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  • Avonte's Law:Autism, Wandering, and the Racial Surveillance of Neurological Difference

This article situates recent policy proposals designed to expand the technological surveillance and policing of the "wandering" tendencies ascribed to autistic subjects in relationship to longer histories involving the surveillance of blackness and disability, and maintains that that such proposals are inadequate to sustaining the persistence and flourishing of autistic and other neurologically divergent forms-of-life. Drawing from discussions of the politics of bodily movement in black studies, performance theory, and the emerging discourses of neurodiversity, the essay argues for the necessity of cultivating alternative approaches to conceptualizing, representing, and doing justice to the "problem" of autistic wandering.

Fig. 1. Security footage, released to the media by the New York City Public School District, of Avonte Oquendo running toward the exit of The Riverview School in October 2013.
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Fig. 1.

Security footage, released to the media by the New York City Public School District, of Avonte Oquendo running toward the exit of The Riverview School in October 2013.

Shortly after noon on October 4, 2013, a fourteen-year-old African American eighth-grade student named Avonte Oquendo ran out the side door of The Riverview School,1 located in the Long Island City neighborhood in Queens, New York. Briefly stopped by a security guard after attempting to exit the school's main entrance and instructed to return to his special-education classroom, Oquendo can be seen in a security video released by the New York City Police Department running instead in the direction of the side entrance before vanishing outside. Oquendo's disappearance prompted an extensive search effort involving both the police and the wider New York community, the latter largely spearheaded by members of his immediate and extended family. In the hope that he may have fled into a nearby subway station, handmade posters with photographs of Avonte's face were soon plastered in stations across the New York City subway system, the largest public transit network of its kind in the world. Over several months in late 2013 and early 2014, daily newspapers including the New York Post and the New York Times covered the search effort extensively. The police, the Department of Education, and the Oquendo family provided daily updates on the case and circulated images of Oquendo across print, televised, and online media. For several months, the city [End Page 221] seemed captivated. On January 16, 2014, a city search-and-rescue team discovered Oquendo's remains in a forested area near a pier in the College Point neighborhood of Queens. Subsequent forensic investigations were unable to determine the precise cause of Oquendo's death. The city's medical examiner's office concluded that he had most likely fallen from an embankment into the East River and drowned.

Identified by the school system and the police as severely autistic and nonverbal (a description repeated in media accounts of the case), Avonte reportedly had a strong sensory affinity for trains, cars, and water systems. According to a New York magazine article by Robert Kolker, he had long loved to run: drawing on interviews with many of those who knew Avonte, including his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, Kolker reports that Avonte "chafed at confinement, seizing control any way he knew how and seeking out openings to forge out on his own" (n. pag.). Even though Fontaine had repeatedly informed the school district of Avonte's propensity to run away, the security systems in place in the school's special education program failed to prevent him from doing so.

Avonte Oquendo's disappearance, and the discovery of his remains several months later, prompted local officials and politicians to call for reviews of educational policies and school-security protocols for students with disabilities enrolled in special education programs. One day after Avonte's funeral, which was held at St. Paul's Cathedral and attracted an overflow crowd of hundreds, New York Senator Charles Schumer held a news conference to announce his intention to introduce federal legislation—to be known as "Avonte's Law"—that would fund a program to provide "voluntary electronic tracking devices" to be worn by autistic students enrolled in public schools, to be administered through the U. S. Department of Justice. In the 2014 Congressional Record of the U. S. Senate, Schumer's proposed legislation reads as follows:

Avonte's Law Act of 2014 -Amends the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to authorize the Attorney General to make grants to law enforcement agencies to: (1) reduce the risk of injury and death relating to the wandering characteristics of some individuals with autism and other disabilities, and (2) safeguard the well-being of individuals with disabilities during interactions with law enforcement.

Requires grant awards to be used to: (1) provide education and resources to law enforcement agencies, first responders, schools, clinicians, and the public in order to reduce the risk of wandering by such individuals, help to identify signs of abuse in such individuals, increase their personal safety and survival skills, and facilitate effective communication with individuals who have communication-related disabilities; (2) provide training and emergency protocols for school administrators, staff, and families; (3) provide response tools and training for law enforcement and search-and-rescue agencies, including tracking technology; or (4) provide response tools and training to law enforcement agencies in order to recognize and respond to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Directs the Attorney General to establish standards and best practices relating to the use of tracking technology to monitor children with autism and other disabilities. Requires each law enforcement agency that receives a grant to comply with any such standards and best practices.2

A second piece of legislation, also named Avonte's Law, was approved by the New York City Council in 2015, providing enhanced funding for schools to install automated alarm systems in special education classrooms.

Sustained attention to disability is especially vital for critical projects that seek to account for the psychic and embodied dimensions of racism, understood as "the state-sanctioned production and exploitation of group vulnerabilities toward premature death" (Gilmore 247). Eric Garner's dying words, "I can't breathe," recorded on a witness's cellphone camera and rapidly distributed across social-media platforms, became a rallying cry for Black Lives Matter protests. Far from diminishing the rhetorical power the phrase has subsequently attained, remaining alert to its connection to Garner's asthma places the violence of his death in a [End Page 222] police chokehold within the context of an ongoing history of racial biopolitics that has operated by way of the long-term debilitation of the physical bodies and mental health of black populations in the U. S. and across the globe.3 A perspective on the relationship between race and disability would also situate spectacularized occasions of racist police violence along a continuum with the less visible, yet endemic, persistence of structural racism and its hold on the body.

Analyzing the role of disability in the structural persistence of antiblack violence becomes especially urgent in connection with questions of mental, cognitive, psychiatric, and intellectual disability. Historical legacies of psycho-scientific racism continue to shape the matrices of expertise through which cognitive disability becomes socially intelligible. The invention of "Drapetomania," American physician Samuel Cartwright's 1851 term that rendered slaves' flight from captivity a form of mental illness, is an early, indicative example of the persistent scientific, social, and cultural pathologization of the black psyche as preternaturally irrational, unruly, criminal, and insane.4 The far-reaching implications of this history are found in the domains of cultural representation as well as in the racial disparities that persist in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. The conditions of racist policing that the Black Lives Matter movement has mobilized to contest must also be considered alongside the history of psychiatric power as a technology of racial surveillance, security, and control.5 Recent public mobilizations over the deaths of African Americans living with mental illness and psychiatric disabilities—such as those surrounding the case of Jamycheal Mitchell, a twenty-four-year-old man diagnosed with schizophrenia who starved to death in his jail cell while awaiting trial for shoplifting charges in Portsmouth, Virginia in August 2015—speak to the urgency of developing critical frameworks for addressing the forms of structural violence that arise at the nexus of antiblack racism, disability, and police power.

This essay examines the case of Avonte Oquendo—and the political debates and policy proposals generated in its wake—to develop such a framework. I argue that recent efforts to enhance the policing and electronic tracking of the "wandering" tendencies ascribed to autistic subjects must be understood in relationship to longer histories of surveillance as a technique of power that is inseparable from the historical emergence of both race and disability as categories of social difference. I further maintain that such policies—especially insofar as they are predicated upon the political infrastructures of what Simone Browne has called "racializing surveillance" (Dark Matters 16)—are at best inadequate, and at worst damaging, ensuring the persistence and flourishing of autistic and other neurologically divergent modes of personhood. Staging an encounter between black studies and the emerging discourses of neurodiversity and neurodivergence,6 the essay offers an antiracist, anti-ableist, and antisanist critique of the surveillance and policing of autistic subjects. In this effort I consider the Oquendo case and Avonte's Law in relationship to the way visual surveillance operates at the conjunction of racial blackness and neurological difference; how autistic "wandering" becomes construed as a dangerously erratic, even pathological category of bodily movement; and the embodied, sensory, and especially haptic dimensions of autistic experience.

Disability and Security in Late Liberalism

The legislative proposals generated in the wake of the Oquendo case bring into relief fraught and often perilous historical conjunctions of surveillance technology, police power, and mental disability under late liberalism, a historical period that scholars have defined by the ascendency—beginning roughly in the [End Page 223] mid-1970s—of security as the dominant political dispositif of postindustrial capitalism.7 Late liberal security, as the anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli writes, emerges from the need to mediate between "the twined formations of neoliberalism and liberal cultural recognition" that have circumscribed the political field over the past several decades, initially "as a method of solving the crisis of liberal economic and social legitimacy in the wake of economic stagflation and colonial and social revolutions" (31). Disability faces a particular conundrum within late liberalism, as disabled persons are forced to seek recognition, accommodation, and material support from a state that operates through security measures developed to manage the aggregate health of the population, and to maximize its productive capacities through ever more sophisticated techniques of biomedical, social, and psychological surveillance. Here, what scholars including Jasbir Puar and Julie Livingston have called the biopolitics of debility reveal the limitations of liberal rights and recognition-based claims for the inclusion of people with disabilities within a social and political order that implicitly premises its conception of personhood on an able-bodied and able-minded capacity to work and produce value.8 This is why, within the historical context of late liberalism, it is especially imperative to investigate "why disparities of life chances have increased during a period when we have seen the elimination of formal segregation and the advent of policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and disability," as legal theorist Dean Spade writes (20).

Avonte's Law is an especially potent site to consider in light of the dilemmas that have come to define the politics of disability in late liberalism, when appeals for state recognition and protection of a certain disenfranchised group—in this case, autistics and other "individuals with communication-related disabilities," to cite the language used in Avonte's Law—can so seamlessly become the grounds for intensifying the surveillance and securitization to which that same group is subjected. Yet in its implicit endorsement of the view that the well-being of individuals with developmental and/or communicational disabilities will be best served by the use of tracking technologies by the police (in alliance with educational and medical authorities), Avonte's Law also reveals how the contemporary politics of disability are inextricably bound to the formation of racialized surveillance and control that is modern police power.

Consider that the proposal bearing Avonte Oquendo's name was presented to the U. S. Senate as an amendment to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, a piece of legislation passed by the Johnson Administration that provided billions of dollars of funding to new criminal justice research and training initiatives with a focus on state and local police agencies. The Safe Streets Act was developed in the context of widespread fears that racial unrest would overtake America's urban centers in the late 1960s. The act was formulated on the basis of "a vision of crime and individual acts of violence as the central domestic problem in America," and "called for a rollback of legal efforts to regulate the police in favor of direct fiscal aid for weapons, technology, and personnel" (Simon 40). While invoking the security and protection of autistic and other neurodivergent public school students, Avonte's Law directly, if tacitly, emanates from principles of surveillance and extends the police as a modern institution and power formation that has historically constellated itself around the surveillance of blackness, and especially of the black body in motion. Indeed, if the particular modes and techniques of surveillance (e.g., forensic GPS tracking devices, etc.) named in the text of Avonte's Law are characteristically associated with late liberal modes of security, the legislation, and the event that prompted it, must also be understood against the backdrop of longer and more far-reaching genealogies involving the visual schematization of the racialized body. [End Page 224]

Racial Surveillance/Visual Schematization

Shortly after Oquendo's disappearance attracted the attention of the police and the school district, images from The Riverview School's video cameras were released to the media. One image that circulated across media platforms in the days and weeks following his disappearance is particularly striking: in a landscape shot, a blurry body in full profile can be seen midstride passing in front of a bank of white elevators (Fig. 1). The image is ghostly, haunting and haunted by the fleeting trace of a body whose outlines are barely visible. That Avonte is running is suggested by the fact that the figure's left leg is elevated so as to be almost parallel to the ground—a visual shape of bodily comportment that suggests rapid kinesthetic motion. The image's pixelated blur, signaling the speed and direction of a fleeing body, presents Oquendo as an apparition—as if his bodily form has been captured while in the process of fading from view. Viewed retroactively, the ghostly qualities of the image attain a disturbing cast, as if portending the death that the presence of the camera capturing the image has failed to prevent.

The video surveillance camera as a technological apparatus aptly emblematizes late liberalism's visual logics of security and control. Surveillance cameras are distinguished by their techno-optical recursivity. As the art historian Anne Wagner notes, "[t]he technology of the [video] monitor opens outward, as well as in. Not only does it register a process of surveillance, it itself asks for monitoring" (68).9 In a surveillance image, a body appears "centered between two machines"—the camera and the monitor—"that are the opening and closing of a parenthesis" (Rosalind Krauss qtd. in Wagner 68). The security camera's recursive technological form reflects a more general structure of surveillance that exerts itself over a broader social field through various techniques of normalization, recalling media theorist John Fiske's observation that visual surveillance operates as a technological method for "imposing norms," such that "those who have been othered into the 'abnormal' have [surveillance] focused more intensely upon them" (81). The surveillance stills render visible a body moving in ways it should not. Captured between the parentheses of the camera and the monitor, the body displayed in these images has subsequently been mobilized in support of policy efforts to expand and strengthen the reach of security, which in turn proceed from the assumption that Oquendo's physical safety might have been secured with the use of even more extensive apparatuses of technological surveillance that would attach to the body itself.

The modes of surveillance deployed in tandem with the search for Oquendo extended to the numerous posters that were quickly plastered throughout the New York City subway system following his disappearance. The posters featured a school portrait in which Oquendo appears facing the viewer, smiling gently. The portrait was accompanied by text identifying its subject as autistic and nonverbal, and encouraging subway riders to get in touch with the New York Police Department with information about his location. For several months, the posters became omnipresent visual cues reminding subway riders to be on the lookout for the missing student. Yet the inescapable presence of subway search posters had the added consequence of publicly circulating not just the image of an individual autistic person but also a specific representation of "autism" itself, to an arguably unprecedented degree.

When these images were released and publicly circulated through the media in connection with the search effort, the bodily movement indicated by the distorted pixelation of the security footage was taken as evidence of the "wandering" tendencies often linked with autism: the visual traces of Oquendo's fleeing form seemed to index an unruly and uncontrollable subject, incapable of controlling an impulse [End Page 225] toward movement—and consequently to function as a kind of visual correlate to the social, emotional, and communicational difficulties commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders.10 At the same time, the rapid, errant trajectory evoked by the pixelation of the image's surface reminds us that the policing and violent regulation of black life takes place at the level of bodily movement. Indeed, adequately attending to the surveillance media generated in the wake of Oquendo's disappearance requires acknowledging that the surveillance of disability is always already racialized, reminding us that the visualization of blackness is inseparable from the historical formations of power through which disability emerges as a modern categorization of human difference.

Any reading of these security-camera images would be insufficient without accounting for the degree to which, as Simone Browne argues, "surveillance reifies the social construct of race" ("Race and Surveillance" 72). Scholars of black studies and critical race theory have called attention to the historical persistence of visual logics that construe the black body as spectacular, excessive, and "hypervisible" and yet, simultaneously, devoid or evacuated of subjective or psychic interiority.11 Saidiya Hartman has suggested that this visual coding of black embodiment has its origins in the scopic regimes of chattel slavery, which were structured around a "racist optics in which black flesh is itself identified as the source of opacity, the denial of black humanity, and the effacement of sentience" (20), thereby providing a visual corollary to the dehumanization, and objectification, of the captive slave's body. Such optical encodings of blackness have indeed been central to the historical emergence of surveillance as a technology of racial control, shaping the mediating ideological coordinates through which black bodies are rendered visible. Discussing the role of video surveillance footage in the 1991 Rodney King uprisings in Los Angeles, Judith Butler argues that it was not simply that the prosecutors' subjective interpretation of the surveillance footage in the Rodney King case reflected their own racist presumptions. Drawing in part from Frantz Fanon, Butler argues that the very conditions of seeing and perceiving were determined in advance by what she terms a "racist schematization of the visible field" (16). These schematizations delimit the conditions within which the act of "seeing" takes place, determining the transmutation of visual perception into knowledge. As Butler writes, "The visual field is not neutral to the question of race, it is itself a racial formation, an episteme, hegemonic and forceful" (17). Such accounts of the ideological filters through which black embodiment is visualized indicate the extent to which surveillance must be understood as a political technique for visually ordering and regulating the social field.

The observation that surveillance functions as a technique for enforcing social norms can also help us consider how viewing the security footage of Oquendo running toward his school's exit is shaped by the history of visual representations of autism. In being explicitly identified with Oquendo's "autism," the security camera footage and search-poster images are schematized according to a visual episteme that has made it difficult, if not impossible, to view nonverbal autistic persons as fully autonomous, rational subjects. Although less clearly "visible" than physical disability, autism has nonetheless been rendered scientifically and culturally intelligible by way of an extensive history of visual scrutiny. The images of autistic subjects that circulate in mainstream media representations and advertising campaigns by such charitable organizations as Autism Speaks have tended to conform to damaging figurations of the condition as "the ultimate impasse," or what Amit Pinchevski describes as "a paradigmatic case of arrest in communication, socialization and development" that "constitutes the antipode against which the medical-scientific discourse measures its rational tools for accessing another mind" (164). By depicting autistic subjects with "vacant" stares or engaged in repetitive "stimming" behaviors that ostensibly isolate them from normal social interaction in a "world of their own,"12 [End Page 226] the visual tropes that proliferate within cultural representations of autism have shaped how the condition has come to symbolize an epistemological boundary that excludes autistics from the sphere of autonomous human personhood. The representational and rhetorical construction of autistics as less than fully rational and autonomous subjects has had dire and often deadly consequences: as the autistic literary critic Melanie Yergeau writes, "Autistic being is predicated on un-being" (n. pag.). Pinchevski's and Yergeau's accounts reveal how the visual and rhetorical signifiers associated with Oquendo's autism—the pixelated blurring in the surveillance footage and the identification of Oquendo as autistic and nonverbal in the search poster—participate in a representational logic defined by opacity, unknowability, and an attenuated or even wholly absent subjectivity.

While we must keep sight of the historical and epistemological distinctions separating the racist optics that have contributed to the denial of black sentience from the visual rhetorics that construe autism as an epistemological boundary, we must also consider how these separate visual logics function in tandem with one another. Sociologists and historians of medicine have shown how racialized techniques of surveillance and social control have profoundly shaped the historical emergence of modern taxonomies of mental illness and mental disability, leading to persistent racial and class disparities in the diagnosis and treatment of autism and other conditions.13 Visual techniques of monitoring and tracking equally determine the way disciplinary institutions, including schools and prisons, alternately medicalize and criminalize mental disability along both racial and class lines. These dynamics are acutely intensified around childhood and adolescence: as disability studies scholar Julie Passanante Elman notes, since the 1990s, "the increasing medicalization of white adolescence paralleled (and, in some ways, facilitated) the increasing criminalization of black and Latino/a youth in an age of 'school-to-prison pipelines,' in which nonwhite students are disproportionately diagnosed with ADHD, placed in special education programs, suspended, and criminalized" (n. pag.). The visual media generated in the wake of the Oquendo case and used to argue for the need for policies like Avonte's Law must therefore be situated within the longer historical entanglements of race and neurological difference within a visual field that determines how personhood itself is made to come into view. Indeed, recent work on neurodivergence and race explicitly calls attention to the erasure of autistics of color from canonical histories of the condition as well as from current policy debates regarding the needs of autistic individuals and communities.14

Elopement, Wandering, and Minoritarian Fugitivity

Within the clinical literature, the tendency exhibited by many autistic children and adolescents to wander away from or escape the supervision of adult guardians has been termed "elopement." A study conducted by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and published in Pediatrics in 2012 reported that nearly half of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) were found to have engaged in elopement behavior at substantial risk of bodily harm, and that the risk of elopement increased with higher degrees of autism severity.15 This study was cited in the Schumer news conference announcing the senator's intent to introduce the legislation later dubbed Avonte's Law. Yet like much of the biomedical, clinical, and policy research on autism, definitive scientific explanations accounting for the specific (biological, neurological, or psychological) causes of autistic elopement have been much more difficult to discover than the statistical likelihood that such behavior will occur within an increasingly studied population. [End Page 227] Most of the medical literature and policy prognostications of mainstream autism advocacy groups have only hazarded a guess as to the ostensible "cause" of this tendency toward elopement. Partly in response to the media scrutiny generated by the Oquendo case, Lori McIlwain, the executive director of the National Autism Association, wrote an editorial essay for the New York Times calling for federal funding for electronic tracking devices for autistic students in public schools. Citing the same Pediatrics study, McIlwain proposed that elopement might be attributed to the attraction that some autistic individuals feel to the kind of sensory stimulation provided by highway traffic, trains, or waterways (31). Other medical studies have suggested, by contrast, that elopement behavior might represent an attempt to escape overstimulating sensory environments that contain loud noises within confined spaces.

Recent calls to expand and enhance policing and security measures to prevent autistic elopement derive their legitimacy from forensic science, a professional discipline whose emergence in the late nineteenth century facilitated the incorporation of medical, psychiatric, and criminological expertise into the legal apparatuses of the modern nation-state. Indeed, as the refrain of autistic wandering wends its way through multiple and diffuse sites of articulation—from peer-reviewed pediatrics journals to the media campaigns of parent-led advocacy groups, from the editorial pages of the New York Times to the omnibus crime bill presented for congressional debate—it has become increasingly difficult to recognize the multiple and interlocking forms of expertise and surveillance at play. The electronic tracking technology that Avonte's Law and similar proposals would fund has been researched and developed primarily within the subfield of forensic psychiatry, even as clinical research into the effectiveness of such practices remains inadequate, and any sustained consideration of the legal and ethical hazards that would accompany the use of such devices—particularly for persons deemed incapable of communicating consent—has been even more limited.16 Yet even as questions about the clinical efficacy of these technologies remain far from settled, calls for their widespread implementation reflect the same mutually reinforcing collusions between biomedical, psychiatric, pedagogical, and state power that saturate the language of Avonte's Law and the political rationality it exemplifies.

Indeed, discussions of autistic wandering at their deepest level reflect the profoundly contested definition and meaning of autistic personhood itself. Elopement can be situated along a continuum with other embodied behaviors associated with autism, such as repetitive rocking and stimming The pathologization of autistic movement indicates the extent to which the unruly kinesthetic symptomologies of autistic embodiment have been interpreted as evidence of a degraded or impaired capacity to exercise rational agency and moral autonomy. This point is addressed directly in a 2011 letter that was sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics and subsequently published on the website of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). Founded in 2006, ASAN is arguably the most prominent advocacy organization associated with the neurodiversity movement, whose proponents maintain that autism—as well as other forms of neurological difference, including such conditions as schizophrenia and manic depression—should be both recognized and socially accommodated as an integral component of human variation. Neurodiversity advocates have offered powerful critiques of prevailing understandings of autism (whether scientific, clinical, or social) that view the condition as a disease that needs to be eradicated or cured.

The letter responds to a CDC proposal to adopt a "Code for Wandering" in its autism research program, with the aim of promoting "better data collection for and understanding of wandering and to prompt important discussions about safety among healthcare providers, caregivers, and the person with a disability" ("ICD-9-CM"). Expressing deep misgivings about the effects of such a code, the letter's signatories suggest that it "could limit the self-determination rights of adults with [End Page 228] disabilities." The letter further contends that the code "makes no distinction between wandering behavior that would qualify for the coding and a rational and willful effort by an individual with a disability to remove oneself from a dangerous or uncomfortable situation" (Autistic Self Advocacy Network, et al.; emphasis added). Indeed, the letter-writers' mention of "rational and willful effort" suggests that the ability to deliberately regulate the movements of one's body has been one of the primary criteria according to which the political privileges associated with rational personhood, agency, and autonomy are bestowed within the political tradition of liberal humanism. A perceived diminishment in the capacity to control the movement of one's own body in space provides an important justification for stripping disabled subjects of their autonomy through surveillance, social control, and other restrictive disciplinary measures. Autistic wandering would seem to consist of the kind of unruly bodily movement that violates liberal conceptions of practical reason—a faculty that Immanuel Kant defines according to a presupposition of "the will's independence of coercion through sensuous impulses" (533). The sensuous impulses of autistic wandering pose a particular challenge to late liberalism's regimes of movement, which, as political theorist Hagar Kotef argues, determine "the means through which movement is produced as freedom or as threat" (5).

The ASAN letter to the CDC also suggests an alternative perspective on how the police and policing have been invoked and implicated within policy discussions concerning the safety of autistic and other neurodivergent subjects and communities. Indeed, Avonte's Law can be situated within the context of the growing recognition over the past decade of the particular difficulties autistics experience in understanding and responding to police commands, and the inadequately equipped police forces that struggle to interact with neurodiverse populations. Media attention to a number of cases of autistics being injured or killed by police shootings have prompted the development of training programs designed for both autistic individuals and police departments.17 Autism Unites, a national autism organization run largely by the parents of autistic children that advocates community integration, has recently begun hosting a series of events with local police departments under the title "Be Safe," whose mission is to teach "individuals with ASD to interact safely with the police in situations ranging from an everyday encounter to an arrest."18

The performance theorist André Lepecki offers the concepts of choreopolicing and the choreopolitical to describe the way police power mobilizes bodies. Drawing in part on Jacques Rancière's definition of the police as a force that both constrains and propels the kinetic circulation of bodies in public space, Lepecki proposes that police power is "that which is pregiven in the circulatory organization of the polis as what predetermines pathways, establishes routes for circulation, and fits both into one single mode of being" ("Choreopolice" 19). The choreopolitics of movement, threat, and freedom at issue in Avonte's Law are, further, racialized choreopolicing—since (as literary critic Bryan Wagner argues), the constitution and practice of modern police power is itself organized by a racist optics in which "blackness is imperceptible except for the presumed danger it poses to public welfare" (6-7).

Here, the concept of fugitivity as it has been elaborated in black performance and cultural theory is especially suggestive when considering the anxieties about autistic elopement that have surfaced in response to Oquendo's death, and how those anxieties are bound up with the exertion of police power. Fugitivity and fugitive movement unsettle the epistemological stability of liberal conceptions of moral agency and autonomy by calling attention to the violent exclusions out of which such concepts emerge. Within black performance and cultural theory, fugitivity has become a powerful tool for tracing how blackness has been conceptualized according to a capacity to elude and escape spatial, political, and philosophical confinement.19 The figure of the fugitive has persisted within African American intellectual and cultural production as that which "evades the regularized and [End Page 229] regulated paths of circulation—of goods, of persons, of information" (Kawash 80) and forges errant trajectories through the ordered regimes of racializing surveillance. Sarah Jane Cervenak argues that wandering has served as a significant modality through which black philosophy, performance, and aesthetic practices have grappled with the violent racial exclusions of Enlightenment rationality, which has persistently sought to render blackness into a manageable object of scientific knowledge. Defining wandering as "errant, nonenunciative, unreadable movement" (20), Cervenak writes that such forms of movement have been crucial to the aesthetic and philosophical strategies by which black subjects have negotiated and resisted racialized objectification and pathologization.

It is important to note that neither Avonte Oquendo's love for running nor his chafing against being constrained or confined can be unambiguously identified as a form of resistance in any easily recognizable sense. Rather than mapped pathologically, perhaps such forms of movement and sensation might instead be considered according to Fred Moten's compelling account of what he calls the "fugitive law of movement" that "makes black social life ungovernable" because it is that which constantly escapes and exceeds any "externally imposed social logic." This law of movement poses a "para-ontological disruption of the supposed connection between explanation and resistance" (Moten 179) that underlies the historicalracial schematizations that have produced a visual field riven with anxieties about ungovernable, errant forms of bodily movement. It should come as no surprise that the official response to minoritarian fugitivity has been to call for more surveillance.20 Yet wandering need not be the occasion for the further intensification of the apparatuses of security. Can we conceive of a practice, or a politics, of neurodivergent and racialized embodiment that would also move errantly, fugitively, away from such logics?

Haptic Countercartographies

Until recently, the voices of autistic people themselves have been notably absent from most of the political, clinical and cultural conversation about autistic wandering. Yet the growing body of published writing about autism, which includes work by autistics as well as postings on the ever-proliferating blogs, message boards, and discussion forums that make up the online neurodiversity community, offers a rich archive of first-person insights into this important aspect of autistic embodiment and experience. One such account can be found in The Reason I Jump, a book by Naoki Higashida, a thirteen-year-old Japanese nonverbal autistic teenager who uses a facilitated communication system developed in tandem with his mother and a special education teacher. The book was translated into English in 2013 by the British novelist David Mitchell and the Japanese poet KA Yoshida. It comprises a series of fifty-eight questions about various aspects of Higashida's experiences of life with autism. One of the questions directly concerns elopement:

Q50: Why do you wander off from home?

A: Once, when I was a little kid at kindergarten, I wandered off from home and had to be picked up by the police. Back then, in fact, I used to leave home quite regularly and, as I look back from this distance, I can think of several reasons why I did it. It wasn't because I wanted to go out for a specific purpose, like wanting fresh air. It was because—this is hard to put into words—my body moved because it was lured outside by something there.

As I was walking farther from home, I didn't feel any fear or anxiety. It came down to this: if I didn't go outside, then I would cease to exist. Why? I can't say, but I had to keep walking, on and on and on. Turning back was not permitted, because roads never come to an end. Roads speak to us people with autism, and invite us outward. There's not much [End Page 230] logic in any of this, I know. Until someone brings us back home, we don't know what we've done, and then we're as shocked as anyone.

I stopped wandering off from home on the day I very nearly got mowed down by a car, because the fear of it made a deep impact on my memory. So when something drastic enough happens, I think we can rein in this habit of wandering off. Meanwhile, please keep an eye out for us.


Among a number of striking elements in Higashida's account, his assertion that his impulse to wander farther and farther from home is directly tied to his existential persistence merits attention: "if I didn't go outside, then I would cease to exist." Higashida offers an account of autistic being as rooted in his felt need to move outward, toward the external environment: he is "lured outside by something there," Higashida's sense of his body's being pulled outside and along endless roadways challenges the limits of both his descriptive abilities ("this is hard to put into words") and what he recognizes to be the rational terms of intelligibility ("There's not much logic to any of this, I know"). The passage ends with Higashida's reassurance that, once confronted by the potential dangers of elopement, autistics can "rein in this habit of wandering off" if they are suitably instructed to avoid the dangers that they might face if their wandering habits continue unchecked. Higashida's assertion that autistics need the careful guardianship of non-autistics to be aware of their wandering proclivities finds a pernicious political echo within recent policy and legislative efforts to expand the technological surveillance of neurodivergent students through the supposedly "voluntary" use of GPS tracking devices. How else might these trajectories be mapped, without relying on infrastructures shaped by the ongoing histories of racialized policing and surveillance? How can we understand the gap between these two scopic regimes?

These questions underscore the urgency of developing alternative ways of responding to the forms of errant movement evoked by terms such as "wandering" and "elopement," ways that are organized instead around the possibility of embracing (rather than policing or pathologizing) the distinctive sensory dimensions of autistic embodiment. The autistic author Donna Williams, in her book Autism and Sensing, provides an account of her own "cartographic" approach to navigating the sensorium that resonates with Higashida's description:

I developed physically-based mapping which involved knowing things not through their visual shape but through their shape experienced through my own physical movement. So, for example, if I felt a glass with my hands or gripped [it] in my teeth, my concept of that glass had nothing to do with the word "glass" or with how it looked or what it was used for, it had to do with the pattern of movement involved in feeling its form.


Accounts such as Higashida's and Williams's offer insight into the autistic experience of wandering through the sensationally dense milieu of the city, with its angled surfaces and textures, stimulating sounds and breezes, the whoosh of a subway heard but also felt. Williams's description of mapping as a process of physical movement, patterning, and feeling of form suggests a promising strategy for moving beyond the objectifying and dehumanizing visual schematizations of autism through a "haptic" experience of physical space.

The haptic has been a key sensory modality in accounts of autistic and neurodivergent experience that have emerged in tandem with the neurodiversity movement, challenging the neurotypical organization of the human sensorium by emphasizing the centrality of sensory stimulation to the way many autistics navigate through public space. Rizvana Bradley writes of the haptic as a "visceral register of experience and vital zone of experimentation" (129), then describes how haptic materiality has the potential to disrupt dominant forms of visual schematization through a consideration of the work of contemporary African American visual and performance artist William Pope.L. I conclude this essay by turning briefly to the experimental, haptic approach to cartography in Pope.L's performances and visual artworks, [End Page 231] which offer a powerful aesthetic counterpoint to the choreopolitical surveillance and racialized schematizations that underlie proposals such as Avonte's Law.

Pope.L is perhaps most well-known for a series of performance pieces first presented in the early 1990s that involve him crawling along the gutters of busy urban streets for hours at a time (sometimes dressed in a Superman costume). In "Notes on Crawling Piece," a brief text published in Art Journal in 1997, Pope.L offers a provocative reflection on his motivations for undertaking the Crawl series: "to incite a recursive dynamic between the privileged/subordinate—to test us/our negotiation of the social. To crawl: to SUFFER: provocation to action" (65). Pope.L's text offers a reading of his crawling performances, making it possible to understand the Crawls as alternative cartography, a tracing of space through movement, which takes place precisely at the juncture between the aesthetic and the political. The artist's performative crawls, as well as his frequent invocation of cartographic imagery in his paintings and sculptures, share a preoccupation with blackness as it appears via the errantly moving solitary figure traversing the urban landscape. For Pope.L, the landscape is "[n]o longer a static terrain awaiting inscription by our activity," but rather becomes itself an "activity—a field of collective actions and processes" (Maxwell 150).

Fig. 2. POPE.L, Failure Drawing #636 Far Above the Ocean (2009-2010). Ink, acrylic, ballpoint pen, oil stick, marker, correction fluid on map. 32 x 243/4 in. <br/><br/>© Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes &amp; Nash, NY.
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Fig. 2.

POPE.L, Failure Drawing #636 Far Above the Ocean (2009-2010).

Ink, acrylic, ballpoint pen, oil stick, marker, correction fluid on map. 32 x 243/4 in.

© Pope.L. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY.

The cartographic currents that animate Pope.L's aesthetics find another form in his Failure Drawing series, which the artist has been pursuing since 2003, using mainly a ballpoint pen to apply doodles to various materials—mostly scraps of paper and clothing—that he collects while traveling. One of these drawings, titled Failure Drawing #636 Far Above the Ocean, uses a map that has been divided by bold red bars into seven distinct rectangular segments as a found surface (Fig. 2). To this gridded surface, Pope.L applies a mass of messy liquids (paint, pen ink, correction fluid), interrupting the readability of the map underneath and thus destroying its functionality as a visual guide that might to be used to navigate a terrain. In its eruptive play [End Page 232] with the viscous materiality of the map's planar surface, Failure Drawing #636 can be placed in contiguity with Pope.L's interest in the topographic as a site of social abjection and, consequently, of aesthetic-political possibility. If Pope.L's mode of crawling "cracks open all the kinetic assumptions related to ideological, racial, and gendered mechanisms of urban belonging, circulation, and abjection" (Lepecki, Exhausting Dance 97), these liquids take on an aesthetic function similar to the one that Pope.L himself assumes in his crawl performances, in which he aimed to embody the social abjection of blackness through a specific manner of bodily comportment (the crawl) and territorial movement (progressing slowly along major urban arteries). Pope.L's alternative cartographies operate by way of a viscerally palpable, performatively deformational suspension of the visual field.

Pope.L's mappings invite our attention to how errant or wandering bodies are schematized, upon entering the visual field, according to far-reaching and entwined histories of race, disability, and pathology. The maps chart an alternate path through these histories, and suggest other ways of seeing (and sensing) the body as it makes its way across a territory. Aesthetic practices such as Pope.L's are not, of course, akin to the project of developing alternative policies or practices that might prevent deaths like Oquendo's from occurring again. They do, however, suggest the possibility, and indeed the urgency, of developing alternative ways of accounting for—and responding to—those forms of bodily movement deemed errant, dangerous, or pathological. Pope.L's maps offer glimpses of such alternative ways of sensing a "fugitive law of movement" (Moten 179)—perhaps a very different Avonte's Law—that would open upon new cartographic trajectories at the political and aesthetic conjunction of black life and neurodivergence.

Leon J. Hilton

Leon J. Hilton is an assistant professor of theatre arts and performance studies at Brown University.


. I would like to thank Therí A. Pickens and African American Review's anonymous reviewers—as well as Marissa Brostoff, Faye Ginsburg, André Lepecki, Heather Love, Amber Musser, Tavia Nyong'o, Iván A. Ramos, and Karen Shimakawa—for their comments and suggestions on earlier versions of this essay.

1. When I refer to Avonte Oquendo in this article, I alternate between his first and last name to foreground how the performative force of the name was mobilized by politicians and policy makers in their decision to call their legislation "Avonte's Law."

2. See U. S. Senate S.2386—Avonte's Law Act of 2014, 113th Congress; full text available at

3. This discussion is informed both by Foucault's account of biopolitics as the power to "make live" and "let die" ("Society Must Be Defended" 241) that develops in Western modernity beginning in the nineteenth century, and subsequent critiques that have argued that the Foucauldian framework inadequately accounts for the ongoing history of racialized and colonial violence. See, especially, Joy James, Resisting State Violence: Radicalism, Gender, and Race in U.S. Culture (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996); Jared Sexton, "Racial Profiling and the Societies of Control," in Warfare in the American Homeland: Policing and Prison in a Penal Democracy, Joy James, ed. (Durham: Duke UP, 2007), 197-218; and Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham: Duke UP, 2014).

4. See Ellen Samuels, Fantasies of Identification: Disability, Gender, Race (New York: New York UP, 2014); and Rana Asali Hogarth, "Medical Science, Racial Ideology, and Practice, to Reconstruction," in The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 24: Race, Thomas C. Holt, Laurie B. Green, and Charles Reagan Wilson, eds. (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2013), 97-99.

5. Foucault defines "psychiatric power" as "a positive technique of intervention and transformation" that emerged in the nineteenth century in tandem with the development of psychiatry as a distinct medical science (Abnormal 50).

6. "Neurodiversity" remains in active circulation within and beyond autism self-advocacy, disability, and mental health communities, even as the term "neurodivergence" (attributed to disability activist Kassiane Sibley) has more recently come into prominence, especially in online discussions. The latter term often indicates a wider range of conditions, experiences, and diagnostic taxonomies than "neurodiversity," which originated in discussions of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). It also offers a preferable adjective, "neurodivergent," to use in contrast to the term "neuroatypical." See Sibley, "Radical Neurodivergence Speaking," Time to Listen, Web. [End Page 233]

7. This discussion of security extends from Foucault as well as from more recent scholarly work. See, for example, Povinelli; and Brian Massumi, Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception (Durham: Duke UP, 2015).

8. See Jasbir K. Puar, "Prognosis Time: Towards a Geopolitics of Affect, Debility and Capacity," in Between Psychoanalysis and Affect: A Public Feelings Project, José Esteban Muñoz, ed., spec. issue of Women & Performance 19.2 (2009): 161-72; and Julie Livingston, Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009).

9. A. Wagner is here drawing in part from Rosalind Krauss's influential essay "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism," October 1 (Spring 1976): 50-64.

10. Clinical definitions and scientific understandings of autism and ASDs remain remarkably unsettled and contentious topics of debate. On the historically contingent and variable meanings of autism, see Gil Eyal, The Autism Matrix (London: Polity, 2011); Ian Hacking, The Social Construction of What? (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999); Majia Holmer Nadesan, Constructing Autism: Unravelling the "Truth" and Understanding the Social (New York: Routledge, 2005); and Joseph N. Straus, "Autism as Culture," in The Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed., Lennard J. Davis, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2013), 460-84.

11. See especially Elizabeth Abel, Signs of the Times: The Visual Politics of Jim Crow (Berkeley: U of California P, 2010); and Nicole Fleetwood, Troubling Vision: Performance, Visuality, and Blackness (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011).

12. Stimming, also referred to in the clinical literature on autism as stereotypy or self-stimulatory behavior, is defined as the repetitive or perseverative movement of the body (such as vestibular rocking, hand-flapping, or rubbing the skin). See Stephen M. Edelson, "Self-Stimulatory Behavior," Autism Research Institute, n.d., Web.

13. See Gil Eyal, et al., The Autism Matrix (London: Polity, 2011); and Jonathan Metzl, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease (Boston: Beacon, 2009).

14. See Kerima Çevik, "Autistic While Black: The Erasure of Blacks from Histories of Autism," Intersected, 22 Jan. 2016, Web.

15. See Connie Anderson, et al., "Occurrence and Family Impact of Elopement in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders," Pediatrics 130.5 (2012): 870-77.

16. A 2014 article published in the British Journal of Psychiatry discusses "electronic monitoring as an aid to security and public safety in a forensic setting." The authors of the study, all clinical psychiatrists, provide a measured endorsement of the practice of using "active" GPS tracking devices to monitor psychiatric patients "as part of a comprehensive protocol for risk management and recovery" (Tully, Hearn, and Fahy 83). While they acknowledge that such interventions "may be cause for ethical concerns and controversy" and further note that "[t]he evidence for electronic monitoring has failed to keep pace with increased use and development of technology" (83, 84), the authors nonetheless conclude that the practice of attaching—even "voluntarily"—nonremovable devices would allow medical and police authorities to monitor the movements of individuals with specific psychiatric disorders in potentially beneficial ways.

17. See Adrienne Hurst, "Black, Autistic, and Killed by Police," Chicago Reader 17 Dec. 2015: 12-18.

18. See Autism Unites:

19. See Lindon W. Barrett, Racial Blackness and the Discontinuity of Western Modernity, Justin A. Joyce, Dwight A. McBride, and John Carlos Rowe, eds. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2013), 90-93. On fugitivity as a literary trope in slave narratives, see Kawash. For accounts of fugitivity and escape as modalities of black performance, see Daphne A. Brooks, Bodies in Dissent: Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 (Durham: Duke UP, 2006); and Moten.

20. I thank Tavia Nyong'o for suggesting this formulation of the issue in conversation.

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