distress as a danger. If you survive that first encounter, you are more likely to be detained, restrained, sectioned under the mental health act for undefined amounts of time. When you are there – specifically in so-called Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs – a UK institution we will discuss in a later blog) – you are very vulnerable to violence and abuse since the staff is often untrained on autism and rules with an iron fist.
Therefore, if you are autistic and a person of colour in these protests, it is OK to sit out these protests and have other people represent you there. It’s white people’s turn to speak up and put themselves in harm’s way if necessary. The same goes for autistic transfolks who are also more likely to be harmed, autistic transwomen of colour are uniquely vulnerable – transmisogynoir combined with anti-autistic bigotry.
Autistic people with learning difficulties are extra vulnerable, too. Consider whether you want to expose yourself to harm by joining the protest physically. Your voice is important and needs to be heard, but your continued existence is vital to all of us.
Autistic people with epilepsy should also think twice about going. The very nature of protests such as these can potentially cause extreme harm. If you have a grand mal seizure, you may not be able to get medical attention in time. Your life is more valuable than you being at this protest.
If you have few or no words, you are very vulnerable since your silence may be taken as aggression by police. Discuss with a friend/support person whether it is wise for you to join.
If you are unable to afford bail, think twice about going, since being imprisoned will be more harmful to you psychologically than for your neurotypical peers. Make sure you or people you know are able to afford bail for you and your designated friend.
I will state this again: we need autistic people of colour and to be safe and alive, that’s why we’re all protesting. If you are also trans, have learning difficulties and/or epilepsy, have few or no words or lack the money to afford bail – that counts for you too. If that means sitting out a protest – well; white, cis, able-bodied and neurotypical people have to speak up instead. It’s ok. You are most valuable to the cause when you’re alive and well. There are more ways to get involved. Use the privileges you have got to speak out in ways that put you less in harm’s way.
- Go with people you know
– Don’t go to a protest without friends or family there with you. Choose a designated supporter, discuss with them what they should do if you have a meltdown, shutdown or are sensorily overwhelmed. Make sure they are close to you when you are there. The more people you have physically around you, the safer you are. I have to stress this: you are autistic – therefore, your distress behaviour will not be read by police in the same way as your neurotypical friends’.
– Make sure you have a designated meeting point. If you lose your friends, go to that point immediately. Make sure that this meeting point is far from the police line.
– Finally, ask someone you know to contact you after the protest. Ask them to call you, because you might forget due to the overwhelming nature of the protest. If you are unable to respond to the call, they should contact your designated friend. If still no response, they should take action and look for you.
- Prepare. Know what you will be doing
– Before you go to the protest, talk through what you will be expected to do. This will reduce stress and allow you to focus more on dealing with inevitable surprises.
– Print out a map, check the route you will be taking and include potential escape routes.
– If possible, make a time-line of what you will be doing when and where to meet when the protest ends.
– Certain tasks you should not do to keep you out of harm’s way. You should not be the one to throw projectiles or be in police’s faces.
– Bring an autism passport and a list of triggers and how you wish to be dealt with by an officer. That should include clear communication from them to you. Copy that list, it is to be held by you, your designated friend and as many of your group as possible. At the head of your list it should say: “I am disabled, please allow me to call my support person.”† If you can laminate that list: all the better for it.
– Make sure your phone is charged and you have your designated friend on speed dial.
- Protect yourself
– Wear a face-mask. You should be wearing one anyway because of Covid-19. If you can, avoid bandanas or black facemasks. Use white surgical masks, if possible. That is because of the image of someone wearing a surgical mask at a protest is less easily co-opted by the opposition to demean our cause.*
– Wear light-coloured clothes that mark you out rather than dark colours. You may want to express solidarity with BLM, but your safety here is paramount. You need to be visible to your friends, so a light base with clear pinks, yellows, greens or purples will help here. Avoid reds, dark greens and black.
– Wear clothes that allow you to run if needed. If you are not feeling safe, remove yourself from the situation, with your designated friend.
– Make sure the clothes you wear are not sensorily overwhelming. If you cannot handle certain fabrics, don’t wear them. If you cannot handle labels, cut them out.
– If you are physically disabled on top of being autistic, you should be further away from the police. If you are blind or hard of hearing, you need to keep your distance and if possible, stay physically connected to your designated friend. If you are mobility-impaired, allow for more time to retreat if/when police escalate violence.
– If you are sensitive to bright lights, protect yourself. Wear sunglasses and prepare that the police might use sparks and sharp flashes. But also know that wearing sunglasses might make you more of a target.
– The same counts for loudness. Wear ear defenders, noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs. These are overall less conspicuous, so wear whichever feels safest.
– Sensitivity to strong smells is more difficult to overcome during protests. Expect a combination of people’s bodily odours, smoke, water vapour, burning rubber, horses, dogs. If things escalate, expect tear gas, pepper spray, blood and the anxiety of other people (autistics – you know what smell I mean). Your facemask will protect you, but not so much that you’ll be able to ignore these. If you have a strong response to smells, consider whether you should be there in the first place.
– If you struggle with proprioception (the sense of your body in space and around other bodies), discuss with your friends how to keep you safe in a crowd. People might be push, especially when faced with police and crushings do happen.
– Bring stim-toys that are small enough to hold in one hand and inexpensive enough to lose.
– Only bring an inexpensive rucksack, your phone, your autism passport (if you have it), bottled water (plastic, not glass), medication if you require it and essentials such as sunglasses and eardefenders.
- Rest before the protest
Make sure you have had a good night’s sleep beforehand. Eat a proper breakfast. If you haven’t had adequate sleep and/or are unable to keep food down, you are staying home. The lower your overall energy levels, the more vulnerable you are.
- Listen to your body
When you get to the protest, your body will feel on edge. This can be a good thing – you’re feeling energised and ready to play your part. But be conscious of physical tells. If you start shaking (more than usual), if you start getting overwhelmed – retreat. Talk to your designated friend before the protest and make sure they can pick up on your body’s signals when you can’t.
If you are starting to melt down – you groan at sounds, you feel flappy and restless, your anger starts boiling over, your anxiety starts hitting you – retreat. Stay out of the way of police as much as possible. Allow your friend to take you home, then let the meltdown play out. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You’re a hero.
The same counts for shutdowns, but you will be less capable of picking up on an escalating shutdown than you would be with a meltdown. Your designated friend is most important here. If they see you shut down, both of you need to go home.
If you sustain an injury, retreat with your designated friend and seek medical attention away from the protest. In countries such as the UK, you are more likely to face sympathetic responses from medical staff. In the US, go to a drug store or – if in serious distress – to the Emergency Department. Make sure you have your social security details with you and insist on your friend being there. They are not allowed to leave you, because staff might misinterpret autistic distress behaviour as violent.
- Police interactions
If despite all these precautions you still find yourself faced with the police – make sure you breathe. These people are able to harm you, so show them the list of triggers and responses and say the following: “I am disabled, please allow me to call my support person.” Then, don’t run from them, wait for the officer to nod or clearly say “go”, “you can leave”, or something similar. Then calmly walk backwards. Do not rush at them, away from them, do not let your anger get the better of you. Make sure you have your designated friend on speed dial and call them. Then go home immediately and rest.
If you are harmed by the police, retreat with your designated friend. They should be shielding your body, then seek medical attention. If you are harmed accidentally, do the same.
Should you find yourself arrested, your friend needs to get arrested with you and insist that you are not left alone, whatever happens. You may feel filled with rage, but find ways to breathe and stim together with your friend. The calmer you are, the easier the next few hours will be. It’s now your friends’ responsibility to keep you safe and to contact your outside friend, to bail out both of you.
After this, you need to recuperate. You have exposed yourself to a highly stressed environment, with hugely distressing noise, flashing lights and smells, as well as real (potential of) violence. Block out a day or two to properly recover from everything. If you have interacted with police, block out a week. You deserve recovery time, because – as I’ve said before – you are most valuable to the cause when you’re alive and well.
I hope this helps. Please comment and share this post as widely as possible. We need autistic people to be safe whilst protesting.
Black Lives Matter.
All my love,
* Yes, and you thought autistic people are the pedantic ones!
† This is a white lie. You are not disabled because you’re autistic. But the police know that they’re more likely to get in trouble if they harm a disabled person.