Neurodivergence, Queerness, Anarchy!

“In the clear, critical light of day, illusory administrators whisper of our need for institutions, and all institutions are political, and all politics is correctional, so it seems we need correctional institutions in the common, settling it, correcting us. But we won’t stand corrected. Moreover, incorrect as we are there’s nothing wrong with us. We don’t want to be correct and we won’t be corrected.”

Three pieces on neurodivergence, queerness, and anarchy:

  1. “Max Stirners Embodied Egoism | From Self-Empowerment to Neuro-Anarchism” [Video Conference in Prague, February 24th 2018]

  2. “What is neuroqueer? | Intro from “Neuroqueer Heresies” by Nick Walker”

  3. “Neuroqueerness as Fugitive Practice | Against the grain of Applied Behavioral Analysis”

[CONTENT WARNING]: This compilation contains mentions of applied behavioral analysis, ableism, institutionalization, torture, murder, and death.

1. Max Stirners Embodied Egoism | From Self-Empowerment to Neuro-Anarchism” [Video Conference in Prague, February 24th 2018]

2. What is neuroqueer? | Intro from “Neuroqueer Heresies” by Nick Walker

What is neuroqueer (or neuroqueerness, or neuroqueering)?

“I should first of all acknowledge that any effort to establish an “authoritative” definition of neuroqueer is in some sense inherently doomed and ridiculous, simply because the sort of people who [engage] in neuroqueering tend to be the sort of people who delight in subverting definitions, concepts, and authority. That said, the [outline] that follows is the closest thing to an “authoritative” definition as is ever likely to exist.” – Nick Walker (She/Her)

Neuroqueer was originally conceived as a verb: neuroqueering as the practice of queering (subverting, defying, disrupting, liberating oneself from) neuronormativity and heteronormativity simultaneously. It was an extension of the way queer is used as a verb in Queer Theory; expanding the Queer Theory conceptualization of queering to encompass the queering of neurocognitive norms as well as gender norms – and, in the process, examining how socially-imposed neuronormativity & socially-imposed heteronormativity were entwined with one another, and how the queering of either of those two forms of normativity entwined with (and blended into) the queering of the other.

So neuroqueer was a verb first, and then, like its root word queer, it was also an adjective. As a verb, it refers to a broad range of interrelated practices. As an adjective, it describes things that are associated with those practices or that result from those practices.

One can neuroqueer, and one can be neuroqueer. A neuroqueer individual is any individual whose selfhood, gender performance, and/or neurocognitive style have in some way been shaped by their engagement in practices of neuroqueering, regardless of what gender, sexual orientation, or style of neurocognitive functioning they may have been born with.

Or, to put it more concisely (but perhaps more confusingly): you’re neuroqueer if you neuroqueer.

So what does it mean to neuroqueer, as a verb? What are the various practices that fall within this [outline] of neuroqueering?:

• Being both neurodivergent and queer, with some degree of awareness and/or active exploration around how these two aspects of one’s being entwine and interact (or are, perhaps, mutually constitutive and inseparable).

• Embodying and expressing one’s neurodivergence in ways that also queer one’s performance of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and/or other aspects of one’s identity.

• Engaging in practices intended to undo and subvert one’s own cultural conditioning and one’s ingrained habits of neuronormative and heteronormative performance, with the aim of reclaiming one’s capacity to give more full expression to one’s uniquely weird potentials and inclinations.

• Engaging in the queering of one’s own neurocognitive processes (and one’s outward embodiment and expression of those processes) by intentionally altering them in ways that create significant and lasting increase in one’s divergence from prevailing cultural standards of neuronormativity and heteronormativity.

• Approaching, embodying, and/or experiencing one’s neurodivergence as a form of queerness.

• Producing literature, art, and/or other artifacts that foreground neuroqueer experiences, perspectives, voices etc.

• Producing critical responses to literature and/or other cultural artifacts, focusing on intentional or unintentional characterizations of neuroqueerness and how those characterizations illuminate and/or are illuminated by actual neuroqueer lives and experiences.

So there you have it, from the people who brought about the term. This definition is, again, not an authoritative “last word” on the subject, because that would be a silly thing to attempt. Rather, I hope this will be taken as a broad working outline from which further theory, practice, and play will proceed.

3. Neuroqueerness as Fugitive Practice: Against the grain of Applied Behavioral Analysis

In its relatively short lifespan, applied behavioral analysis—the shaping of human [and non-human] behavior through operant conditioning—has risen to a state of eminence in the teaching and treatment of autistic children. This article reads the archive of behaviorist scholarship with and against the grain of ABA to two ends. First, I argue that behaviorism is a prevailing form of biophilanthropy: a form of biopolitics in which the technologies of control are rebranded as philanthropic ventures. I use biopolitics to demonstrate how inclusion into the capitalist society marks some (the includable) for life, some (the nonincludable) for death, and some for violence aimed at recuperating the normative future.

I use a case study from the corpus of behaviorist scholarship, “Effects of Punishment Procedures on the Self-Stimulatory Behavior of an Autistic Child,” to demonstrate how futurity is leveraged to seduce the teacher into the biopolitical project. My second use of this archive is to engage in a critical rereading of the text, locating moments of embodied resistance by the subject of the experiment. I make critical connections between the overlooked resistances within the archive of behaviorism and place these fugitive practices in continuity with contemporary notions of “neuroqueering” theorized by autistic scholars and activists.


Applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is a leading form of therapy and pedagogical method for autistic students in the United States. ABA is the practical arm of behaviorism science, which uses operant conditioning—contingent reinforcement and punishment— to shape behavior. ABA emerged as a scientific subfield in the 1960s as B. H. Skinner and his contemporaries tested their hypotheses about the experimental control of behavior on live subjects—including animals, children, and the disabled. In roughly 50 years, ABA has evolved from Skinner’s early experimentation to a full-fledged institution. As children are brought under the analytic lens of ABA, their future capacity for labor and social participation are evaluated. At a young age, those deemed to be lacking the potential for inclusion become marked for violence (intensive intervention and punishment) or displacement (institutionalization or incarceration), in the name of restoring the child’s threatened future.

I begin with two assertions: First, ABA is a technology of control that seeks to manage “unruly bodies”. Second, both disability and childhood contain an inherent queerness and precarious relationship to futurity, marking autistic or otherwise neurodivergent children as doubly-queer. I draw on two bodies of literature: behaviorist studies identifying queer behaviors in autistic children (Stimulations i.e “stimming”), and queer theory scholarship theorizing queerness as inherent in childhood itself. I argue that ABA serves the state in the management of embodied difference, through restoring normalcy. Specifically, I use gender studies scholar Kyla Schuller’s concept of biophilanthropy to demonstrate how biopolitical technologies are rebranded as a philanthropic venture.

Finally, I theorize resistance through an emergent concept of neuroqueer(ness). Neuroqueer(ness) represents an array of relationships between neurology and queerness including being both neurodivergent and queer, actively choosing to embody one’s neurodivergence, or queering ones cognitive processes. Queering, or the act of purposeful engagement with the non-normative, is a form of political disruption, an exercise in radical visibility, and a subversion of state control. I argue that neuroqueering can act as a fugitive practice that resists discourses of rights/recognition shaped by the neoliberal principles of individual freedom, rationality, and capitalist production.

Fugitivity, or a fugitive practice, is one that occludes capture; that exists outside of the formal structures of the state; invoking transience and elements of criminality). Essentially, I am interested in resistance in the most impossible of situations—the everyday fugitivity of children who occupy seclusion rooms, clinics, segregated special education classrooms, prisons, etc.

I purposefully contrast neuroqueering with the dominant mode of disability rights activism: advocacy for increased rights, compliance with disability law, and oversight. To do so, I use a case study from the journal Analysis and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities (Friman et al., 1984), focusing on how the subject of the intervention, Bob, is emblematic of both biopolitical discipline directed toward the queer body, and a fugitive practice of neuroqueering. I demonstrate how rereading the archive of behaviorism against the grain (Benjamin, 1940/ 2006) can provide evidence of liberatory praxis. I specifically look for moments of neuroqueerness as fugitive struggle within the archive of behaviorism, a body of work that claims to solve the problems of unruly bodies and minds.


Behaviorism emerged as a distinct field of scientific inquiry in the mid-20th century. In the tradition of Watson and Pavlov, B. H. Skinner began exploring motivation through animal experimentation, training animals such as pigeons to perform simple tasks through conditional reinforcement and punishment. In 1958, Skinner and other early behaviorists established the first journal for behaviorist research, “The Journal for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior” (JEAB). With the establishment of the JAEB in 1958 and the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis in 1968, the scope of behaviorism quickly expanded from small-scale animal experiments to eradicating perceived social maladies through operant conditioning. Early behaviorists donned a philanthropic role, claiming that their new science had tremendous potential to rehabilitate those previously thought to be irredeemable and to solve complex social problems.

Skinner’s firm rejection of the mentalism of Freudian psychoanalysis and his commitment to extreme positivism was a departure from psychoanalysis, as well as classical conditioning, and his theories drew wide criticism (Breger & McGaugh, 1965; Chomsky, 1959). Despite criticism, behaviorism has risen from a niche, experimental science to a highly professionalized field that has established preeminence in the treatment and education of disabled children. There is a particularly well-established connection between behaviorism and schooling for autistic children largely due to claims from the ABA industry being the only evidence-based therapy for autism (Keenan et al., 2015, p. 123). One of the defining features of early behaviorist scholarship was an interest in eradicating difference through the use of aversives. Aversive is a behaviorist term for a variety of negative consequences, such as electroshock, ingesting unpalatable substances, and physical restraint or seclusion (Moore & Bailey, 1973; Sidman, 1958). Although ABA, as a field, has shifted toward the use of positive reinforce- ment, “restrictive interventions” and variety of neologisms for punishment such as “over-correction” are still part of the practice of ABA, and current research on aversives continues to be published (Lydon, Healy, Moran, & Foody, 2015, p. 470–484).


This article uses biopolitics as a theoretical frame. Biopolitics, as defined by Foucault, has two interdependent features: the increased surveillance, discipline and control of the individual body; and regulatory control—governmentality—through which society is oriented toward economic production (Foucault, 2007). In US public schools, the school is tasked with the making of proper citizens and securing national futures through discipline and compliance (albeit sometimes masquerading as classroom management or positive behavior supports; Acevedo, 2018; Ball & Olmedo, 2013). Scholars in educational studies have explored the ways schooling reproduces hegemonic cultural norms and how students are socialized for a future congruent with White, heterosexual, middle-class values and embodiments (Anyon, 1980; Lugg, 2003; Piro, 2008). The future child, or rather the fantasy of the future adult, one that is a willing and productive addition to a liberal capitalism, functions to continuously orient the teacher to the not-yet-arrived. The specter of the imagined future adult haunts the extant child who is always in tension between the present version and their potential.

The teacher/therapist is thus engaged in what gender studies scholar Kyla Schuller terms biophilanthrophy, a “mode of incremental life” in which “racialized youth were gradually made to live and enter the capitalist economy” (Schuller, 2017, p. 21). Schuller (2017) argues that biophilanthropy “work[s] within institutions of discipline such as charities, schools, churches, prisons, orphanages and domestic homes, with the larger goal of creating useful cohorts of workers to further the accumulation of labor, power and wealth” (p.162). ABA is particularly exemplary of biophilanthropy because of its claim to rehabilitate its subjects, and to “make live” what once was set to be left to die (Foucault, 2003, p.241). Behaviorism emerged as a disciplinary technology of inclusion and momentous form of biophilanthropy in the 20th century. A successful application of the science of behaviorism allows for the recipient to be made includable in liberal capitalist society—and thus allows for any of the inherent violences contained within to be considered necessary, a preferable alternative to social (or literal) death.


To demonstrate how ABA disciplines the disabled body through biophilanthropy, I turn to the following case study from the Analysis and Intervention in Developmental Disabilities titled “Effects of Punishment Procedures on the Self-Stimulatory Behavior of an Autistic Child,” (Friman et al., 1984). The case study was selected for several reasons. First, current critical scholarship on ABA has focused primarily on Ivar Lovaas, a polemical figure most famous for his work at UCLA’s Young Autism Project and his infamous text Teaching Developmentally Disabled Children: The Me Book (Douglas et al., 2019; Gibson & Douglas, 2018). This text is often cited by anti-ABA activists on account of its unabashed ableist rhetoric and unapologetic endorsement of physical punishment (Anonymous, 2015). However, I resist singling out Lovaas, who is often misattributed as being the first to apply the science of behaviorism to the disabled. More accurately, Lovaas was one of many behaviorists experimenting on the disabled, a population of immediate interest to the emergent field. Second, the case study is relative chronological median in the history of ABA. This demonstrates both the past and future of the field. Friman was trained during the early development of the field yet is still research-active and continues to publish and present widely.

The subsequent abstract describes a three-variable experiment, with three separate interventions arranged as a comparison. The behaviors targeted were “hand-touching,” defined operationally as “whenever any part of one hand made contact with any part of the other hand in an apparently non-functional manner” (Friman et al., 1984, p. 42). The function of the experiment was to determine which of three punishments would be the most effective in lowering the rate of hand-touching. The study’s abstract reads:

Consulting psychologists evaluated the application of several aversive treatment methods for a self-stimulatory behavior exhibited by a severely retarded l l-year-old male. Three punishment procedures—the contingent applications of watermist (sic), lemon juice, and vinegar—were evaluated using a reversal design. Substantial reductions occurred for self-stimulatory hand-touching following the application of each procedure; low rates were maintained using water-mist during sessions conducted by group home staff members across a 6-month follow-up. The watermist procedure was as effective as lemon juice or vinegar, presented less physical threat to the client, and was preferred by the staff. (Friman et al., 1984, p. 39)

Behaviorist science is focused on observable change in the topography of an operationally defined behavior. A behavior targeted for intervention is first defined, and baseline data is collected on the rate of the behavior with no intervention. Then, intervention is planned and carried out. Data is collected on the rate of the behavior during and after intervention. In the first condition, each instance of hand-touching was responded to by misting Bob in the face with water using a trigger-type squeeze bottle. In the second condition, similar to the water mist condition, each instance of hand-touching was responded to by squirting 5–10cc of lemon juice into Bob’s mouth using a plastic liquid dispenser. The third condition was the same as the second, except that table vinegar replaced the lemon juice. This intervention was deemed necessary by the researchers and staff members because “numerous strategies to reduce Bob’s high rate self-stimulation had been unsuccessfully employed previously by the group home staff. These included differential reinforcement, time-out, hand-slapping, overcorrection and 2- and 4-point restraints” (Friman et al., 1984, p. 41). Although the researchers and staff mem- bers objected to Bob’s hand-touching, it was not inherently harmful to him or to others.


“Queer Futures”

In this case study, the researchers indicate that they chose Bob’s self-stimulatory hand-touching behaviors because they “could lead to more bizarre forms of self-stimulation” (Friman et al., 1984, p. 41). Bob’s body is described as potentially “bizarre,” signaling a future threatened by the queerness of his body. The threat of “more bizarre forms of self-stimulation” requires the teacher to reorient Bob toward a future as a productive laborer. Resisting this charge could threaten the teacher’s own claims to life, livelihood, employment, etc. I draw this connection to resist reifying a binary between teacher and student. Rather, within a biophilanthropic regime, both teacher and student are disciplined and surveilled. To reject this enterprise is to destabilize claims to humanity, for both researcher and researched.

A requisite to be included in the biopolitical sense is the desire for the heterosexual family unit, i.e., the familial relation favored by the capitalist economy. Children occupy a liminal space where their potential as heterosexual adults is cultivated religiously; the child is also constructed as asexual, without desire, and innocent. The child who resists the aggressive socialization of the schemes of childhood – who is bizarre – amplifies tensions around children, autonomy, and raising proper citizens. Queer theory has offered insight into the ways children’s sexualities are policed and oriented toward heterosexual futurity. In The Queer Child: Growing Sideways in the 20th Century, queer theorist Kathryn Bond Stockton troubles the notion of child as void of sexuality, positioning the queer child as occupying a space of altered temporality, growing toward a future that is already defined as socially illegible. Stockton writes:

Anglo-American cultures, over several centuries, thinking that the child can be a carefully controlled embodiment of non-complication (increasingly protected from labor, sex, and painful understanding), the child has gotten thick with complication. Even as idea. In fact, the very moves to free the child from density – to make it distant from adulthood – have only made it stranger, more fundamentally foreign, to adults. Innocence is queerer than we ever thought it could be.” (Stockton, 2009, p. 5)

The child’s innocence, that is, the psychological fantasy of the virtue of children, functions as a space where adult goals, motives, fears and anxieties can be projected – an uncanny set of object relations that feminist literary critic Lauren Berlant (2006) calls “cruel optimism”, p. 23 (Berlant, 2006). If the heterosexual child represents a dream, the queer child symbolizes death (Edelman, 2004). The overlap between the regulation of autistic bodies and the policing of gender and sexuality has been explored by education scholar Patty Douglas and social development studies scholar Margaret F. Gibson (2018) in “Disturbing Behaviors: Ole Ivar Lovaas and the Queer History of Autism Science.” The article explores Lovaas and his stu- dent George Rekers’s collaboration in The Feminine Boy Project, a grant-funded project that used the science of behaviorism to correct the behavior of “gender-disturbed children” and restore their chances at a heterosexual, gender-normative future. Gibson and Douglas aptly point to the “queer” history of autism science, and the way “The cruelty [of behaviorism] lies in how the measurements and interventions of this ‘optimism’ dehumanize, coerce, regulate, and do bodily violence to those deemed in need of a ‘cure,’ while recruiting and training others (teachers, parents, community members) to extend this pathologization, even at a cost to themselves” (Gibson & Douglas, 2018, p. 5). The queerness of childhood is a threat to the suspension of knowledge that creates a normative sense of growing towards a heterosexual future, and thereby requiring the intervention of the teacher, parent, therapist, etc.

“Righteous Death”

This case study illuminates how ABA is involved in the biopolitical project of managing difference; marking some bodies as worthy of life, some as worthy of death and some for recuperative violence with inclusion in mind. It also demonstrates the necropolitical mode of biophilanthropy. Necropolitics, as a departure from biopolitics, locates power as “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” – rather than the investment into life – to “make live” (Mbembe, 2003, p.14). Similarly, within Schuller’s conceptualization of biophilanthropy, redemption is predicated on a figural death, and the redemptive capacity of the enterprise is bestowed upon those who are doing the redeeming, who are described as “build[ing] up children originally marked for death in order to suspend them in exploitable life, enabling the nation to extract their vital energies for agrarian, domestic and reproductive labor” (Schuller, 2017, p. 165).

By constructing the autistic body as a threat to national futures, those responsible are absolved on their guilt and their abuses are reconstructed as an act of service. This is necessary to seduce the teacher into administering punishments. The participation of the teacher is necessary and their buy-in is carefully considered. Friman et al. demonstrate this in their discussion of aversives:

“Several problems confront consultants who advise teachers and other direct care personnel about what aversive treatment to employ once positive approaches have been ineffective. First, to comply with legal and ethical guidelines governing aversive procedures employed by human service programs, the least aversive yet most effective method should be identified and used. Second, the staff responsible for administration of treatment should be in agreement that aversive treatment is less harmful than no treatment at all. Third, the treatment should not be so unpleasant that those responsible for its administration on a daily basis would be reluctant to implement it consistently.” (Friman et al., 1984, p. 41)

The researchers are strategic in convincing the teacher that no treatment would be worse. This mobilizes what feminist scholar Sima Shakhsari calls the “politics of rightful killing” which she describes as “the rightful living dead,” a liminal space between necropolitcs and biopolitics in which one cannot be killed by anyone (certainly not by the illiberal states), but only – righteously – by the liberating states, in the name of rights, freedom, democracy, free market and global security” (Shakhsari, 2014, p. 104). The child’s queer body then is availed to righteous death at the hands of the protectorate of subject-citizens (therapists, teachers, etc.) for rebirth and potential inclusion into sovereign life.

The threat of social death is omnipresent and a compelling motivator. The teacher is confronted by the harsh truths of biophilanthropy: the alternative to making live (even through violence) is figural (or literal) death. Within the unrelenting conditions of biopower, the staff is made aware of what is lurking on the other side of the biopolitical vector – an effective strategy to solicit the buy-in of the staff. This theme has been explored by scholars in a variety of disciplines. In “The Political Language of the Helping Professions,” political theorist Murray Edelman (1974) describes the ways that the language around disability and the helping professions effectively defines the limitless potential for abuse and state-power that is unquestionably exercised in the name of “therapy” (Edelman, 1974, p. 297). Edelman argues that the construction of the “helping professions” extends state power and seeks to code the exercise of power as benevolent care, obscuring the more nefarious particulars such as control, abuse, and loss of autonomy that are inherent in this exercise (p. 300).

In a more contemporary example, disability studies scholar Ann McGuire (2016) also conceptualizes how the therapist’s violences are dressed as care work. In War on Autism: On the Cultural Logic of Normative Violence (2017), McGuire describes how panic regarding bodies, normativity and deviance justifies filicide, or the murder of autistic children by their parents (pp. 1–3). She describes a rhetoric of autism kidnapping children (p. 144) and violence being normalized through parental desire to liberate children from autism (McGuire, 2016, p. 215). To be included requires the individual to be made includable, and for difference to be managed through the discipline of biophilanthropy.

“The Right to (be) Maim(ed)”

A schism has occurred in the field of special education between those invested in “curative violence” (Kim, 2017, p. 9), and those who wish to challenge medical models of disability. Scholars of inclusive education, for example, have contested how special education students are segregated from the mainstream classroom, and posit inclusion as a solution (Marshall & Goodall, 2015; Wilson, 2017). Within this discourse, the problems of special education have been framed as a debate about inclusion versus exclusion, and as a struggle for rights and recognition. However, using the case study of Bob, and the myriad other ABA studies that leverage recuperation as a precursor to inclusion, we can understand how the production of includable bodies vis-a-vis punishment and containment is a hallmark of contemporary biopower. Inclusion, therefore, exists in a recursive with exclusion. The right to be included contains within it a right to the disciplinary technologies of biophilanthropy.

The slipperiness of rights is explored robustly in queer studies scholar Jasbir Puar’s Right to Maim (2017). Puar demonstrates how the right to maim “is a right expressive of sovereign power that is linked to, but not the same as, ‘the right to kill’” (Puar, 2017, p. xviii). Complicating Mbembe’s necropolitics (2013), Puar contends that maiming is a means to extract value from populations who would otherwise be disposable, carving out a middle space between biopolitics and necropolitics. Puar calls for disability studies to contend with the disability caused by settler-colonial violence, and to think through how liberal models of disability enact state power and control. She demonstrates how disability rights discourses can act as an instrument of violence by expanding the purview of the state, under the guise of beneficence, while simultaneously debilitating segments of the population. Inclusion, or the project of inclusive education, demarcates who is includable and who is available to be maimed in the name of inclusion, fitting with Puar’s assertion that maiming is a means of extracting capital from an otherwise disposable population.

To demonstrate the ineffectiveness of rights-based intervention and the need for alternative theorizations of liberation, I turn to a policy document titled “The Right to Effective Behavioral Treatment,” published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis in 1988 (Van Houten et al.,1988) which outlines the rights of disabled people to “access to the most effective treatments available.” The document states:

“It is equally unacceptable to expose an individual to a nonrestrictive intervention (or a series of such interventions) if assessment results or available research indicate that other procedures would be more effective. Indeed, a slow-acting but nonrestrictive procedure could be considered highly restrictive if prolonged treatment increases risk, significantly inhibits or prevents participation in needed training programs, delays entry into a more optimal social or living environment, or leads to adaptation and the eventual use of a more restrictive procedure.” (Van Houten et al., 1988, p. 283–284)

In this model, the child has a right to restrictive intervention, like punishment and the use of aversives. In fact, the time away from inclusion and more optimal living and social environments is used as a justification for more restrictive treatment. Rights are inverted to serve the biopolitical function of producing a population available to be maimed, with the always present but never arrived future as a discursive shield to the material and immaterial violence of the therapy space. Inclusion, or inclusive education, as neoliberal, rights-based intervention is constitutive of bodies available for maiming. Violence is justified as a means to an end, a temporary process of extinguishing what is queer about the autistic child, in a trajectory toward inclusion – the purported solution. I, therefore, propose an emergent strategy that runs counter to the established solution of inclusive education and disability rights. I do so through reading against the grain (Benjamin, 1940/2006) – looking for the moments of resistance within the archive and situating my protagonists in continuity with contemporary grass-roots tactics.

“Neuroqueer Resistance”

I return to the case study to offer a rereading of Bob’s actions as furtive resistance. I do so to link together resistant figures within the archive of ABA with contemporary autistic scholars and activists theorizing resistance outside of the discourse of rights, recognition, and inclusion. In returning to Bob, we can mark his bodily resistances in the following passage:

“The subject showed an intense reaction when both the lemon juice and the vinegar were delivered and his reactions were as much a deterrent to on-task behavior during training sessions as his self-stimulation. His reaction consisted of trunk-twisting, arm-flapping, and leg-extension as well as grimacing, spitting, coughing, screaming, and crying. He also would turn from the bottle when it touched his lips or bite the spout once inside his mouth. It was apparent that prolonged use of either lemon juice or vinegar could cause possible physical injury, due to either Bob’s violent reactions or the physical effort necessary to decrease his avoidance.” (Friman et al., 1984, p. 44)

Notice, Bob’s well-being, autonomy or an internal sense of ethics is not what constrains the violence. Rather, Bob’s “intense reactions” become a deterrent to the administrator of the punishment. The abandonment of harsher punishments is a direct result of Bob’s “trunk-twisting, arm-flapping, and leg-extension as well as grimacing, spitting, coughing, screaming, and crying” (Friman et al., 1984, p. 44). The researchers conclude that prolonged use of vinegar or lemon juice could cause injury. Although it is not explicitly stated, we can infer that injury to the staff member is the ultimate deterrent, as the “physical effort necessary to decrease his avoidance” (p. 44) is of concern to the researchers. The body, in this case, refuses to be disciplined and queers the experiment.

Disability studies scholar Carrie Sandahl describes queering as “[spinning] mainstream representations to reveal latent queer subtexts [or] deconstructing a representation’s heterosexism” (Sandahl, 2003, p. 37). Sandahl notes the parallels between queering and cripping, which she describes as “spin[ning] mainstream representations or practices to reveal ablebodied assumptions and exclusionary effects” (Sandahl, 2003, p. 37). Taking up queering, autistic activists and scholars such as Melanie Yergeau, Nick Walker, and Elizabeth ‘Ibby’ Grace theorize a form of queering focused on the radical visibility of neurodivergence, which they term neuroqueer(ness; Grace, 2013; Walker, 2015; Yergeau, 2017). Neuroqueer(ness) is a means of understanding ephemeral confrontations such as the struggle between Bob and researchers. Neuroqueer both is something someone does and something someone is.

Much like the praxis of cripping, neuroqueering does not represent a legible activist strategy, a policy program, or a cogent philosophy. Neuroqueering represents what is available to the incarcerated body in a materialist sense. Bob, in this case, has little available in terms of modes of resistance. The purposeful segregation of autistic youth from autistic adults forecloses the possibilities of durational and coalitional resistance practices in a traditional sense. Bob is under guardianship, surveilled, and subject to brutal punishment. Thus, Bob’s writhing, combative body is what is accessible to him. In effect, Bob’s body becomes a site of fugitive struggle. His sputtering, spiting, and biting make it so difficult for staff members to administer the punishment that the lemon juice and vinegar are abandoned. Bob’s unruly body produces effects of material significance for him. The body-mind (Price, 2015) of the autistic subject makes chaotic which is meant to be controlled, and dutifully exposes the cruelty, making the frontline worker work for their right to maim (Puar, 2017). Within a carceral space, such as the one in which Bob resides, resistances are corporeal and fleeting. However, Bob, and the many resistant figures within the archive of ABA scholarship, can be understood as in historical continuity with contemporary autistic activists envisioning fugitive practices and evidence of a neuroqueer tradition.

“The Productive Capacities of Flesh”

Although the field of ABA has attempted to distance itself from the overtly violent practices of early behaviorism, facilities utilizing aversive treatments like electroshock, such as the Judge Rotenberg Center in Massachusetts, have continued to operate. The Judge Rotenberg Center is a residential facility/day school that has been at the center of public controversy on account of its prolonged use of electric shock as punishment, specifically its use of a custom-designed device called the gradual electronic decelerator (GED). The GED device is carried by the student in a backpack and controlled by staff members, and delivers charges of up to 41 milliamps—10 times the amperage used in most stun-guns—to the student’s legs, arms, hands, feet, fingers, or torso via electrodes placed on their skin (Pilkington, 2018). Numerous targeted campaigns have been launched against the Judge Rotenberg Center, including #StoptheShock, a grassroots advocacy campaign lead by autistic activists and focused on bringing public attention to the human rights violations committed by the institution. The Judge Rotenberg Center operates within a biophilanthropic logic, by continuously arguing that without this treatment, their students would never be integrated into social life due to their severe behaviors.

In “Unexpected Spaces of Confinement: Aversive Technologies, Intellectual Disability and ‘Bare Life,’” Nirmala Erevelles and DL Adams (Adams & Erevelles, 2017, p. 348) conceptualize the Judge Rotenberg Center as a “camp” and “zone of indistinction between law and violence,” using Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualization of ‘bare life.” Agamben, an Italian philosopher influenced by Foucauldian biopolitics, argued that within spaces such as a camp (the concentration camp in Agamben’s primary example), the inhabitants are reduced to “bare life,” a biological substrate that is not conceived of as human or rights-bearing (Agamben, 1998, p. 11). Agamben uses homo sacer – a figure who exists in a banished state under Roman law and can be killed by anyone, without consequence—to describe the state of bare life, arguing that there is a binary between bio (political life)/and zoe (bare life). Erevelles and Adams use Agamben’s concept of the camp and the homo sacer, to theorize the violence of the Judge Rotenberg Center, thinking through how disabled bodies—racialized bodies—are subjected to inhumane treatment despite multiple law suits, first-person testimony from survivors, and continued advocacy efforts. Erevelles and Adams concede that rights-based interventions are ineffective within a camp, as those within the camp are not conceived of as rights-bearing. They further speak to need for “radical alternatives” and gesture to Alexander Weheliye, who exhorts readers to “recognize and refuse the discursive and material violence directed towards subjects confined to a ‘state of exception’ in these unexpected spaces of confinement where brutal punishment is meted out to those conceived of as zoe (bare life)” (as cited in Adams & Erevelles, 2017, p. 362).

Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human is a notable intervention in Agamben’s bio/zoe binary (1998). Weheliye (2014) offers a compelling challenge to biopolitics discourse that decenters the Western humanist concept of Man by exposing the racialized logics that render segments of the population as normatively bare under existing juridical systems. Building on the work of Black feminists like Hortense Spillers and Sylvia Wynter, and assemblage theorists like Puar, Weheliye introduces racializing assemblages as a means of understanding race as a set of political and social processes that discipline people into the “full humans, not-quite humans, and nonhumans” (Weheliye, 2014, p. 3). Drawing on Spillers’ “hieroglyphics of the flesh” (Spillers, 1987, p. 64), Weheliye deconstructs the writ of habeas corpus (you shall have the body) and posits habeas viscus (you shall have the flesh) as his contribution. He theorizes a politics and poetics of the flesh, imagining a political potentiality for those reduced to bare life, asking: “What ... might [it] mean to claim the monstrosity of the flesh as a site for freedom beyond the world of Man?” (Weheliye, 2014, p. 113). Weheliye’s work is generative in thinking through inclusion, as disabled students are required to prove their humanity through their proximity to neurotypicality, Whiteness, and legibility as Man, through compliance and performance of desired traits. Race and disability are co-constitutive, and equally participate in an exclusionary logic. To be granted habeas corpus—to have a body—requires personhood-as-property, a process that requires others to have flesh.

In contrast to Agamben, Weheliye (2014, p. 2) opens up political possibility for those reduced to flesh, by conceiving of “fleshy surplus” through which subjectivity (humanness) is co-constructed within and through violence. Weheliye explores the human born from political violence while at the same time not losing sight of the ways the law unevenly bestows humanity. Here the connection to neuroqueering is most salient: Being autistic—rather having an unruly, queer, autistic body—in these spaces negates personhood. The subject of behavioral experimentation is ren- dered nonhuman or not-quite-human. However, fleshiness has a capability for production, as evidenced by Bob.

Although Bob’s body has been racialized and disciplined into a nonjuridical subject within a camp, he is also able to produce material change through his fleshiness. Fugitive practices like neuroqueering and cripping intervene in neoliberal rights-based discourses by availing themselves to subjects enfleshed within contemporary biopolitical regimes. Both race and disability are mechanized to demarcate who is includable into political life, and who exists outside of its protections. A racializing assemblage is a political violence that acts hierarchically to position certain bodies as always harmful, always dangerous, always flesh. Similar to racializing assemblages, Schuller (2017) describes racialization as a set of social processes, stat- ing, “The racialized body was a disabled body (and vice-versa), deemed unfit for social life due to its reduced cognitive and corporeal capacities, which rendered in capable of self-constitution” (pp. 13–14). As such, the disabled body will never be served fully by the laws of Man. This is not to say that there are not moments of fleshy surplus within the edges of the law, as Bob demonstrates in this case study. This afterlife of the flesh invokes new possibil- ities and bodily imaginings outside of the realm of legible, rational resistance and agency and gestures to potentials for coalition between all who are disciplined within the current structure. Weheliye argues that the law can “bequeath or rescind ownership of the body” but it cannot “nullify the politics and poetics of the flesh found in the traditions of the oppressed” (Weheliye, 2014, pp. 136–137). I submit this rereading practice as an archive of a tradition of neuroqueering, as poetics and politics of the flesh.


In bringing biophilanthropy to bear on educational practice, I provide a critique of rights-based interventions that neglect the slippages inherent in the venture of rights. I also trouble inclusive education as a panacea, noticing the ways inclusion is mobilized within a biopolitical regime. This is not to say that scholars of inclusive education are conceptually misguided, rather that the discourse of inclusion has been appropriated in unanticipated ways. And although most critical education scholars understand inclusion to mean the deconstruction of ableist spaces, the term has come to mean the production of includable bodies; what disability studies scholars David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder term “inclusionism” (Mitchell & Snyder, 2015, pp. 12–14). ABA is one biopolitical technology aimed at recuperating the future of the subject through corporeal violence and displacement, but other parallels exist in social work and psychology, as well as within the prison industrial complex. By marking the historical specificities of this particular technology, I map connections to other biophilanthropic ventures and provide a means to reread those archives for moments of resistance and corporeal rupture. This extends to the prison, the school, the clinic, the therapy practice—all endeavors that require an individual death for the promise of national future. In the context of educational research, this article calls for engagement with irrational, fugitive resistances that happen outside of the formal structures of education; practices that resist biophilanthropic narratives of top-down activism. By invoking fugitivity and flesh, we can understand liberation outside of the courtroom, the policy document, the inclusive classroom, situating resistance in the racialized/disabled body; considering what resistance means when the only liberation available is to bite the teacher.